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Great Lakes Gladiator

Carl Levin ’56, H’80, retires from the U.S. Senate but plans to continue his activist role—from Detroit

Tax evaders, beware.

They may have smiled two years ago when they heard the good news. Their nemesis, relentless Carl Levin ’56, the senior senator from that old rustbelt state, had announced his retirement. For only two more years would they turn on the network news and see his blue eyes peering over those glasses slung low on his nose, hear that voice with its flat Michigander vowels drilling, drilling for the truth as he led a Senate hearing investigating offshore subsidiaries devised by corporations to evade the taxman. 

In December, the six-term senator said goodbye to his staff. By February, he and wife Barbara were preparing to leave their Washington, D.C., residence near Capitol Hill for his hometown, Detroit, once and for all.

Tax cheats thought they’d outlasted him. But hold the cork on that Dom Perignon. He’s not done yet.


In early February, Levin was still wearing his senator’s uniform, a roomy navy blue suit, white shirt with collar unbuttoned and askew, and blue tie that nicely picked up the azure in his eyes but hung far below his waist in typical rumpled Levin fashion. He was in makeshift digs in the James Madison building of the Library of Congress, where retired members of Congress are afforded a postage–sized office, much as emeriti professors still occupy small offices in Parrish Hall.

Levin, awaiting the arrival of a young historian from the U.S. Senate Historical Office who is preparing an oral history for the archives, talked candidly and warmly about his Senate career, his Swarthmore days, and his next act in public life.


While Levin is “common as an old shoe,” a saying often applied to a person who is unpretentious, he is also, to invoke another cliché, “tough as shoe leather.”

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt ’56 found that out in fall 1952, when they both roomed in Mary Lyon 3. Lehmann-Haupt, compulsive about getting to bed by midnight, was interrupted by a clattering and banging in the dormitory living room one night. Enraged, he ran into the room and swore at the guy making the commotion. 

“Next word’s a punch,” the man shot back.

That was Carl Levin.

“I didn’t know what to make of him,” recalls Lehmann-Haupt. “He was a new kind of kid for me, comparatively a street kid. He was tough, he was stocky, and a surprisingly good athlete with fast hands. I was not about to tangle with him.”

Later, the two became friends, playing games of hearts before bedtime in Levin’s room. “At some point, I discovered there was an interior to him that was totally trustworthy in a way I hadn’t experienced before,” Lehmann-Haupt says. “I was perceived as being kind of cold and hard to reach. He wrote me a letter: ‘You’re not what you appear to be.’ He got me.”

Though Lehmann-Haupt isn’t surprised that his friend became a senator, he says the College political scene in the mid-’50s was dominated by two other men, Michael Dukakis ’55 and Frank Sieverts ’55. But he got a glimpse of the future pol at a New Year’s Eve party at the Levin home in Detroit in 1959. “Levin’s family was political, extremely well-established and connected in Detroit,” Lehmann-Haupt recounts.

By then, Levin—who had been an honors political science major, served on the Student Senate, and dabbled in Philadelphia politics—was at Harvard Law School. He had followed his older brother there. 

U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) has been Carl’s beacon of brotherly love since birth. Sandy, who was elected to the house four years after Carl, still serves, but their streak as the longest-serving siblings in Congress, 68 years combined, even surpassing the three Kennedy brothers, is now broken. 

“My best lifelong buddy is my amazing three-years-older brother, and my best current buddy of 53 years is my wife, Barbara,” Levin says. “I try to distinguish between the two in that little semantic trick.

“Sandy and I roomed together at law school, and even as kids,” he adds. “My parents tore down the wall between [the boys’ bedrooms] because they knew we wanted to live in the same room. He’s been a mentor in a lot of ways. Sandy was already in politics for many years by the time I got involved.”

That was in 1968, a year after the five-day riot that rocked Detroit, leaving 43 people dead and the downtown in flames before the Michigan National Guard and the U.S. Army put an end to it. After the riot, Levin, who’d been general counsel to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, began mulling a political career. He won the race for Detroit city council in 1968 and served until 1977. A year later, he won his first run for national office—the U.S. Senate.

While the riot may have been a catalyst for his shift to a career in politics and public service, Levin says the seeds were planted at Swarthmore. He recalls helping to lead a book drive to provide a library in war-torn Vietnam and proclaimed his support for the freedom fighters who were defying the Russians in the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

“Swarthmore contributed very much to my yearning to be a public servant,” he says. “It was a very idealistic school. My heart will always be with Swarthmore.” 

In good Swarthmore activist tradition, Levin also took a trip “with five of my buddies to Washington to support the censuring of Joe McCarthy.” (McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, led the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations hearings in 1954, browbeating witnesses in his quest to expose suspected Communists.)

Ironically, 60 years later, Levin chaired that same Senate subcommittee, but with a much different aim.

“I’ve been very conscious of making sure this committee would not be used for partisan purposes, including my own partisan purposes as a Democrat,” he explains. “We’ve had people who have pled the Fifth Amendment in front of us, and I respect their right to do that. My mind goes back to the abuses of Joe McCarthy and how he used to pillory witnesses who were exercising their constitutional rights.” 

Among the gratifying moments Levin experienced as a recent member of McCarthy’s old subcommittee was helping former subcommittee chair Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) release McCarthy’s papers, which revealed how uncouthly he operated.

Chairing the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations honestly and fairly was one of Levin’s proudest achievements as a senator. Chairing another powerful Senate committee, the Armed Services Committee, in a bipartisan manner, was another point of pride. Levin says, “The troops deserve our support even if there are policy differences as to whether they ought to be in a particular place. I voted against the Iraq War. The differences ought to be taken out on the policymakers not the troops.” 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was a stalwart comrade on both committees. “We have some very, very strong differences, but we get along tremendously well and work together tremendously well,” says Levin. “We have total trust in each other, and I consider him a very close friend. He’s an extraordinary human being.

“I have a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle,” Levin continues. Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is another friend. “We don’t see eye to eye on probably more than 20 percent; at least with McCain, it’s probably 50 to 60 percent,” Levin says.

While his solid steering of two Senate committees and his embodiment of bipartisanship have been triumphs in Levin’s Senate career, his keen advocacy for his state has been another.

“I’ve had a lot of involvement in the way in which Obama helped the auto industry survive but also in the very complex issues involving so-called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards [designed to improve fuel economy],” he says. Another effort that benefited Michigan, he points out, was “bringing together the government vehicle effort, which is mainly military, and the private or commercial vehicle effort.

“I’ve also been much involved in environmental issues involving the Great Lakes particularly, leading the way for the designation of all the wilderness in Michigan and [creating] a number of new national parks,” he adds. He’s also helped ensure cleanup of the Great Lakes, which Levin calls “a unique resource in the world.”

A longtime advocate for Detroit, he notes, “I’ve been proclaiming its comeback for 30 years now, but I didn’t have a lot of evidence to support that feeling until maybe three to four years ago. There are some big things happening now in Detroit—a lot of entrepreneurial energy, a lot of young people moving back in. There’s a momentum toward the city from the suburbs.”

Carl and Barbara Levin have kept an apartment in Detroit during his 36 years in the Senate and are now looking for a larger, permanent home base there. From the Motor City rather than the U.S. Capitol Levin will continue to wage his battle against corporate interests that disadvantage the average American.

“When I came to the Senate I was interested in oversight, in wrongdoing, but recently my focus has been on income inequality,” he explains. “What really triggered this was the high increase in executive pay compared to the average worker’s pay. It was one of the issues we took up at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

“I also introduced a lot of bills that address the issue of closing unjustified tax loopholes that don’t serve any purpose except to avoid paying taxes,” he continues. “A lot of so-called loopholes or tax deductions have solid economic purposes, for instance, the tax deductions for charitable contributions that give people an incentive to donate to places like Swarthmore College. Income inequality relates to the tax code that has allowed a leakage of tax revenue through tax-avoidance schemes using offshore tax havens or hiding money in Swiss bank accounts.” 

Once he fully relocates to Detroit this spring, he’ll teach at the newly formed Levin Center at the Wayne State University Law School, “focusing on congressional legislative oversight and its ability, responsibility, and authority to impact public policy based on the work I’ve been doing in the Permanent Subcommittee,” he says. He’ll also be senior counsel at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, advising on areas of accountability, both corporate and legal. 

Levin aims to continue to “bring some real pressure to bear on some of the powerful interests in this country, both business and individual, who have done things which have not been proper and gotten away with it, including tax avoidance.”

While some people speculated that Levin sought retirement due to frustration or congressional gridlock, he says that wasn’t the case. Instead, as he approached his 80th birthday, he wanted to devote his energies to real progress on the two committees he chaired rather than spend time running a seventh Senate campaign, including raising money, which he admittedly hated doing.

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen ’83, H’14 (D-Md.), who regarded Levin as “one of the workhorses of the Senate” remarks that his fellow Swarthmorean “left a very big footprint in the U.S. Senate in two ways.

“He was a model public servant who focused on what was 100 percent right for his constituents and his country, someone who took seriously his responsibility by doing hard work and listening to all sides of issues and who exercised independent judgment,” explains Van Hollen. “He had the respect of people who disagreed with him because they understood that his positions came through analysis and hard work rather than knee-jerk reactions.”

Though a senator no more, Levin remains a cheerleader for the nation. When asked if he is hopeful for the country, he quickly responds, “Very,” then adds, “We’re a bunch of optimists, and we’ve managed diversity better than any other country, partly because of our ability to change. That ability has been a saving feature for us.

“I also believe in the creative spirit that has been with us from the beginning,” he adds. “Back in the 1830s the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about America. He said Americans innovate. If they see something that’s a challenge they figure out a way around it. That innovative spirit is another reason I’m so optimistic.” 


+Listen to Levin reflect on his time in the Senate here.