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In November 1978, Donna Summer topped the music charts with MacArthur Park, the original Lord of the Rings the animated version made a big splash at the box office and Johnny Carson dominated late-night TV. Jimmy Carter was president, Barack Obama was a senior in high school and Carl Levin had just gotten a big promotion from former president of the Detroit City Council to junior Senator from Michigan.
More than 30 years later, Levin, 75, is in his second tour as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and is preparing for a tough two weeks of closed hearings on the defense authorization bill.
He has become known as a persistent, meticulous lawyer most recently and most vividly in his widely publicized grilling of Goldman Sachs executives last month. As chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on investigations, he put Wall Street on notice. Yet officials in the military world were also watching.
Thank God it wasnt us that day, said an official in the Department of Defenses legislative affairs office. He had directed his line of fire at someone else.
In 1978, Levin, then best known statewide as the younger brother of two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sander Levin (now chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee), fought through a crowded primary in what was supposed to be an open-seat contest for the Senate. But when Republican Sen. Robert Griffin changed his mind about retiring and jumped back into the race, Levin defeated him with 52 percent of the vote.
Despite the facts that he had no military experience and Michigan isnt known for its military installations, Levin was immediately assigned a seat on the Armed Services Committee.
I wanted to learn more about the armed services, Levin recalled last week. I had never served, and I thought there was a big gap in terms of my background and, frankly, felt it was a way of providing service.
Levin has used the opportunity to learn well. His hallmark is knowing a subject almost as well as the witnesses who appear before him in hearings. His method requires three simple steps, he said: knowing a heck of a lot about the subject, listening closely to spot evasions and asking the question again when necessary.
When Levin doesnt have time to study up on the issues well enough, hes not too proud to delegate to committee Democrats. Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a senior committee Democrat and Army veteran who worked alongside Levin on an important (but ultimately failed) provision to redeploy troops in Iraq in 2006, said the chairman brings out the best in people.
The thing about it is, weve worked together, and his questions are so good without being intimidating. Its not like youre being interrogated. You begin to think, Gee, I never thought about that. Wow, thats interesting, Reed said. You know thats going to happen, so you bring a little bit extra to the conversation.
Over three decades, Levin has authored or co-sponsored a number of watershed bills. Several focused on curtailing defense-related spending, including the 2005 base closure process and the Levin-McCain measure last year that reformed military procurement.
We really changed the way in which we do acquisition, Levin said.