New memoir shows rare candid side of Carl Levin

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Many readers were surprised when former Sen. Carl Levin decided to write a memoir of his 44 years in public service — including 36 years as a United States senator. Levin was well known for not wanting to talk about himself. He wasn’t into braggadocio.

In his book, “Getting to the Heart of the Matter,” Levin takes the reader on a deep dive into his political career, which began with him serving on the Detroit City Council. He served on the Council for eight years, and was president for four.

In retrospect, Levin’s leap from the City Council to U.S. senator was an amazing accomplishment by any measure. At the time, most U.S. senators had a much more circuitous path to the Senate — usually serving as a governor, mayor or state elected official before seeking the post for the first time.

Levin would go on to be Michigan’s longest serving U.S. senator. The book describes how his relentless fight with the Department of Housing and Urban Development — for its deleterious actions in Detroit — buoyed his first shot at election.

In the book, he writes, “The lack of safe and suitable housing was one factor in the rioting of 1967. HUD produced a glut of abandoned houses, devastating our neighborhoods.”

While on the Council, Levin did not shy away from controversial issues. He proposed a wide-ranging series of reforms, including eliminating phosphates from laundry detergent; banning the sale of coats made from the fur of exotic animals; and zoning porn theaters out of existence.

One of his salvos while on the Council was fired at “credit card redlining,” which used zip codes to determine if an applicant would get credit. In his first term in the Senate, the first bill be introduced dealt with credit card reform.

Levin does not shy away from his failures.

Nearing the end of his time on the Council, he sought to be named the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District and also sought a Fulbright Scholarship. He was turned down for both. In his book, he writes: “Two disappointments and as it turned out, two lucky breaks.” He then explains that if he had gotten either post he wouldn’t have been able to run for the U.S.

Senate seat when it opened up. He writes: “It was a great lesson about the role of chance in one’s life and how disappointment can turn out to be a lucky break.”

In 1978, Levin ran against Robert Griffin. After being appointed by Gov. George Romney, Griffin had successfully defended his seat against two Democratic powerhouses — first former Gov. G. Mennen Williams and then Attorney General Frank Kelley. One of the most interesting chapters, “Campaigning for the U.S. Senate,” details the race between Levin and Griffin.

In the chapter, he retells why he was reticent to have President Carter come to Detroit to campaign for him. He writes: “I believed given the president’s great unpopularity, that his visit would not be helpful.”

When Levin’s reticence was made public, Griffin strategized how he could take advantage by being at the airport to greet the president. Meanwhile, Levin turns on a dime and boards Air Force One after it lands and before taxiing to the waiting crowd. Although outspent three to one, Levin won the Senate seat with a 52 percent majority.

Although slightly inappropriate today, Levin also tells how he used Jewish ethnic humor in some of his campaign stops — referring to his lateness as “Jewish Time.”

Ultimately, Levin would take on more important roles in the Senate, especially when he became the head of the powerful Armed Services Committee and later the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

During the latter part of the 20th century, Levin’s career mirrored some of the nation’s most difficult times, including the impeachment of President Clinton, 9/11, the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and significant foreign trade policy.

Although the vast majority of the memoir looks at Levin’s long career, he does divert into some memorable personal stories about his family life, including his relationship with his brother Sander Levin, who served in the U.S. Congress for 36 years.

The book will probably be the first time you’ve learned about the summer he spent bumming across Europe with a friend.

Because Levin has lung cancer, he will not be doing any public appearances for the book.

I was disappointed there wasn’t more about Levin’s stamp collecting hobby in the book. Levin and his brother Sander have collected postage stamps from childhood. In 1987, Sen. Levin was a featured speaker at the First Day of Issue of Michigan’s Sesquicentennial Stamp.

Once while waiting for a crowd to gather at a Lansing political event, I found myself sitting next to Sen. Levin.
The only thing I could think to ask him about was his stamp collecting. Fifteen minutes later, we were still talking about the shared childhood pleasure of stamp collecting and how it had brought a sense of world history into view. We both recalled the excitement of taking hundreds of canceled stamps (collected by missionary groups) and soaking them in water to remove them from the remnant of an envelope. His handler was getting a little nervous before Levin got up to greet a group of Democratic candidates. That’s my Carl Levin story.

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