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The Hot Seats: 5 Famous Senate Desks

It may seem reminiscent of elementary school to plead and barter to sit at a certain desk, but plenty of U.S. senators would disagree. Forty-eight of the current Senate desks have been around since 1819, ordered after British troops destroyed the Capitol five years prior. The historic moments that happened at these desks—and the Senate VIPs who sat behind them—mean that some of the desks have taken on lives of their own. In recent decades, senators have decided to leave their own marks by inscribing their names on the inside of the desk drawers.

1. THE DANIEL WEBSTER DESK

The desk once used by Sen. Daniel Webster stands out from the others because it lacks any extra amenities—if you can call a writing box and an extra drawer “amenities.” When the useful additions were placed on all of the other Senate desks between 1820 and 1840, Webster refused, finding the renovations a waste of taxpayer money. Though his successors have had the option of adding the extra pieces, they have all declined, keeping with tradition.

Since the 1930s, it has been tradition for the senior senator from New Hampshire to sit in the same desk Webster once claimed as his own—and it has been official since 1974. That’s when the Senate passed Resolution 469 declaring that the desk would, “at the request of the senior Senator from the State of New Hampshire, be assigned to such Senator for use in carrying out his or her Senatorial duties during that Senator’s term of office.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen occupies the desk now.

2. THE HENRY CLAY DESK

Even the venerable Abe Lincoln looked up to Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, calling him "my ideal of a great man." So, it's not surprising that other senators from the Bluegrass State would want to soak in some of his essence. In 1999, the Senate passed Resolution 89, which ensured that Clay's old desk would always be assigned to the senior senator from Kentucky. Sen. Rand Paul sits there at the moment.

3. THE JEFFERSON DAVIS DESK

Before he became president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis was a senator from Mississippi. When a Union Regiment from Massachusetts camped in the Senate chamber in 1861, overzealous soldiers sought out Davis’s desk and attacked it with bayonets, intent on its destruction. Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett heard the commotion, ran in, and demanded to know what was going on. “We are cutting that damned traitor’s desk to pieces,” they told him. Bassett informed the posse that the desk belonged to the government, not Jefferson Davis. It was enough to stop them, but there’s still an inlay patch on the side of the desk from the resulting repairs.

In 1995, Senate Resolution 161 declared Davis’s desk would go to the senior senator from Mississippi. It’s currently occupied by Sen. Thad Cochran.

4. THE JOHN C. CALHOUN DESK

Andrew Jackson may not have thought much of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun—he once said one of his few regrets in life was not hanging Calhoun when he had the chance—but senators still clamor to sit where Calhoun once did.

When Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina discovered that Sen. Russell B. Long of Louisiana was occupying Calhoun’s former desk, he politely requested the seat. Long declined, informing Hollings that his mother and father had both claimed the desk before him. When Long retired, however, he bequeathed the Calhoun desk to Hollings—and when Hollings left in 2004, he passed it on to Sen. Lindsey Graham.

5. THE STROM THURMOND FILIBUSTER DESK

Some desks are more infamous than famous. It seems no one wants to occupy the place where scandalized presidents Warren G. Harding and Richard Nixon both sat, for example. And then there’s the Strom Thurmond desk. The South Carolina senator proudly inscribed the desk after his long-winded filibuster “achievement” against the Civil Rights Act of 1957: “spoke 24 hrs. 18 min. from this desk in 1957.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa sits there now.

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Barack and Michelle Obama's Next Move: Producing Content for Netflix
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Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Barack Obama's first talk show appearance after leaving office was on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, David Letterman's six-part series on Netflix. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that one of the Obamas' first projects since moving out of the White House will be a storytelling partnership with Netflix.

On Monday, the streaming service announced that they've entered into a multi-year deal with Barack and Michelle Obama, who produce films and series under a company called Higher Ground Productions. So what can we expect from the former president and first lady? According to Netflix, they will be producing a "diverse mix of content," which could take the form of scripted and unscripted series, documentaries, and features.

"One of the simple joys of our time in public service was getting to meet so many fascinating people from all walks of life, and to help them share their experiences with a wider audience," Barack Obama said in a statement. "That's why Michelle and I are so excited to partner with Netflix. We hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the entire world."

The former first lady added that Netflix was a "natural fit" for the kinds of stories they want to tell. According to The New York Times, Barack Obama said he does not intend to use the platform for political ends.

Last year, the Obamas signed a joint book deal with Penguin Random House worth $65 million. Michelle's memoir, Becoming, will be published on November 13, while details about Barack Obama's memoir are forthcoming.

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The Time Ben Franklin and John Adams Shared a Bed
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iStock

Ever been on a road trip where the sleeping conditions were less than ideal? Such indignities aren’t just for average citizens like you and me. Even Founding Fathers and future presidents had to bunk with one another on occasion. 

In September 1776, just a few months after the thirteen American colonies announced their independence from Britain, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams got stuck shacking up together for a night. As part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress, they were on their way from Philadelphia to Staten Island to negotiate with Admiral Richard Howe of the Royal Navy for a possible end to the Revolutionary War. As they passed through New Brunswick, New Jersey, the negotiators—Franklin, Adams and South Carolina politician Edward Rutledgedecided to stop for the night and find a place to sleep. 

The local taverns and inns were nearly full, though, and there were only two rooms for the three men. “One bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me,” Adams wrote in his autobiography, “in a chamber a little larger than the bed, without a chimney and with only one small window.”

That window would be a problem for the two men.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW

Adams, who was “an invalid and afraid of the air in the night,” closed the window before they got into bed. 

“Oh!” said Franklin. “Don’t shut the window. We shall be suffocated.”

When Adams explained that he didn’t want to catch an illness from the cold night air, Franklin countered that the air in their room was even worse. 

“Come!” he told Adams. “Open the window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.”

Contrary to the lay wisdom of the day (and everybody’s grandmother), Franklin was convinced that no one had ever gotten a cold from cold air. Instead, it was the “frowzy corrupt air” from animals, humans, and dirty clothes and beds, he thought, that led people to catch colds when they were “shut up together in small close rooms.” Cool, fresh air at night, he believed, had many benefits. 

Franklin’s ideas were inconsistent with Adams’s own experiences, he wrote, but he was curious to hear what Franklin had to say. So, even at the risk of a cold, he opened the window again and hopped into bed with Franklin.

As they lay side by side, Adams wrote, Franklin “began a harangue upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration.” 

“I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his philosophy together,” Adams wrote. “But I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep.”

The strange bedfellows were out like a light, and continued on their way in the morning. The peace conference they were traveling to lasted just a few hours and produced no results. 

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