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The most progressive desk in the US Senate

By Bob D'Angelo

Depending on your political beliefs, “progressive” is either an enlightened term or a dirty word.

Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; hardback; $28; 355 pages), written by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, is a mixture of history, policy and autobiography. The book was written in 2019, and I did not have the chance to read it until it was recently given to me as a gift.

So, here is a late review, but this book remains relevant.

Certainly, Brown, a Democrat who was first elected to the Senate in 2006, was combining history with his own political views, and perhaps positioning himself for a run at the presidency in 2020. That did not happen, but in hindsight, Brown has provided an interesting look at the Senate and eight men who sat at the mahogany desk he now occupies — Desk 88.

It is a tradition for senators to carve their names into their desks, and the names that are scratched into Brown’s desk are memorable: Hugo Black (Alabama), Theodore Francis Green (Rhode Island), Glen Taylor (Idaho), Herbert Lehman (New York), Al Gore Sr. (Tennessee), William Proxmire (Wisconsin), Robert F. Kennedy (New York) and George McGovern (South Dakota).

It was a no-brainer for Brown to claim that desk, noting, “I had found my Senate home.”

Before writing about the senators who occupied Desk 88, Brown defines the “three great progressive eras” since 1900. Each was brief but significant. In 1912, a law was passed that scrapped the idea of senators being selected by state legislatures and provided for the direct election to the upper chamber of Congress. The 1912 election saw Woodrow Wilson defeat incumbent William Howard Taft and former president (and third-party candidate) Theodore Roosevelt.

The second progressive era, not surprisingly, came with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s implementation of the New Deal in 1933. And the third era occurred in 1965-66 when Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Is 2021 the dawning of a fourth progressive era? Time will tell.

Desk 88 leaves no doubt about its political leanings — to the left. The heroes of this book took on Jim Crow, McCarthyism and the Vietnam War.

Each senator had flaws, but those were outweighed by their beliefs and achievements.

Hugo Black, for example, believed that to get elected to the Senate, he had to choose between Alabama’s “Big Mules” — the state’s coal and steel interests, corporate lawyers, bankers and wealthy planters — or the Ku Klux Klan.

“Black chose the Klan,” Brown writes.

“I would have joined any group if it helped me get votes,” Black told a friend years later.

Certainly, that membership was a stain, but Black resigned from the KKK shortly after taking office and, as a senator and later as a Supreme Court justice, “firmly opposed it.” He would become a champion for the New Deal, but Brown rightly takes Black to task for even joining the Klan.

Sens. Kennedy, Proxmire, Gore Sr. and McGovern are familiar to many, but Desk 88 is interesting because of the senators that are no longer familiar to us.

Green, for example, was considered to be a traitor to his aristocratic class because he supported blue-collar workers’ labor rights.

“As long as I get beaten, my conservative friends tolerated my liberal views as an amiable idiosyncrasy, as though I had taken up Buddhism,” Green said. “But when I won and began to get results and make reforms, they were angry.”

Brown revisits the 1935 “Bloodless Revolution” in Rhode Island, when Green, as the state’s new governor, engineered some legislative muscle that allowed the state “to be governed by the majority of its citizens” after decades of minority rule.

Green served in the Senate from 1937 to 1961, becoming the oldest person to serve in either the House or Senate. He was an internationalist who supported military buildups before World War II and backed Harry S. Truman’s foreign policy. He was a staunch supporter of the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the United States’ involvement in the Korean War.

Brown calls Taylor, a one-term senator who served from 1946 to 1951, “the singing cowboy from Kooskia.” Taylor represented Idaho, which had fewer than 1,000 Black residents, but he distinguished himself as a courageous champion of civil rights.

Taylor was instrumental in preventing Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi from being reseated after the 1946 election because of his racist leanings. In an hourlong speech, Taylor urged his colleagues to disqualify “the Senate’s most virulent racist.”

“We are not only on trial collectively, we are on trial individually,” Taylor thundered. “What a hypocritical and blasphemous gesture we would witness today, if Mr. Bilbo were to stand in our midst and place his hand on The Holy Bible and swear fealty to democratic institutions, to free elections, to the rights of citizens.”

Bilbo never took his seat and died eight months later in a New Orleans hospital, Brown writes.

Taylor, meanwhile, became the vice-presidential candidate on Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party ticket. That ensured his defeat for re-election in the 1950 election and subsequent defeats in the 1954 and 1956 Senate races.

Taylor may have had Quixote-like qualities, but he was also fearless. In 1948, he was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, by the city’s notorious police chief, Eugene “Bull” Connor, for breaking an ordinance by entering a church through the “Coloreds Only” door to address the non-segregated audience attending the Southern Negro Youth Congress.

That courage was also shown by Gore, who in March 1955 refused to sign the Southern Manifesto, a condemnation of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision. When Strom Thurmond presented the Manifesto to Gore, the rookie senator “hesitated a moment, looked the South Carolina senator in the eye, and loudly retorted, ‘Hell no.’” Gore was having no part in reaffirming the “separate but equal” doctrine of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896.

Gore would later call the Southern Manifesto “the most unvarnished piece of demagoguery I had ever encountered,” Brown writes. Gore’s political philosophy, Brown writes, “was informed by southern progressive populist tradition.” And yet, in 1964 he went against the wishes of his family and opposed the Civil Rights Act, “the biggest mistake of his life,” Gore later admitted. Gore did support the Voting Rights Act the following year and opposed the Vietnam War.

Lehman also displayed grit, standing alone against Sen. Joseph McCarthy when the Republican from Wisconsin challenged his colleagues to dispute the papers on his desk that supposedly documented the presence of Communists in the higher tiers of U.S. government.

Show me the evidence, Lehman basically said.

“Go back to your seat, old man,” McCarthy reportedly answered.

In his quest to uphold civil rights, Lehman found no support from any of his colleagues, Brown writes. He added that Lehman’s strengths were “his awkwardness, his blandness, his humorlessness, his monotonic speaking voice.”

But to New York’s voters, Lehman’s courage and honesty “shone through.”

Proxmire was “a workhorse and a showhorse,” while Kennedy was “a warrior for those without a voice.” McGovern is the only senator in the book whom Brown knew personally.

I don’t wish to minimize the impact of these last three senators, but there has been plenty written about all three of them. However, one anecdote Brown recounts about McGovern is instructive. McGovern was waiting in line at a store and watched two women paying for their groceries with food stamps. The women both agreed they could not support McGovern in the next election because he supported too many “giveaway programs.”


The vignettes are excellent, but the narrative gets bogged down somewhat in “Thoughts from Desk 88,” which follows each chapter. Brown uses “Thoughts” to push forward his political ideas and express his frustration with the Senate’s Republican members.

Two years after the fact, these thoughts might be a little outdated. But the biographies carry the book.

Brown ends the book with a warm anecdote, reliving the moment he carved his name into Desk 88 with his grandchildren watching. The children felt the carving, with his 4-year-old granddaughter telling her mother, “It felt scruffy.”

It felt like history. Desk 88 is a good read for those who want to get a sense of how the Senate works. Bipartisanship may seem dead right now, but the history of the old chamber is brought to life by Sherrod Brown.


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