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An evening with Sherrod Brown — and James Thurber

"Desk 88" was inspired by Brown’s first day on the Senate floor when he got to choose his desk. Inside each desk, predecessors had scrawled their names. 
Mark Sweetwood

In a 59-year life, you pick up an accolade or two.

Best newspaper. Best Column. Second place in a beauty contest, collect $10.

Yet in my house, I display just one: A plaque from the James Thurber House celebrating the time I won the Thurber Treat Writing Contest in 2009.

The contest was sponsored by the group in Columbus that maintains the childhood home and legacy of native son James Grover Thurber, the American writer/cartoonist/humorist who shared his genius from 1894 to 1961. This year, Thurber enthusiasts are marking the 35th year since the house was renovated and opened to the public as well as the humorist’s 125th birthday.

I first met Thurber in a freshman American literature class at Bradley University. I liked his style. Later, I was in the school bookstore and discovered his collection, "Thurber Country."

That beat-up, dog-eared, spine-challenged book has been at my bedside ever since. I adapted "My Own 10 Rules for a Happy Marriage" as a reading at the wedding that led to my own very happy marriage. I've never been so down that the comedic gem, "A Friend of the Earth," hasn't made me laugh. 

Long before I became a resident of the Buckeye state, I trekked to the Thurber House. Last Sunday, I was back at 77 Jefferson Ave. to talk with a different author. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown was in town for an event sponsored by the Thurber House to promote his new book "Desk 88: Eight Progressives Who Changed America." He stopped there before giving a talk led by his daughters, Emily and Elizabeth, at nearby Capital University. 

The Thurber House folks allowed us to meet there to discuss his book amid the comfy confines of the 19th century house that is a warm tribute to Thurber's hard life and times.

I was eager about the opportunity to interview a sitting U.S. senator in a house I love and the senator was also eager — but his reasons were far more personal. The Thurber House has a tradition in which visiting authors sign their names on a closet wall. 

His wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Connie Schultz, signed the wall during her book tour in 2007. Brown was there to finally catch up.

I've not finished reading "Desk 88," but as a history enthusiast, I'm enjoying his work so far. The title was inspired by Brown’s first day on the Senate floor when he got to choose his desk. Inside each desk — and it appears the Senate tradition is the same as the Thurber closet tradition —  predecessors had scrawled their names. 

As he described it when we met at the Thurber House: “I started pulling out desk drawers and I saw, ‘Hugo Black of Alabama, among the names I knew. There were a lot of names I didn’t know … and then it just said, ‘Kennedy.’”

U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy was about four seats away.

“So, I said, ‘Ted, come here a minute.’ And he walked over, and I said, ‘Which brother’s desk is this? And he said, ‘Well, it’s got to be Bobby’s. I have Jack’s.’”

He chose desk No. 88 that day and ultimately chose in “Desk 88” to tell the story of his political passion — progressivism — through the stories of eight of the men who sat there before him: Hugo Black, Theodore Francis Green, Glen Taylor, Herbert H. Lehman, Al Gore Sr., William Proxmire, Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern.

If you expect an angry political tome, given our angry political times, you will be disappointed. This strikes me as a well-researched, thoughtful work. Brown said he read 160 books in preparation and did countless interviews. Both when we talked at the Thurber House and later at Capital University, he insisted, “This book is really about hope.”

And as out of step as an optimistic premise might seem in an era of dueling sound bytes and vicious social media memes, Brown described his book this way: “It’s about how progressives – and all these eight senators were progressives — moved the country forward. Everything from collective bargaining and minimum wages and the 40-hour work week to Medicare to Social Security and Pell Grants and all the civil rights and things they worked on.”

The book’s historical biographies of those who shaped progressive efforts are often separated by Brown’s essays to put those efforts into current context.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson said that history is a fight between the progressives and the conservatives," he told me. “Basically, the conservatives [who] want to hold onto the wealth and power and … status ... and progressives who want to do things like Medicare and Social Security and Clean Air Laws and all that.

“Progressives don’t win very often, but when we win, we win really big,” he said.

Brown is unabashedly, unapologetically and proudly a Democratic progressive. I asked him about his own contributions while an occupant of Desk 88. He — somewhat surprisingly — noted the expansion of the earned income tax credit. That doesn’t sound very sexy and would fail as a bumper sticker. But he pointed out that an extra $4,000 in their pockets means a lot to workers making $20,000 to $40,000 a year.
“Maybe it’s my Lutheran faith growing up,” he said, in his patented gravelly voice, sitting at the dining table where James Thurber’s working class family once sat. “But, it’s when you do something significant and the people who benefit … don’t know who did it and it doesn’t really matter. That’s the way this is. I mean, most constituents in Ohio don’t know it, let alone someone living in Tuskegee, Ala. or Denver, Colo., but their lives are better as a result of it.”

While Brown shied away from the presidential campaign trail, he has used the current book tour to continue to hammer away at his other campaign for the “Dignity of Work.” In his book he notes, “History teaches us that when work is honored and workers are respected, freedom and government thrive.”

That reminded me immediately of a Thurber quote: “‘Human Dignity’ has gleamed only now and then and here and there, in lonely splendor, throughout the ages; a hope of the better men, never an achievement of the majority.”

Thurber and Brown, together at the same house. Sharing the same ideals. Appealing to our better selves.

That was a great night in Columbus.