Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > The Kennedys and the Levins: Two Significant Pairs of Brothers in Congress

Oct 8, 2021

The Kennedys and the Levins: Two Significant Pairs of Brothers in Congress

tags: Congress,Senate,Ted Kennedy,Robert F. Kennedy,Carl Levin,Sander Levin

Sander and Carl Levin each served Michigan for 36 years in the House and Senate respectively.

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

Since the 17th Amendment provided for the popular election of U.S. Senators in 1913, there has been only one case of two brothers achieving prominence by serving in the Senate at the same time, and one case of two brothers with one serving impactfully in the Senate and while the other served in the House of Representatives.

One of these pairs is Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968), who served New York in the US Senate, and Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy (1932-2009), who served Massachusetts in the US Senate. The other is Carl Levin (1934-2021), who served Michigan in the US Senate, and his brother Sander Levin (1931-    ) who served Michigan in the House of Representatives.

Robert F. Kennedy served in the US Senate for only three and a half years before being tragically assassinated while seeking the 1968 Democratic Presidential nomination. He had served as US Attorney General under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and then for about eight months under his brother’s successor in the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson.  RFK was a rare figure in American politics, able to gain the support and endorsement of wealthy people, but also those who were poor or struggling middle class individuals and families. 

RFK spoke up against established norms, and gained the loyal support of African Americans, Latinos, working class whites, native Americans, young people, and those who believed in the cause of civil rights, human rights, and social justice.  He was an eager advocate and participant in Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, visiting the Mississippi Delta to bear witness to the horrendous poverty there and in many other areas of the nation.  He spoke up about the disaffected, impoverished and excluded, and became intimately engaged with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the National Farm Workers Association and the cause of migrant workers.  He was also close to Martin Luther King Jr. and labor leader Walter Reuther. RFK traveled broadly around the world, and condemned apartheid in South Africa while opposing the continued escalation of the US war in Vietnam. 

Despite his short time in the Senate, RFK had a tremendous impact on the politics of the 1960s and beyond. His tragic assassination has made two generations and more since his death ponder how this loss affected the cause of justice in the nation. Democratic presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson have been unable to implement massive reforms in the tradition of the Great Society.  And RFK’s desire to end the war in Vietnam gave way to two generations and more of constant military interventions around the world, which have not made America safe or respected in many nations around the world.  His loss, however, had a dramatic effect on his younger brother, Ted Kennedy, who continued to promote many of the goals and dreams of RFK. And President Joe Biden today finds inspiration from a bust of RFK, in front of which he is often photographed, indicating his commitment to attempt to accomplish many of the goals of a political figure who shares his birthday, 17 years apart.

Edward M. Kennedy served in the US Senate for 47.5 years, the fourth longest tenure in the history of the chamber.  He became recognized over his long career as a liberal “Lion of the Senate,” due to his long tenure and service, including authorship of hundreds of bills that became law.  He became the champion of American liberalism, and an advocate of economic, social, and racial justice.  But he also was notable for his ability to work with the Republican opposition to formulate compromises that moved the nation forward. 

Ted Kennedy was notable for legislation including the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; the National Cancer Act of 1971; the COBRA Health Insurance Provision of 1985; the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986; the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990; the Ryan White AIDS Care Act of 1990; the Civil Rights Act of 1991; the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996; the S-Chip Children’s Health Program of 1997; the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; and the Edward M Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009.  His lifetime goal was to promote immigration reform in the early 2000s, as well as universal health care, with the latter making progress forward at his death with the proposed legislation that became the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Recognized as a likely Presidential candidate after the death of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, his hopes were dashed as a result of the tragic Chappaquiddick incident in 1969, in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned.  Kennedy, dogged by the scandal, was unable to make the case for his candidacy when he challenged President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Having overcome the tragedy of both brothers’ assassinations and a serious plane accident in 1964, Kennedy now dedicated the last three decades of his life to becoming a giant figure in Senate history. 

Kennedy became notable for his strong opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991 to the Supreme Court, and was able to prevent Bork’s appointment being confirmed.  He became engaged in foreign policy with the changing Soviet Union leadership in the 1980s, as well as a strong opponent of South Africa’s apartheid policies, as his brother had been twenty years earlier.  He was able to work with Republicans including Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Senator John McCain of Arizona on major legislation.  He supported fellow Massachusetts political leaders who ran for President, including Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004, and was a major endorser of Barack Obama early in 2008.  The diagnosis of a cancerous brain tumor in 2008 limited Kennedy’s presence in the Senate after the inauguration in 2009, but he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in July 2009.  He came to be seen as the voice and conscience of American progressivism, despite his many personal flaws. 

No Senator ever authored or coauthored as much legislation—an estimated 2,500 bills authored, with 300 becoming law, and 550 more bills coauthored.  The major committee Kennedy served on, and often chaired, was the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He also served prominently on the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Many scholars would place Ted Kennedy in the top ten of all time great US Senators, which would surprise those who first regarded him as a lightweight riding on the Kennedy name when he first arrived in the Senate. But he came to carry his own weight and devote nearly a half century to the promotion and advancement of many causes that he believed in.

So the Kennedy brothers together served 50 years in the US Senate, and both RFK in his short time, and Ted Kennedy in his very long career, made a difference in Senate history.

Carl Levin (1979-2015) served as Democratic Senator from Michigan after having served eight years on the Detroit City Council as well as the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.  He had the distinction of being the longest serving senator in the history of his state.  In his years in the Senate, he served on the Armed Services Committee, and was chairman from 2001-2003, and again from 2007-2015.  He also was on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and the Select Committee on Intelligence.  He worked to improve the military by paring unnecessary Pentagon costs and shutting down unneeded bases.  He also worked on the problem of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in post-Soviet states, seeking to lessen the danger of rogue elements acquiring such weapons, and advocated Strategic Arms Reduction treaties with the Russian Federation to lessen the danger of nuclear war. 

Levin was also instrumental in the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd. Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, and legislation ending the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military in 2010.  He also pursued successful legislation addressing the problem of sexual assault in the military in 2013-2014.   Levin led Senate investigations into the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and the Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq.  His Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 prohibited torture of detainees in US custody and allowed the writ of habeas corpus to be available to detainees, and he led investigations of private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He also became the bane of corporate giants such as JPMorgan Chase, Apple, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs and American Express, as he held investigations about overseas banking havens and tax avoidance maneuvers as Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. 

Levin voted for the resolution to react to the September 11, 2001 attacks by going to war in Afghanistan, but became critical of the war as the years passed, and was opposed to the Afghanistan troop surge in 2009 under President Barack Obama.  He held hearings and questioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but also opposed a deadline for withdrawal of all troops, believing in a “limited footprint” and bases in Afghanistan.  At the same time, he opposed the Iraq War as a diversion from the War on Terror, and condemned the Bush Administration’s false claims of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” as the pretext for the war.  As Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman after 2007, he supported the idea of setting a withdrawal date of American forces, and commended Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw all forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. 

On non-defense matters, Levin was a strong supporter of the Department of Education, promoted environmental advancements, particularly dealing with his home state of Michigan, supported a Patient’s Bill of Rights, and advocated embryonic stem cell research.  Also, there was no more loyal supporter of the troubled auto industry in Michigan; Levin pushed $25 billion in loan guarantees for General Motors and Chrysler.  He was also a strong advocate of gun control measures, was highly rated on civil liberties by the American Civil Liberties Union, and was judged one of America’s Top Ten US Senators by Time Magazine in 2006.  A naval destroyer was named in his honor a year after his retirement from the Senate.  He also founded the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School in 2015, and published his memoir, Getting to the Heart of the Matter: My 36 years in the Senate in March 2021, four months before his death in July 2021. Former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said that Carl Levin had “intellect, integrity, good manners, and an unsurpassed work ethic.”

Sander Levin (1983-2019) served in the House of Representatives for 36 years, the same amount of time as his younger brother Carl, who started and ended his Congressional career four years earlier. Sander Levin had served in local government in Oakland County on and off for two decades, and had lost two gubernatorial elections in the 1970s. But he was finally elected to Congress and represented portions of the Detroit metropolitan area, although the boundaries of the district changed with each census as Michigan lost Congressional seats. But Sander Levin consistently won his district by wide margins in most of the 18 elections that he faced in his years in Congress.  For about a year from 2010-2011, he served as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, when the chairman Charles Rangel of New York resigned due to ethics violations.  So the Levin brothers were both chairs of committees at the same time for that year, with Carl Levin the head of the Armed Services Committee.  Such a situation was the only time that has ever occurred in US history.

His major actions in the House of Representatives included being in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time that the Affordable Care Act was passing into law in 2009-2010.  He worked to defeat George W. Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security, and was a leader in the effort to secure a federal bailout to help the domestic auto industry to survive the Great Recession of 2007-2009.  He also promoted environmental protection for the Great Lakes, and assistance to the city of Flint during its lead poisoning crisis. In foreign policy, Levin was a strong supporter of Israel and supported the Iran Nuclear Deal negotiated under President Barack Obama. 

So the Levin brothers between them served the amazing total of 72 years in Congress, 36 for each brother.  This is even more impressive than the 50 years of the Kennedy brothers, and even if you were to add John F.  Kennedy’s 14 years in Congress (6 in the House of Representatives and 8 in the Senate), giving the three Kennedy Brothers a total of 64 years, the Levins outdid them in longevity by eight years.

So these two sets of brothers, the Kennedys more famously, and the Levins more in the background, contributed a great deal to American history.

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