One of the last things Sen. Ernest F. Hollings wanted to do before leaving the U.S. Senate this week was make sure that fellow South Carolinian Sen. Lindsey Graham got his desk on the Senate floor — the same desk where senior South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun once sat.
Using his farewell floor speech to thank Mr. Graham for being “really a fine fellow,” Mr. Hollings, who is retiring after 38 years, said, “The only way I can show my gratitude is to make sure he gets this desk.”
The desks are intensely intimate to many senators, having in some instances been used by fathers and sons, fathers and daughters or, in the situation of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, by his brother, John F. Kennedy.
“Senators take a very personal interest in the desks, and they’re very attached to them,” said Don Ritchie, associate historian for the Senate. “They can’t take the desks with them. They can take the chairs, but they can’t take the desks. They bond with their desks, I guess you can say.”
Instead of taking the desks, it’s become a tradition for senators to inscribe — with lead, ink or knife — their names in the drawers.
Over the course of this week, those retiring senators who haven’t already done so will carry their desk drawers into the cloak rooms at the back of the Senate chamber and write their names into ancient wood.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican who is retiring after two terms, said he wrote his name in his desk a few weeks ago, but only after going around and pulling out a few other drawers to see whether other senators signed in cursive or printed their names.
“I printed it, because the wood is rough and it’s hard to make the ballpoint flow over that,” he said.
Forty-eight of the desks have been used since 1819, when the chamber reopened five years after it was burned by the British near the end of the War of 1812. Others were added each time a new state was admitted, all having the original desk design.
The desks followed the senators when they moved into the current Senate chamber in 1859, and the desks now in the preserved old chamber are reproductions. Given that history, it’s not surprising the desks have provoked some competition.
Mr. Hollings, for example, originally had another desk and discovered that Sen. Russell B. Long of Louisiana was sitting at the Calhoun desk. He asked Mr. Long if they might work out a switch, but Mr. Long said he wanted to keep the desk because it had been used by his father, Sen. Huey P. Long of Louisiana. The story goes that the son even traded a vote once to secure his father’s desk.
Mr. Hollings apologized for even thinking of asking for the seat, and forgot about it. But years later, as Mr. Hollings recalled this week, before Mr. Long’s last day in the chamber he came up to Mr. Hollings, tapped him on the shoulder and told him that the sergeant-at-arms had been instructed to make sure the South Carolina Democrat got the desk rather than Strom Thurmond, the state’s other senator in the chamber, who had also been angling for it.
The retiring Mr. Long told Mr. Hollings to write his name in it soon in order to claim it, and Mr. Hollings said he added his name after the seat was unbolted from where the desk had sat and moved to Mr. Hollings’ spot on the floor.
Mr. Hollings’ name also appears in two other desks he sat at before getting the Calhoun seat.
“Some senators sit at many desks, and some of them carve their names in every desk they sit at, and others carve their name only in the desk they sat in at the end of their career,” Mr. Ritchie in the historian’s office said.
Senate officials are so protective of the chamber and its contents that no photos are allowed at any time. Only pictures distributed by the chamber’s history office are available to the public.
Last summer, staff from the curator’s and historian’s offices went through all of the drawers and made a list of the legible names. They total about 2,500, though many are duplicates.
The most prolific senator was Harley M. Kilgore of West Virginia, who served from 1941 to 1956 and signed 14 times, though several of those are repeat signatures in the same desk.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat who retired in 2000 but ran and won again in 2002, wasn’t going to make that mistake.
“I don’t like wasting effort, so I signed mine when I left and then I had it moved when I came back so I wouldn’t have to sign it again,” he joked, before turning serious and saying the desk reminds him of how he, the son of immigrants, has lived the American dream.
Mr. Lautenberg’s desk, numbered XLIII in the current numbering system, is signed by Harry S. Truman, among others. “I look at that desk and I see Harry Truman of Missouri; I think, ‘By God, I want to remember this,’ ” Mr. Lautenberg said.
Truman’s name can be found in 10 desks, Richard M. Nixon’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s are in two, and Warren G. Harding’s and John F. Kennedy’s are in three each. There are also future Supreme Court justices including Hugo L. Black and vice presidents including Al Gore and Dan Quayle.
But Mr. Ritchie said some of the earliest names — such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun — were inscribed by clerks around the turn of the 20th century, when the desks were refinished. He said that’s about when it became an established tradition for senators to add their own names. But those desks almost certainly were used by the men whose names are in them, Mr. Ritchie said, because the clerks were very protective of the owners’ identities.
The Webster desk has been the source of some mischief. Originally passed among Massachusetts senators, including Charles Sumner and Henry C. Lodge, it later fell into the hands of Sen. Henry S. Bridges of New Hampshire and then Sen. Norris H. Cotton, also of New Hampshire.
New Hampshire claims the great orator because he was born there, but Massachusetts claims him because that’s where he had his home when he made history.
As Mr. Cotton concluded his 20 years in the Senate in 1974, he pushed through a resolution declaring that Webster’s desk would now follow the senior senator from New Hampshire — according to legend, calling for a vote when both Massachusetts senators were away.
The desk with the most names is Desk LXVIII, with 46. Sens. Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, George S. McGovern of South Dakota, Bob Dole of Kansas and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Warren G. Harding have all sat there, though Mrs. Dole had not inscribed her name as of the last time inventory was taken.
One of the most famous desks is that of Jefferson Davis, who left the Senate to become president of the Confederate States of America in 1861. The desk still bears a patch over the scar where a Union soldier from Massachusetts, camped in the Senate when sent to protect Washington during the war, stabbed it with his bayonet.
The story has it that when doorkeeper Isaac Bassett saw the man stabbing the desk he ran out to stop him.
“That is not Jeff Davis’ desk; it belongs to the government of the United States,” the doorkeeper said. “You were sent here to protect government property and not to destroy it.”
The Davis desk follows the senior senator from Mississippi, now Sen. Thad Cochran, Republican.