Desk 88: A Progressive History Lesson For Our Times by William Klein

Reading Senator Sherrod Brown’s book about progressives inspires greater thoughts about our times. “Desk 88” is a powerful and potent historical document for our times. Implicit in the writing of this book is the idea that we assess the intentions of a lawmaker not by just what he says, but by what he does.

Senator Brown writes with candor about the challenges our country has faced but also reveals a true hope and optimism that comes from noble patriots looking out for the interests of every American for the common good. Thus were the progressive movements in our country.

This book resonates for our time, as the senator weaves contemporary political issues with an historical perspective. He chose historical figures that sat at his desk “88” who hailed from different parts of the country: Rhode Island, Idaho, Illinois, Alabama, New York, Wisconsin, South Dakota and his own state of Ohio.

It’s an honest book, as it conveys warts and all — from Hugo Black’s involvement in the KKK to his redemption in fighting for the rights of African Americans.  Digging deep talking with the people who knew these historical figures who made history, Brown adroitly sketches the political landscape of America as he draws out the homespun qualities of each person and the unique adversities each faced. Glen Taylor, the “Singing Cowboy”, losing multiple elections before winning in his state.  He won one and lost seven in a nineteen year run.  Taylor would become the running mate with the progressive Senator Henry Wallace.

Brown captures the challenges of senators battling for progressive causes in tenuous times and how they maneuvered their campaigns to champion issues without compromising their values and virtues.  One critic likened this work to President Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Profiles in Courage” and this is an accurate description.

Every patriot should read the section on Senator Herbert Lehmann. Lehmann was the son of a wealthy father and was a philanthropist before entering politics. His father was responsible for the famous financial advisors Lehmann Brothers. He became a voice of reason during the McCarthy “Red Scare”.  Lehmann served as governor of New York, initiating the “Little New Deal” for his state. Brown writes about Lehmann confronting McCarthy on the Senate floor requesting proof of his claims of Communism in our government and popular culture.  McCarthy shouted back telling the old man to return to his seat.  Lehmann stood up to the fraud that was Senator McCarthy.

In the section about Robert Kennedy, Brown writes, that Bobby Kennedy had the ability to “see the world through the eyes of the poor”. It seems Brown has that same ability to read the hearts of progressives and measure the right amount of medicine for the fiscal challenges we face through important legislation he has worked for while in the Senate.  Brown calls out the “phony populism” that has been sold recently and identifies the hypocrisy of those who claim to be progressive but the statistics don’t match the voting record.

The senator gives a behind the scenes look at some of the most critical events and legislation of our times.  From consumer protections to the historic healthcare initiatives and the bill that he helped to write into law, his fly on the wall points of view will be an important reminder for historians. He has carved out an important niche with his “Dignity of Work” proclamations and followed them up with tangible evidence of real change.

George McGovern was the only senator in the book he knew.  He places McGovern in his rightful place of progressive history and bites into the political demagoguery that comes with divisive politics by demonstrating the humanitarian work of the late senator.  McGovern along with Bob Dole was responsible for feeding the world and initiating the food stamp programs for the poorest of the poor. In a heartbreaking tale, Brown writes about how McGovern overheard a woman at the store stating that she was not going to vote for the senator due to his support of government expenditures – the very food stamp expenditure she was using to pay for her food.

Brown has not missed a beat in identifying the craftsmanship of legislation and social policy and has gone so far as to metaphorically give a nod to the craftsman who made the desk, Thomas Constantine, the New York cabinetmaker who made them.

This book is a must for any political scientist who wants to delve deeper into those moments in our history that were changed by individuals who put the interests of the common good before their own interests. It is a soul search for the heart of American progressives and could not have come at a better time.

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