Senior Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s newly published book, “Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America,” arose from unusual ground: his desk in the US Senate. He inspected several upon arriving in 2007 (after serving 14 years in Congress); per longstanding tradition, senators sign or carve their names in the pine or poplar drawers of the mahogany desks. “Something felt different,” Brown writes, when he opened Desk 88’s drawer and read the names of previous occupants: Alabama’s Hugo Black, Rhode Island’s Theodore Francis Green, Idaho’s “singing cowboy” Glen Taylor, New York’s Herbert Lehman, Tennessee’s Al Gore Sr., Wisconsin’s William Proxmire, New York’s Robert F. Kennedy, and South Dakota’s George McGovern. (Gore Jr. also sat at Desk 88, but unlike his father forgot to add his name to the drawer.)
Brown was drawn to their names by “the idea that connected them: progressivism.” Vroman’s Bookstore hosts a conversation between Brown and journalist/author Miriam Pawel at All Saints Church Saturday night.
Not all of his Desk 88 predecessors were famous, but digging into their legislative records turns out to be an intriguing, sometimes entertaining way to navigate 20th-century America — and, not incidentally, demonstrate the cumulative value of small victories in the face of destabilizing threats to democracy. (“History,” he notes, “should teach us something.”) Brown doesn’t avoid his subjects’ transgressions; Black, who later became one of our longest-serving Supreme Court justices, started out as a KKK member. Sounding his signature “dignity of work” theme early on, Brown’s enthusiasm for progressivism’s achievements is matched by his disdain for right-wing populist leaders who display insufficient respect for workers’ rights.
Throughout the book, he leavens history with sly asides (noting, for instance, that Roman Catholic Church officials who opposed legislation banning child labor were “perhaps conveniently oblivious to the first four or five books of the New Testament”). A seven-page bibliography of history and economic tomes, political memoirs, articles and novels offers plenty of source material to chew over. One repeatedly quoted is Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose theory that “history is a contest between the Conservators and the Innovators” dovetails comfortably with the worldview expressed by Brown in an interview with the Pasadena Weekly.
PASADENA WEEKLY: In one poignant passage, NY Sen. Herbert Lehman calls Joe McCarthy’s bluff on the Senate floor and tries to collect papers McCarthy claims prove Communism in the ranks — while other senators stay silent. You write: “It is hard to imagine the fear instilled among politicians by Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the courage required to stand up to him.” That, like McCarthy’s sneer, seems Trumpian, when over two dozen Republican politicians have left office rather than publicly contradict the president. Does that overestimate Trump’s threat or underestimate McCarthy?
SEN. SHERROD BROWN: It’s not a new thing for many senators to fail to show the courage they should show, without mentioning names at this point. When people say this is the worst time in our country’s history, my answer is no, this is the worst president in our country’s history. It was worse with the Civil War, the Depression, and McCarthy. I hadn’t thought of it quite this way, but it was pretty awful how senators were so cowed by him, and it’s pretty awful how senators are so cowed by Trump. I worked on this book for 10 to 11 years; much was written prior to Trump taking office. … There’s [also] Roy Cohn’s connection to McCarthy and Cohn’s connection to Trump. One thing McCarthy and Trump had in common is they both were bullies, and in the end bullies are always cowards.
Do you hope “Desk 88” will educate readers about political courage? Is it accurate to call it your “Profiles in Courage,” with different political leaders?
I don’t know about that; I’m not [Arthur] Schlesinger, I’m not [John F.] Kennedy, I don’t pretend to be anyone else. So I would just call it “Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators.” [Chuckles] Courage matters in these situations, but a number of these senators didn’t always show courage. Some showed it rarely, some lived lives of principled service and courage. We all have our blemishes, and we are all uneven in our service and in our courage and standing up for our beliefs and standing up for our states and our constituents. Most of these senators I chose because they mostly did the right thing. Most of them showed courage most of the time. I wanted to show readers that elected officials can do really good things for the country. They often need encouragement and pressure from the public to do the right thing.
Some contend McCarthyism helped seed 1960s progressivism, by pushing the political pendulum so far rightward it had to swing left. Could Trumpism be doing that?
I’m not sure I would agree that McCarthy led to the progressive. I think McCarthy [plus] eight years of a sleepy Eisenhower administration, the age of the country, the age of the next generation, and the world wars [did]. And [President] Kennedy, frankly, wasn’t the progressive era; it was clearly [Lyndon] Johnson. I would absolutely say that 2020 could be the new beginning of a new progressive era. In the book I talk about Emerson’s Innovators vs. Conservators always battling [throughout] history. Woodrow Wilson was a racist but many progressive things happened during that period. I would also add that all eight of these senators that held my desk were white, male Democrats. And I would assume the next five people that hold my desk will be mostly women and people of color because the world is changing and that’s good. But the first progressive era was Wilson and the second and third, which were the best eras, were with FDR and then Johnson. When I started writing the book it seemed we were maybe in the midst of one but there hasn’t been a full-blown progressive era in quite some time. Knowing there’s a lot of energy for a progressive movement, there’s a good chance beating Trump and winning the Senate really could happen in 2020. Progressive eras are all really short but they are very powerful. The Conservators push back aggressively, we play defense to hold onto our gains, and the gains for the public are immense: the gains of having the Federal Reserve and workers comp in the 1910s, and then in the ’30s and ’60s, Social Security, Medicare, voting rights, Pell grants, labor law.
There’s a public perception that at least two leading progressive Democratic presidential candidates have shifted the party to the left, which troubles some moderate voters. What’s your response to them?
All these candidates are progressive. Some want to do Medicare for All. There’s nobody much in the Senate that’s served the length I have that’s any more progressive than I am, but I think that Medicare for All doesn’t work now, even though I want to get to a place where we have universal coverage and Medicare makes sense as being the universal coverage. But we don’t win on that. We win on direct negotiations on prescription drugs. We win on strengthening preexisting conditions and consumer protections. We win on taking away tax breaks from drug companies for marketing and advertising. Trump and Republicans are trying to take health care away. [These candidates] all want to protect the Affordable Care Act and build on it in a progressive way. They all want to deal with climate change, they all want to deal with family leave in all of its iterations, they all see childcare as a public good. So I don’t buy that there are moderates in the Democratic Party that don’t want to see us go in a progressive direction; it’s just, whose definition? Elizabeth’s or Bernie’s or Klobuchar’s or Booker’s? There are gradations but it’s all going in that direction. I think the energy of this election will take us there.
Here in California, extreme wildfires and utility-triggered blackouts are driving hard conversations about the climate and energy infrastructure. Can you imagine Desk 88 predecessors like Bobby Kennedy or Hugo Black championing job-generating renewable energy in, say, West Virginia coal country? Can progressives mobilize the country to confront the climate crisis as FDR’s administration mobilized for the Depression and WWII?
I think we can, I think we will. It’s not just that coal has been hurting in southeast Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. It’s been a 40-year decline since steel mills started to decline … we’ve also seen a failure to invest in these communities. Most people understand that coal is outcompeted by natural gas, let alone non-fossil fuels like solar and wind. We’ve gotta look at these communities like my hometown of Mansfield, that have been hurting as young people leave and big manufacturing plants have shut down, and invest in human capital.
Your book depicts bipartisan collaborations between Desk 88 senators and traditional conservative counterparts. Do you know any old-school conservatives still serving in the House or Senate?
I assume there are but I don’t know who they are and I don’t know what they call themselves. I don’t know what their conscience and their brain tells them. But I think the entire Republican Party has become just a special interest. They’re not the Emerson Conservators; they’re the special interest crowd that always looks out for those with money and those with privilege. While you can make a good case that history’s well served by a battle between the Innovators and the Conservators, we are less well served when the Conservator party, if you will, is all about protecting wealth and their status.
“Desk 88” addresses responsibilities of political leaders. What do you hope readers take away about the value of their own role in political processes?
People will see that progressive eras happen because the public and progressive movements — the civil rights movement, the labor movement — all set the table for Congress to move on this stuff. So citizens, citizen movements, citizen protests, the simple act of writing a letter to a member of Congress — lots of people in Ohio tell me they have Sen. [Rob] Portman’s number on speed dial so they can call him every day and push him on things — that’s what democracy’s all about. This book shows that from start to end. These things don’t happen in isolation.
You cite Abraham Lincoln’s retort to aides that he needed his “public opinion baths.” Where do you go for yours?
I do roundtables. I’ve done 450, 500 roundtables around Ohio. I convened one last week to talk about what the ACA court case will do to undermine their protections for preexisting conditions, at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. Eight, 10, 12 people, sometimes up to 20, and I get most of my legislative ideas and many of the arguments and stories I use on the Senate floor from them. Everybody talks and I don’t talk much at all. … I don’t think you do this job well if you’re not a good listener.
Sen. Sherrod Brown discusses “Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America” with journalist Miriam Pawel at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena, at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16; $36 (includes one book copy). Info: (626) 449-5320. Tickets: eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-senator-sherrod-brown-and-miriam-pawel-tickets-72448594697. Further info: brown.senate.gov, vromansbookstore.com, fsgbooks.com