Thank you, Sen. Carl Levin
When he was growing up, he wanted to be a basketball player, but his college coach told him “that will never happen.”
While growing up, his mom wanted him to be a piano player. He told her what the coach had told him.
Instead, Carl Levin grew up to be the longest-serving U.S. senator in Michigan history, and, with his sad death last week, he leaves behind a story that is worth telling, if for no other reason than to celebrate his grand life and his tremendous contribution to all who were touched by his dedication to public service.
In the days and weeks ahead, you will hear so much about his accomplishments over his record 36 years in the U.S. Senate, where he reveals that, when he showed up for work for the first time, “I was intimidated. There were all those pictures of those who preceded me.”
And he remained intimidated for the next eight to 10 years.
And, while reviewing his record is appropriate, it is more revealing to look at the man and how he did what he did.
In an exit interview three years before he contracted lung cancer and on the eve of his retirement, Levin was asked about his legacy.
Now, when you ask a typical politician about his or her legacy, pull up a chair, because they will go on and on and on and never come up for air.
Not Michigan’s former senior senator.
“I’m looking forward to passing my armed services budget bill,” he began with a smile.
It was an unexpected response. There would be no horn-tooting. It was just a nose-to-the-grindstone answer.
“I have a job to do, and I’m going to do it” on behalf of those I served, he said.
He did concede that it was tempting to start reflecting on past achievements, but then was not the time nor the place.
Vintage Carl Levin.
As with many of the truly consummate players of this game, you never have to dig very deep to determine where that drive to succeed and serve came from. It is usually Mom and Dad, and, for the Levin family — members of whom considered themselves to be “Midwest Progressives” — it was in their DNA.
Mere words fall short of describing Mr. Levin, but “integrity”, “dogged determination”, “passionate”, “intelligent” and “an eagerness to work with folks from the other party” are all part of his makeup.
On the determination thing, recall that he was the guy who caught the Army spending $600 for toilet seats and, while that is not a resume-capper, it does underscore that once he latched onto something, he would never give up.
The senator was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and, although Michigan got more conservative after he was first elected, he continued to draw votes from both parties, because citizens saw him for what he was: an honest broker in a game that does not see an abundance of that.
What you saw was what you got.
However, he was not beyond taking a poke at his opponents as need be, and, in 1984, the need was there.
The incumbent was facing a unique GOP opponent by the name of Jack Lousma, who brought zero political experience to the party but his old astronaut suit was a formidable substitute. He was tall, had a military bearing, as they like to say, and it soon became clear in the Levin camp that Mr. Lousma might be a problem, especially when the Lousma folks compared their guy to the frumpy, disheveled, eyeglasses-over-the-nose and comb-over-hair-do of Mr. Levin. It’s an image he treasured and did nothing to change.
But the race turned on a dime when the picture of a Toyota vehicle parked in the fly-boy’s garage showed up in a commercial. He had mistakenly told some Japanese carmakers that his family owned a Toyota, and in the car state of Michigan, where the good guys own a GM, Ford, or Chrysler, Mr. Lousma turned out to be a bad guy and lost by six points.
Fast-forward to what turned out to be the last conversation, but neither participant knew it at the time. The word was the senator was not doing very well, so a call was placed and, within the hour, a return call from the senator.
His voice was not as robust, but another of his unique attributes was: his humor.
As the reminiscing progressed over that long back-and-forth, personal and professional relationship, and the mutual respect, the senator took another poke.
“You know, I hear you on the radio all the time. (Pause before the zinger). I don’t listen to you, but I hear you.”
And then both laughed a hearty laugh.
That is now but a fond and joyous memory of the would-be jock/piano player who turned out to be a one-of-a-kind man and a Pure Michigan treasure.
A deep and heartfelt thanks to the Levin family for sharing him.
And thanks for “hearing,” Senator.