For his third book, Sen. Sherrod Brown dove deep into history — but not his own. It took Brown, a three-term Ohio senator, a whopping 11 years to write Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America ($28, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux), a biographical deep-dive into each of the Democratic politicians who sat at Brown’s assigned desk before him. The Mansfield native conducted dozens of interviews and read more than 160 other books in the process, uncovering lessons in their lives that remain prescient today. Before it hit shelves earlier this month, Brown took us under Desk’s lid.
Q: Most politicians go the memoir route. Why write what’s essentially a history book instead?
A: I’ve always thought people would do their jobs better, in government and [otherwise], if they knew the history of their work and put it into that context. On my first day in the Senate, I was scurrying around the Senate floor to figure out where to sit, and Sen. Ted Kennedy told me I was at [his brother] Bobby Kennedy’s old desk. I started thinking, Look at everyone who had this desk before me. What did they do?
Q: It took you more than a decade to complete the book. Why now?
A: After the 2018 elections, I realized I needed to get it done. Today, so many of the political battles are the same [as they were for the senators in the book]: the fight against racism and exploitation of workers, people who think government should serve only the wealthy, etc.
Q: Do you have any favorite stories about Desk 88’s other occupants?
A: There’s a story about a closed-door meeting between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Robert Kennedy. Johnson secretly taped it, but when he and his aide got to the transcribers, the tape was all background noise and they couldn’t decipher it. Bobby had on a scrambling device! When you sit down at a poker table and you don’t see a sucker, it means you’re it — and LBJ was the sucker.
Q: How did writing the book shape your thoughts on politics now?
A: This president is maybe the worst in history, but I don’t think this is the worst time for our country, or even in our lifetime. It’s not the McCarthy era or the Depression or the Civil War. That says to me that we shouldn’t be discouraged. I learn from these eight senators and their allies, including learning from their mistakes, so that we can fight back and rescue this country.