From the Left



Rumpled Giant of the Senate: Carl Levin's Life and Times

Jeff Robbins on

Whether or not you enjoyed watching Carl Levin question witnesses during U.S. Senate hearings depended entirely on where you were sitting while he was doing it. If you were a Senate committee staffer sitting behind the senator from Michigan while he eviscerated arrogant or dissembling corporate executives whose weeks of preparation with high-powered lawyers failed to prevent the evisceration, it was something to behold. It wasn't only that no one else in Congress was better at questioning witnesses than Levin. No one even came close.

If, on the other hand, you were the witness being grilled by the rumpled former trial lawyer with the wry sense of humor and the glasses perched on the tip of his nose, it was an experience to be avoided, if possible. The trouble was, if Levin and the crack team of aides he assembled wanted you to testify, so that tax evasion schemes or disdain for investors could be exposed, chances were that you would be testifying. And that spelled bad news, because while other members of Congress were out at fundraisers, Levin would be up in his office late at night, sleeves literally rolled up, wading through documents too daunting for most investigators, let alone senators. One five-minute clip of Levin examining a visibly miserable Goldman Sachs executive about the investment bank's dubious sales techniques has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, likely including many viewers who watched it over and over.

The six-term senator, who melded Midwestern decency with razor-sharp intellect and a love of country passed down by immigrant forebears, published his memoir this week. "Getting to the Heart of the Matter: My 36 Years in the Senate" is an account of a splendid Senate career by one of its greats. But it is also a well-timed reminder of what the Senate is supposed to be: a place where the national good is earnestly considered, not a viper's nest for conspiracy theories and vitriol. Levin, a Democratic stalwart if ever there was one, was never a shrinking violet when it came to issues he cared about, and there were plenty of those. But his old-fashioned sense of fair play helped him forge productive relationships with Republicans and craft bipartisan legislation in the days before that phrase became an oxymoron.

These Republicans included Sen. Susan Collins and the late Sen. Arlen Specter, who found Levin an ally when it came to good government and national defense. "We developed a very strong bond of personal trust," recalls former Sen. John Warner. "Our word was our bond and the security of our nation was always foremost." Levin, once said the late John McCain, is "the model of serious purpose, principle and personal decency, whose example ought to inspire the service of new and returning senators."

Levin did not just rest on the respect he had earned across the aisle. He used it to craft consequential legislation, including on federal procurement reform, ethics in government and cracking down on tax cheats. A senior member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, he was frequently and notably prescient. Asked in a Boston conference room in July 2001 what kept him up at night, he replied that it was the threat of an unconventional attack on America by foreign terrorists unlike anything we had ever experienced. In December 2002, he warned in a speech broadcast on C-SPAN that invading Iraq might make America feel better but would boomerang badly.


But it is likely as the master of the modern congressional investigation that Carl Levin will be best remembered. As chairman of the Senate's powerful Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he personified congressional oversight at its best: fair, rigorous, decent -- and relentless. His memoir may be modest and unvarnished, like its author. But it recounts a career of public service that was as good as it has ever gotten.


Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast. To find out more about Jeff Robbins and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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