STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
At tonight's State of the Union address, Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin will be sitting, as he has for decades, with his brother, Sandy, who's a Michigan House Democrat. No other siblings have served quite so long together in Congress. But this will be their last State of the Union speech together while both are in office because Sen. Levin retires at the end of the year.
NPR's David Welna sat down with the Levins to hear their tale of brotherly love.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: When Sandy Levin shows up at his younger brother, Carl's, Senate 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.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: I think we're going to go in here.
REP. SANDY LEVIN: OK, hi.
CARL LEVIN: ...'cause it's too cold in my office.
SANDY LEVIN: Is it?
CARL LEVIN: Yeah.
WELNA: 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...
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")
JON STEWART: This kindly old shoemaker...
WELNA: Sandy, who's 82, sports a halo of snowy white hair. Being in Congress with his brother, he says, has been a good thing.
SANDY LEVIN: People like brothers when they do their own thing together.
WELNA: Which is, adds Carl, what they've always done.
CARL LEVIN: We spent most of our lives together and - including as kids, in the same bedroom together; including law school; and about 30,000 games of squash that we've played together. And both of us will tell you we don't have any idea who won more of those games. We have the same line.
SANDY LEVIN: We're very competitive, but we're very evenly matched. But also, I think when one is doing quite a bit better than the other, we relent.
WELNA: Call it the opposite of sibling rivalry. Sandy insists being nearly three years older than Carl has meant little.
SANDY LEVIN: There was no such thing as big brother, no matter what he tells you. Except I used to walk down...
SANDY LEVIN: 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.
CARL LEVIN: It's the reason for my lousy posture, by the way.
WELNA: 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 first African-American to win the heavyweight boxing title; [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Jack Johnson was the first to earn that accolade.] 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.
SANDY LEVIN: And it really goes back to how we were raised. Everybody counted. Everybody should count and that - we were imbued with that. I mean, that's why Joe Louis was such a hero.
WELNA: 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 went to Washington for the swearing-in.
CARL LEVIN: My mother was asked one day by a reporter, just like you: Mrs. Levin, you - your buttons must be bursting with pride over these two boys of yours who are now in the U.S. Congress. 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.
WELNA: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARL LEVIN: Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?
ROBERT GATES: No, sir.
WELNA: Levin's colleagues from both parties say they're sorry he's leaving the Senate. Lindsey Graham is a South Carolina Republican on the armed services panel.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: We haven't always agreed, but he's been terrific. 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.
WELNA: It was last March when Carl Levin announced this would be his final term. Sandy says it came as no surprise.
SANDY LEVIN: We had talked a lot about it before his decision. So it wasn't as if it came out of the blue. We never - I mean, nothing comes out of the blue between the two of us.
WELNA: Still, it wasn't easy for the older Levin.
SANDY LEVIN: I took it rather hard.
WELNA: And yet, you are seeking re-election this year.
SANDY LEVIN: I am. I am.
WELNA: He says he's now more determined than ever to keep up the fight for the things he believes in. Paradoxically, Carl says he feels the same way.
CARL LEVIN: And I could not see myself out campaigning for re-election and raising money, and spending all that time.
WELNA: Time, 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.
SANDY LEVIN: It's difficult for me to imagine, Carl's not being a partner and my closest friend; and it would be dramatically different.
WELNA: And as usual, his younger brother agrees.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.