Senator Sherrod Brown on His New Book 'Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America'

We chatted with Brown about the inspiration behind his recently published book, "Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America"

Nov 13, 2019 at 10:10 am
click to enlarge U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown - Provided by Sherrod Brown
Provided by Sherrod Brown
U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown

The floor of the United States Senate contains 100 desks, most of which were handcrafted from mahogany more than a century ago. Desk 88 belongs to Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, a Mansfield native who was elected to the Senate in 2006. Inspired by predecessors who sat at (and often carved their names into) the desk over the years, Brown has just published Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America.

Brown’s book topic of choice makes sense — he’s been a tireless champion of progressive causes since first getting into politics in 1974, the year he graduated from Yale University with a degree in Russian studies. Brown spent 11 years researching and writing Desk 88, and it centers on eight men who each made their particular progressive mark on the Senate and beyond (in chronological order beginning in 1927 and covering a 60-year period): Hugo Black of Alabama; Theodore F. Green of Rhode Island; Glen H. Taylor of Idaho; Herbert H. Lehman of New York; Al Gore, Sr. of Tennessee; William Proxmire of Wisconsin; Robert F. Kennedy of New York; and George McGovern of Minnesota. The senator profiles are interspersed with chapters titled “Thoughts from Desk 88,” in which Brown relays his incisive musings on politics past and present.

Sen. Brown, who was reelected to a third term last year, took a few minutes out of his busy schedule on the eve of Desk 88’s publication to connect with CityBeat.

CityBeat: What compelled you to write this book and how did you choose which senators to focus on?

Sherrod Brown: I always had in mind that I wanted to write about these senators and what they did to move the country forward in a more progressive way. I’m not exactly sure how I picked these eight. Some of them I knew a little bit or a lot about. The one I knew nothing about, Glen Taylor, is in some ways the most interesting because he was kind of a character but he played a pretty big role in mid-20th-century American politics. He was the one I had to struggle to find out things. He was not particularly well known to history. Some of them, obviously (Robert) Kennedy and (George) McGovern and (William) Proxmire and Hugo Black, were well-known figures and they kind of all jumped out.

CB: What did you learn while researching Desk 88 that you can use in today’s political climate?

SB: I learned that, in some sense, nothing changes. I think Trump will go down as the worst president in American history, certainly the worst in my lifetime, but it’s not the worst time for our country. It’s not the divisions of Vietnam; it’s not all that was happening in civil rights; it’s not the Depression; it’s not the Civil War. I’ve thought more about this lately and I see how resilient we are. A lot of people are pessimistic with Trump and his threats to democracy. We should be alarmed and concerned and pushing back but not pessimistic. I think I learned that voters, in the end, do the right thing and that our institutions, even though they are under duress with Trump, really do protect us.

CB: Yet it’s surreal how quickly Republicans have flipped on so many of their long-standing core issues — from immigration to Russia to deficits to tariffs — to appease Trump. 

SB: There are some Republicans of conscience that are increasingly troubled by this but most of them grumble quietly and go on. One of the things this book is telling me, using the 60 years that is covered in it, is that history will not be kind to the crowd of Republicans that have enabled this President. 

CB: You’re currently the only statewide elected Democrat in Ohio. How do Democrats win back Ohio?

SB: We win back Ohio by paying more attention to rural communities. When I say rural communities, I just don’t mean Batavia; I also mean smaller cities like Hamilton and Middletown and Springfield and Lima and Mansfield. Many rural voters don’t like Democrats’ positions on gun safety, (reproductive) choice and marriage equality but they do like a Democrat that fights for their wages and their benefits and education for their kids. And then we continue to build our increasingly large margins in urban areas. Look at Hamilton County — no Democrat other than Lyndon Johnson in 1964 carried Hamilton County in decades until (President) Obama in 2008. I won Hamilton County by something like 60,000 votes, and it’s going to get bigger next time, but we don’t do as well with people in Chillicothe and Portsmouth, so we’ve got to talk to people in smaller communities and show them we’re on their side.

CB: How (did) having another writer in the house impact your approach to Desk 88? (Brown’s wife is longtime newspaper columnist and author Connie Schultz.)

SB: She read the book back in 2010 and said, “You’re not close to being finished,” which was kind of crushing because I thought I was. She also said, “You need more of you in this. A historian could have written about these eight senators, but since you’re sitting in the Senate and you’re sitting at their desk and you’re feeling and seeing something different, you have to put more of yourself in the book.” That’s when I came up with the construct of the eight senators alternated with “Thoughts from Desk 88,” which made the book much more whole and much more substantive and deeper than it would have been. I live with one of the best writers in the Midwest, if not the country. It’s clearly a better book because of whom I’m married to. There is no question about that.

Sherrod Brown will discuss and sign Desk 88 at 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (2692 Madison Road, Rookwood). More info: