A little known but much loved tradition in the Senate is the opportunity lawmakers have to select their own seat. Sometimes it is a matter of conviviality; former Democratic Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut was good company and a seat near him would provide a senator with much levity. Sometimes it is a matter of diversion; the late Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona was a renowned storyteller and a desk near him would assure continual amusement.
But Senator Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat, had a different rationale for picking Desk 88, both his battle station on the chamber floor and the title of perhaps the most imaginative book to emerge from the Senate since Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts produced “Profiles in Courage.”
Brown chose his seat because it once belonged to Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, and he swiftly discovered that it also belonged to a parade of progressives who were his heroes or who would, as he prepared the research on this book on the occupants of his Senate seat, become new heroes.
This volume examines both the lives and passions of Brown’s seat predecessors but provides a peek, too, at the struggles earlier progressives undertook to redeem their creed.
“Progressives of all generations, and certainly those who sat at Desk 88, share a revulsion at injustice and wage inequality and wealth disparity,” he writes, adding that “most progressives are bound together by a deep respect for the dignity of work and ... typically share a common suspicion of concentrated power, especially private power.”
His seat predecessors are a pantheon of progressives, some (RFK, George McGovern) still well-known today; some (Albert Gore Sr., William Proxmire, Abraham Ribicoff) remembered only by the most aged Americans, some (Hugo Black, Herbert Lehman) formidable figures of history, and some (Theodore Francis Green, Glen Taylor) forgotten. Together they wrote history.
For many years, when I was executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I had on my office wall the framed letter Black wrote to resign from the Ku Klux Klan. His Klan membership was an act of cynicism more than racism, opportunism more than ideology, and he spent the rest of his life atoning for it, eventually becoming a liberal Supreme Court justice. But on Capitol Hill the Alabaman was, as Brown put it in reference to the New Deal years, “one of the great progressives in a progressive Senate in that progressive era, a giant among giants.”
These portraits are brisk brush strokes that bring light and color to all their subjects, but for these purposes we will linger on just three more.
One is Green, a graduate of Brown and the Harvard Law School, with stints at universities in Bonn and Berlin and known as the “Brahman Democrat.” He became a senator from Rhode Island at age 69 and was one of the great liberal stalwarts of his time.
A second is Taylor of Idaho, who opposed the peacetime draft and the Taft-Hartley bill and lambasted his onetime Senate friend Harry Truman’s deplorable presidential role — much forgotten today — in the red scare after World War II. As a foe of racial segregation, Taylor was imprisoned in the Birmingham Jail years before Martin Luther King.
Another is Lehman, who succeeded Franklin Delano Roosevelt as governor of New York and promoted what was known as the Little New Deal, with old-age benefits, a minimum wage, and public housing. Lehman made New York only the second state to implement unemployment insurance. Later, in the Senate, Brown relates, Lehman “often tilted at windmills, introducing legislation that he knew wouldn’t pass, but believing that the issues needed to be placed in the public record and debated in the public forum.”
It was Lehman who, at age 72, received one of the cruelest rebukes from Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican and prototypical red-baiter. “Go back to your seat, old man,” said McCarthy, then 42 years old.
But most of Brown’s book deals with a curious (and now curiously, tragically absent) combination of senatorial courtesy and senatorial vision: McGovern on food for the hungry, for example, and RFK on justice for the weak and poor. It deals with senatorial growth, and senatorial determination. For years, Proxmire irritated both liberals and what the Trump White House would call the “deep state” of entrenched Washington with his Golden Fleece awards, targeting what he regarded as government waste and, especially, government foolishness.
“What an opportunity those of us who serve in this Congress have to help make this world a better place,” the Wisconsin Democrat said as he announced his retirement. These lawmakers helped do so.
There are some enduring truths in these pages, none so great and powerful as the notion that two political figures sharing the same enemies share “the strongest bond two politicians can have.”
Here is another: “The greatness of these senators was most evident,” Brown tells us, “when they spoke out and fought against the special interests that have always had too much influence in our government.” That was true for previous occupants of Desk 88. It surely will be true for future occupants of that remarkable monument in mahogany.
DESK 88: EIGHT PROGRESSIVE SENATORS WHO CHANGED AMERICA
By Sherrod Brown
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pp. $28
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.