Thirteen years later, Brown is still in the Senate, having been reelected in 2012 and 2018 and risen to become a bright star of Democratic politics in his own right. After earning his bona fides championing the working class and fighting for economic justice, the congenial Brown looked to many like a shoo-in for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination, but he demurred. Likewise, some wonder if Brown could be tapped for vice president, given his home-state popularity and Ohio’s position as a swing state. In that regard, “Desk 88” — which combines short biographies of Brown’s progressive Senate predecessors with his own policy prescriptions for 21st-century America — might be wrongly dismissed as a mere campaign polemic. In truth, Brown’s elegant portraits of his Desk 88 predecessors have marvelous historical value. “Each of them fought for the dignity of work and against the disparity in wealth,” he writes, “and all of them believed that if you work hard, you should have a decent standard of living.”
Like John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” (1957) and Richard Hofstadter’s “The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It” (1948), “Desk 88” is organized chronologically. But unlike those bipartisan classics, Brown’s engaging book tacks solely to the left, valorizing Democratic dragonslayers who took on Jim Crow, Joe McCarthy, the Vietnam War and other evils. Black, for instance, was a former Ku Klux Klanner who against all odds transformed himself into a warrior who helped African Americans rise from second-class citizenship. The aristocratic Green was considered a traitor to his class because of his strong support of blue-collar workers’ labor rights. Taylor, a onetime singing cowboy whose good looks elicited comparisons to actor Gary Cooper, was beaten and arrested in Alabama for protesting segregation.
And so it goes. “Each of the senators at Desk 88 contributed to a better nation,” Brown enthuses, “a kinder society, and a more progressive America.”
What makes “Desk 88” particularly engaging are anecdotes illuminating the heroes’ convictions and character. Brown recounts, for example, how Democrat-turned-Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond ambushed the unmalleable Gore on the Senate floor in 1956, pushing him to sign the Southern Manifesto (“A Declaration of Constitutional Principles”), aimed at condemning the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling. Gore responded with a succinct “Hell, no,” condemning the segregationist screed as an “unvarnished piece of demagoguery.” In the end, he was one of only three Southern senators not to sign. Gore went on to a checkered record on civil rights, voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act before voting for the 1965 law, but he redeemed himself in the annals of progressivism by his courageous denunciation of the Vietnam War.
With evident pride, Brown rescues some of his Desk 88 predecessors from undeserved obscurity. Lehman is a case in point. From the 1920s through the 1940s, he was one of the most influential public figures alive. A wealthy philanthropist-financier turned politician and four-term New York governor, Lehman helped Franklin Roosevelt sell many of his most important New Deal programs, including the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Lehman didn’t become a senator until 1949, when, as a septuagenarian, he won a special election against John Foster Dulles and became one of the chamber’s most liberal members. One Lehman aphorism serves as Brown’s centered belief in the value of public service: “The purpose of government is not only to protect the lives and prosperity of the people, but also to bring increased happiness, contentment, and security into the homes of its people.”
My favorite “profile in courage” moment in “Desk 88” involves Taylor, a ferocious civil rights champion despite the fact that his state, Idaho, then had fewer than 1,000 African American residents. Taylor’s nemesis in Washington was Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, a fellow Democrat whose 1946 reelection campaign was charged with inciting voter intimidation and violence against African Americans. After Bilbo won that election, Taylor railed against him on the Senate floor for an hour, ripping into Bilbo for his KKK membership, his vile hate speech and his shameless mocking of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In a scene straight from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Taylor pleaded with fellow members to disallow a corrupt bigot such as Bilbo from remaining in the Senate. “We are not only on trial collectively, we are on trial individually,” Taylor declared. “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.” In the wake of Taylor’s oratory, Brown writes, Bilbo “was never sworn in for a third term in the United States Senate.” Instead the Mississippian died in disgrace eight months later, while Taylor went on to become the vice-presidential candidate on Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party ticket.
Brown’s book suffers somewhat from its narrow focus on the white male fraternity that sat at Desk 88 — which reflects the entire Senate for most of its history. The approach makes it impossible to recognize the progressive contributions of female senators and senators of color. It also means some names get elevated undeservedly. The contrarian Proxmire of Wisconsin, for example, gets the gold-star historical treatment simply because he sat at Desk 88, had a devil-may-care attitude and stood up to McCarthy. Fair enough. However, the true Wisconsin progressive hero in Senate history — not a Desk 88 alum — was Gaylord Nelson, who in the 1960s and 1970s created Earth Day and was a leader in the environmental movement.
The book’s narrative also tends to sag whenever Brown abandons his solid historical approach to call out more recent policy accomplishments that he had a hand in, such as working to pass the Affordable Care Act. Brown clearly identifies with what he calls the “you-and-I-against-the-big-guys kind of progressive politics” epitomized by his hero McGovern, the only one of the eight senators profiled whom Brown knew personally. And he feels camaraderie with McGovern’s low-key approach (which his high school debate coach once described by saying, “George’s colorfulness was his colorlessness”), but Brown’s efforts to insert himself into the historical narrative are sometimes obtrusive.
Despite these quibbles, it’s heartening to know that the Senate today has a history-minded member like Brown among its ranks. And while Brown’s columnist wife, Connie Schultz, is the professional writer in the family (having won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005), the senator is a fine prose stylist himself. The book’s last chapter, detailing Brown’s view of what Democrats should stand for in the age of Trump, reads like a thoughtful first draft of the party platform that will be adopted next summer in Milwaukee. Brown takes direct aim at such Trump policies as cutting taxes for the rich and embracing Big Oil over the environment. Full of disgust, Brown lambastes our current president for spewing “a racist phony populism.”
“As America prepares for another presidential election, we must show who we are and show who they are,” he writes. “President Trump and congressional Republicans preached a pro-worker populism, but when they left the pulpit they sat in corporate America’s front pew, taking money out of the collection plate.” True progressivism, Brown believes, is Roosevelt railing against “economic royalty” and embracing the enmity of predatory fat cats like Donald Trump.
Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
354 pp. $28