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Speaking Truth to Power

Carl Levin '56

Because my four years at Swarthmore were so wonderful and my career has been so richly rewarding, looking back for experiences at Swarthmore that influenced my career is a pleasantly nostalgic experience. Of course, such a journey reinforces my awareness of the most important impact Swarthmore had on me, which, although not directly influencing my career, perhaps affected my very being: the personal relationships with classmates and professors that broadened my horizons, deepened my understanding, and enhanced my self-esteem. But, having traveled a political road, I have chosen to describe some experiences that are more political than personal. Because of my strong love for Swarthmore, an element of subjectivity no doubt suffuses my recollection of these events.

In 1954, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was riding high, intimidating our nation with his scare tactics and his attacks on our political freedoms. His excesses included both abusing the unique subpoena power he had as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and pillorying people who exercised their Fifth Amendment privilege before his subcommittee.

A resolution censuring Sen. McCarthy was introduced in the Senate, and the country became embroiled in the debate preceding the vote. McCarthy's supporters around the country launched a petition drive opposing the censure and planned on delivering a million signatures to our nation's capital. Some of my classmates and I decided to solicit signatures supporting the censure of Sen. McCarthy. We collected about a thousand signatures in the Swarthmore dining room in just a few days. We then drove down to Washington in our old jalopy, to deliver our petitions to Sen. James Duff of Pennsylvania.

By chance, we arrived on the same day the million pro-McCarthy signatures were delivered in an armored truck. Newspapers across the country carried two pictures side by side. One picture showed armed guards, guns drawn, delivering the pro-McCarthy petitions. Next to it was the photo of six cherubic-looking Swarthmore students exercising their right to petition their senator. David wounded Goliath in a media battle that was unplanned and lucky.

We learned an important lesson about how massive resources in politics can sometimes be countered by a relatively small-scale effort. It also taught us about the role of dumb luck in politics (one I've seen repeated time and time again!).

The censure petition was adopted by the Senate, in part because of the courage of some senators in McCarthy's own party. That vote illustrated how important it can be at times to differ with the majority of one's own party, if the merits dictate, and in doing so, how the direction of a nation can be affected.

Ironically, history placed me, for the second half of 2001 and all of 2002, in the same position Sen. McCarthy held when we delivered those petitions-at the helm of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. When investigating the activities of Enron, Chase, Citibank, and Merrill Lynch (issuing subpoenas, watching the witnesses before me "take the Fifth"), I often thought of how Sen. McCarthy abused the powers now at my disposal, and it sensitized me to the potential for abusing power, as well as using it for the public good.

A second political event that occurred in l954 was the fall of North Vietnam to the Communists, who had defeated the French. Most of the University of Hanoi, faculty and students alike, picked up and fled south to Saigon in the hope of maintaining their academic freedom. (The Vietnam War, in which the United States would became deeply involved, was not yet on the horizon.) Several classmates and I, with students from a few nearby colleges, decided to hold a book drive to help stock a library that had to be built from scratch in Saigon. We collected thousands of books and raised the funds to ship them to Vietnam. That Swarthmore experience reinforced a belief I had long held that Americans are willing to help those in need around the world. American ideals and idealism are powerful tools for good, under the right leadership, and are readily available to be called on for great causes, such as addressing hunger or the AIDS epidemic.

A third experience involved Collection. Several classmates and I objected on principle to being required to attend that long-standing weekly event with, as it appeared to some, its quasi-religious origin and nature. Of course, many of the programs at Collection were interesting, and we wished to attend those on a voluntary basis. There apparently had not been a protest like ours before (for good reason, perhaps, given the innocuous nature of Collection most of the time). The dean came up with what he believed was a shrewd and appropriate verdict: It would be "all or none." In other words, if we wanted to skip the programs we objected to or found uninteresting, we would have to pay the price of not being able to attend the programs we wanted to attend. We readily chose the "none" option.

We had spoken truth (at least in our eyes) to power (in everybody's eyes) and "won." I believe that attendance at Collection was made optional at some point thereafter.

I have often thought of that incident and how Swarthmore reacted with such reasonableness to our proclamation of principle. But more to the point of this remembrance, I believe I have been more willing to "take on" the powerful because of the lessons learned at Swarthmore about effecting change by not being afraid to challenge the status quo.

On the one hand, these events sprang from youthful exuberance and the idealism that young people have, believing that they can change the world for the better. On the other hand, I have realized over time that these events really did influence my career, demonstrating as they did that individuals can advance causes and that the effort to do so has meaning. My years at Swarthmore shaped my life in immeasurable ways, just as it has affected the lives of almost everybody who was lucky enough to have been exposed to Swarthmore's love of learning, its respect for differences, and the obligation to all life on our fragile planet that it seeks to instill.

Carl Levin is a U.S. senator from Michigan and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.