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Brothers Levin Near The End Of A 32-Year Congressional Partnership

Sen. Carl Levin (left) huddles with his brother and fellow Michigan Democrat, Rep. Sandy Levin, during testimony on the automotive industry bailout in 2008.
Evan Vucci
Sen. Carl Levin (left) huddles with his brother and fellow Michigan Democrat, Rep. Sandy Levin, during testimony on the automotive industry bailout in 2008.

During President Obama's speech Tuesday night, Sen. Carl Levin will be doing what he's done at every State of the Union for decades: sitting with his older brother and fellow Michigan Democrat Rep. Sandy Levin.

No two siblings in the nation's history have served longer than the 32 years the brothers Levin have been together in Congress. Both have held powerful committee chairmanships.

But this will be their last State of the Union together. Carl, who was first elected to Congress four years before his brother, has decided to retire at the end of the year.

When Sandy Levin shows up at Carl's office — a suite of high-ceilinged rooms next to Harry Truman's old Senate digs — Carl protectively steers him toward a cozy alcove at the end of a long meeting room.

"I think we're going to go in here," he says, "because it's too cold in my office."

Carl is the 79-year-old brother with the gold-rimmed reading glasses permanently perched at the end of his nose. It's an image Comedy Central's Jon Stewart once described as "this kindly old shoemaker."

Sandy, who's 82, sports a halo of snowy white hair. Being in Congress with his brother, he says, has been a good thing.

"People like brothers, when they do their own thing, together," he says. Which is, Carl adds, what they've always done.

"We spent most of our lives together, including as kids, in the same bedroom together, including law school, and about 30,000 games of squash that we've played together," Carl says. "Both of us will tell you we don't have any idea who won more of those games. We have the same line."

"We're very competitive but we're very evenly matched," Sandy adds. "But also, I think, when one is doing quite a bit better than the other, we relent."

Carl Levin (left) huddles with his brother Sandy.
Evan Vucci / AP
Carl Levin (left) huddles with his brother Sandy.

Call it the opposite of sibling rivalry. Sandy insists that being nearly three years older than Carl has meant little.

"The age differential was insignificant," he says. "There was no such thing as a big brother, no matter what he tells you. Except I used to walk down — that was the only exception — when we would go together, no matter where it was, as a joke I would put his head under my arm, and we'd walk down that way."

"Which is the reason for my lousy posture, by the way," Carl retorts, getting a laugh from his brother.

Growing up in an intellectual, politically engaged Jewish household in Detroit, the Levins say, talk at their dinner table often turned to family heroes — Joe Louis, the African-American heavyweight boxing champion known as the Brown Bomber; Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish athlete to garner national fame; Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

Carl now calls himself a Midwest progressive; Sandy's politics are almost identical — based on, he says, a concern for the underdog.

"It really goes back to how we were raised," Sandy says. "Everybody counted. Everybody should count. We were imbued with that; I mean, that's why Joe Louis was such a hero."

Sandy ran for governor of Michigan twice, and lost twice, before Carl captured a Senate seat on his first try in 1978. When one of Michigan's House seats opened up four years later, Carl encouraged Sandy to run for it. Sandy won, and Carl says his mother, who always told them, "Remember: Nobody's better than you are, and you're no better than anyone else," went to Washington for the swearing-in.

"My mother was asked one day by a reporter, just like you, 'Mrs. Levin, your buttons must be bursting with pride over these two boys of yours who are now in the U.S. Congress,' " he says. "And my mother, a very private person, said, 'If that's what they want, it's OK with me.' That's as close as she could come."

Four years ago, the Levin brothers became a kind of death-and-taxes duo. For 10 months, Sandy chaired the House Ways and Means Committee while Carl continued as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

While Sandy advocated higher taxes for the wealthy, Carl made his mark as a fierce opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq right from the start; at Robert Gates' confirmation hearing to be Defense Secretary eight years ago, he asked a pointed question: "Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?"

"No, sir," Gates answered.

Levin's colleagues from both parties say they're sorry he's leaving the Senate.

"We haven't always agreed, but he's been terrific," says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who sits on the Armed Services panel. "He's put the country ahead of any partisan politics. Working with him on detainees, investigating Abu Ghraib. He has just been a rock-solid chairman of the Armed Services Committee."

It was last March when Carl Levin announced this would be his final term. Sandy says it came as no surprise.

"I mean, we love each other so much and respect each other so much, but we had talked a lot about it before his decision," he says. "It wasn't as if it came out of the blue. I mean, nothing comes out of the blue between the two of us."

Still, it wasn't easy for the older Levin.

"I took it rather hard," says Sandy.

Yet Sandy is running for re-election next year and says he's more determined than ever to keep fighting for the things he believes in.

Paradoxically, Carl says he feels the same way: "I could not see myself out campaigning for re-election and raising money and spending all that time." Time that Carl says he would rather spend this year finishing his job as a senator. After that, it will be up to Sandy to carry on.

"It's difficult for me to imagine Carl's not being a partner and my closest friend," Sandy says. "It would be dramatically different."

And, as usual, his younger brother agrees.

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Corrected: January 28, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
The audio of this story — as did a previous Web version — calls Joe Louis the first African-American to win a heavyweight boxing title. Actually, that accolade goes to Jack Johnson.
David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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