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Carl Levin's Memoir Covers U.S. Senate Career, More

Carl Levin book cover
Wayne State University Press
'Getting to the Heart of the Matter: My 36 Years in the Senate," by Sen. Carl Levin

Originally published April 6, 2021

Updated on July 30, 10:27 a.m.

Michigan’s longest-serving U.S. Senator Carl Levin died Thursday at the age of 87. He spent 36 years in the Senate. The liberal Detroit Democrat was known for working closely with his Republican colleagues and rivals. Earlier this year, Levin published a memoir in which he disclosed a three-year battle with cancer.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl spoke with Levin about the book, discussing the subjects of bipartisanship and efforts to end the filibuster in the Senate.

Retired U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan has published an autobiography. WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Levin about his book “Getting to the Heart of the Matter: My 36 Years in the Senate.”

SCOTT POHL: One thing I think anyone reading your book will pick up on is how warmly you write of your fellow senators, and especially Republicans you worked with over the years. Despite your political differences, you say I've always said, if you don't come to elected office willing to compromise, you don't come wanting to govern. So when you observe Washington these days, do you have any fear that your brand of bipartisanship might be gone forever?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, it's clearly been severely diminished, but gone forever? No, I don't think that anything that's useful is gone forever, and I think it's so obvious that the only way you can get things done is by compromise. It's not a dirty word, it's essential to governing. You don't have to give up your principles. It's the only way really, in difficult situations, of helping to achieve those principles, or at least in most of the principles, you're not going to get everything that you want. Nobody does in a diverse democracy.


Some people love dictatorships currently, including our former President Trump, because it's easy to get your way if you're the dictator, but it's not the way democracy works, and it's not the way that people want democracy to work.

There are some people who are so enamored of your own ideology that they don't even understand that reasonable people have different approaches to solutions, and so they stand against resolving by compromise, but most of the Americans clearly want people who work together who have different views, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different religions, different races, and that was proven by the election of Joe Biden, who's clearly one who knows how to work with people who have different views.


You can't just give in to the people who threaten to filibuster. That's what's happened too often over the last 30 years, and that's one of the things I objected to when I was there. I objected to the so-called holds on bills, which then led the majority leaders to just sort of say, well, there's opposition to this bill and we're gonna all lose our weekends and our kids’ soccer games.

POHL: In the book, you say that eliminating the filibuster would be destructive to the Senate's ability to compromise. Eliminating the filibuster is being discussed again right now. Have current conditions changed how you feel about eliminating the filibuster?

LEVIN: Oh, not at all. As a matter of fact, as I wrote in a recent piece that was published in The Wall Street Journal the other day, the main point, in addition to that point about if you want to get things done you’ve got to compromise, and the filibuster forces you to reach across the aisle. But, the main point that we made was that if you really believe in progressive principles, and we do, whether it's minimum wage, or whether it's job creation, or infrastructure, or broader healthcare availability, whatever those progressive principles are, if you really believe in them, you've got to fight for them.

The other things we want to do if we have to stick around here and force the filibusterers to stand on their feet 24-7 and talk, and they're not going to do it for most things, but it's also essential that people who oppose the people who are filibustering have got to fight, have got to tell the filibusterers go ahead, stand on your feet, 24-7, you know, you're gonna pay a much bigger price than we are. There's more of us than there are you. That's why you're filibustering, because you're in the minority. Go ahead, but we're not just going to throw in a towel because somebody threatens to filibuster. We're gonna force you to carry out your threat. And that's the way to get progressive principles done, accomplished, is make the people threatening to filibuster put their money where their mouth is, as we used to say.


POHL: Thirty-six years in the Senate, and you only served with three other Senators from Michigan. I'd like to mention each of them and have you briefly tell me your impressions of them as Senators. The first Senator from Michigan you worked alongside was Don Riegle.

LEVIN: Don was a great fighter, and I enjoyed working with him. We worked, obviously, very closely together in helping the auto industry survive. And then, job creation, manufacturing. He was he was a good partner. We worked together and created a committee to make recommendations on judges, and that committee worked out very, very well. People have different legal perspectives, we tried to get a balance of people on that committee, but they came up with a bunch of recommendations over the years, which then led Don and me to select from the list that they gave us, people who they recommended after interviewing dozens and dozens, probably, for each job, and we got a lot of good judges appointed as a matter of fact.

POHL: The only Republican from Michigan you worked with in the Senate was Spencer Abraham.

LEVIN: Well, obviously, you know, he and I had different views on many, many things. He was always a decent person. He wasn’t an ideologue who was totally rigid. He was somebody who was pleasant to work with, although you had obvious disagreements with him on a whole lot of political issues, but he was certainly a decent man and not a rigid ideologue like some of the Republicans who have proven to be and claim to be fighting for ideology means that you have got to be less than civil. A few of them, the Republicans in the Senate now who just basically, it's either my way or the highway, and as a result, we're not building highways.

POHL: And of course, you also worked alongside fellow Democrat Debbie Stabenow.

LEVIN: Debbie’s a wonderful person, has her heart totally in public service and governing. She's got a great background in the legislature and she's a joy to work with.

POHL: I would be remiss if I didn't bring up your successor, Gary Peters.

LEVIN: I think Gary’s got all of the ability and willingness to really fight for Michigan. He's got, I think, not only a willingness but an understanding of why it's so essential that you find colleagues who have different views who are willing to talk about how can you reach a common goal for Michigan. You know, the fact that people have different ideological views, I can't be allowed to stand in the way of joining together where there are common views or common ground in order to help our state. That was something I learned a long time ago, by the way, when I was president of the city council in Detroit. We had nine different people of very different views. I was president of the council, we had to pull people together, and I learned that as a local official, and it surely is true when you’ve got 100 people in the Senate. Even though there's two parties only, and a few independents, there's a lot of different perspectives, and Gary has shown a knack of being able to work with people who come from different backgrounds. That’s a real plus.


POHL: Sen. Levin, it wasn't public knowledge until your book was coming out a few weeks ago that you were diagnosed with cancer three years ago. People will naturally want to know how you're doing.

LEVIN: Well, I'm stabilized, and it's obviously a challenge in a lot of ways. They're making great progress. I took some medicine which I think helped to stabilize it so it’s, at the moment, at least, under control. I don't think cancer’ s ever under total control unless there’s a real, real solution, a real remedy for it. But nonetheless, I'm blessed in all kinds of ways.

We count our blessings all the time. And let me tell you, compared to what most of the world is going through, we have all kinds of blessings.

You know, we live in downtown Detroit, we’re near medical facilities, we're able to afford help when we need it here in the house. We live in a spectacular apartment house downtown with a great view of the river. So, you know, we're blessed, we got a whole lot of pluses going on. We’ve got great kids who take care of us, three daughters, six grandkids, and they're finding ways to get here, even though one of them lives in New York, another in Pittsburgh, the third in Ann Arbor. She's obviously around a lot more. My brother Sandy, who's now retired from the Congress, we see him a lot. We can, you know, swap war stories and talk about family.

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