Carl Levin: A Life Examined

In my Narrative and Management course, I often used two documentaries of corporate malfeasance, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Inside Job. Confronting the perpetrators (Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling in Enron and Lloyd Blankfein and Glenn Hubbard in Inside Job, among many others), there is a legion of public servants, journalists, and academics demanding accountability. One general in that legion is Michigan Senator Carl Levin, shown in Senate hearings relentlessly grilling Skilling and Blankfein.

The Exam Question

When Levin announced that he would not seek a seventh Senate term in 2014, I checked his Wikipedia page and found an accomplished politician who had never lost an election and who had been involved in a wide range of policy issues in his 36 years in the Senate. This gave me the idea for an exam question.

I told the students to imagine they are a well-known political biographer who has been approached by Levin to help write his autobiography. I then asked

  1. what would you ask Levin in an initial meeting and why, and
  2. develop a prospectus for the book (including its chapter headings, themes, and market) for a potential publisher.

I thought this question was creative because the students would never have anticipated it, but it was also relevant to the course objectives because it asked them to display their skill at producing the outline of a compelling narrative.

The Autobiography

Over the years I have developed numerous exam questions based on plausible scenarios and have found that more than a few of the events have come to pass. When I read Levin’s recent obituary, I discovered that he had indeed written an autobiography, completing it several months before his passing. So I sat down to read Getting to the Heart of the Matter, Levin’s examination of his own life.

Levin writes thematically, rather than chronologically. While he does touch on his family of origin, education, and early career as a lawyer and municipal politician in Detroit, he devotes the most attention to his years in the Senate. Levin had a long and happy marriage, a close family with three daughters and six grandchildren, as well as an extended family that was active in politics, most notably his older brother Sander (“Sandy”) who served 37 years in the House of Representatives and was succeeded by his son Andy. Levin concludes his book “Heaven for us is truly our family life here on Earth.” As Tolstoy famously observed, all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Levin’s discussion of the Senate includes key votes, such as his vote against the invasion of Iraq; major overseas missions to the Middle East and Afghanistan; and financial sector inquiries that he conducted (Enron, the financial crisis) as long-time Chair of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. But the book is also about the exercise of statecraft in the Senate, dealing with negotiation and compromise among senators and the management of Senate staff. This would be a particularly valuable book for newly elected senators, lobbyists, journalists, and anyone else interested in understanding the inner workings of the US Senate.

The book is tinged with nostalgia for an era when the Senate was less partisan than it is today, before the Republican ranks were dominated by senators who have concluded that slavish sycophancy to Donald Trump is necessary for political survival. Levin has high praise for some Republican colleagues with whom he worked closely, especially John Warner of Virginia. In this more bipartisan context, Levin supports the filibuster because it gives the minority a measure of power and earmarks because they make available resources that can be directed to a senator’s state, thus enabling them to support a piece of legislation to which they were indifferent or even somewhat opposed.

The Heart of the Matter

Near the conclusion of the book Levin sums up his approach the politics:

“Being an effective representative, I’ve concluded, doesn’t necessarily mean voting the way the majority of one’s constituents think best. I describe my approach as that of a fiduciary, a person to whom power is entrusted to act on behalf of another. I saw my responsibility as first needing to seriously study, without arrogance or certainty, an issue with all its complexities, being open to and respecting different views on the subject at hand. Then when the time comes to take a position on a matter, I viewed it as my responsibility to do what I believed was in the best interest of my constituents in the long run, even if my position might have been unpopular at the moment. I was not a populist or a poll taker.”

Between his acknowledgements of those who helped with the book and the index, Levin has added a list in alphabetical order of the hundreds of people who served on his Senate staff over 36 years. This recognition of his colleagues is both unusual and an act of true menschkeit. (While this is costless for the online version, for the print version one could imagine a publisher comparing the additional publishing cost with the anticipated sales of copies to people on the list.)

If I were the writer I envisioned in my exam question, I would have suggested three ways Levin could have improved an excellent book. First, he could have emulated former President Obama, who has a wonderful ability to begin chapters and sections of his memoir with a brief discussion of the background and significance of a topic.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil believed that “all politics is local.” Though senators are more inclined than representatives to operate on the national stage, they do have a constituency to worry about. In Levin’s case, he was concerned about urban renewal, transportation research, national parks, and the Great Lakes environment. For the benefit non-Michiganders, Levin could have included a map of the political geography of the state.

Finally, Getting to the Heart of the Matter is a compelling title, but its significance is never explained. Levin might have explained, as a matter of statecraft, what is the “heart of the matter” in an inquiry, a piece of legislation, or an interaction with constituents and the intellectual and consultative process by which he would get there.

Carl Levin was an exemplary public servant who served his state and country with intelligence, decency, and integrity. This book, written as he was suffering from lung cancer, represents his last act of public service. It is a rewarding read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people interested in improving politics and government.

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