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The Candy Desk

In the 1964 Senate elections, the voters of California sent song-and-dance man George Murphy to Washington. It was a long road to the Senate from his humble origins in Connecticut. There, Murphy first worked as a toolmaker for the Ford Motor Company, then tried his hand at mining, real estate, and finally singing in night clubs. His night club act proved be to his ticket, and it wasn’t long before he was on Broadway. He made the transition to motion pictures in 1934, and kept acting for eighteen years after that. When he retired from acting in 1952, he made his way into politics. Murphy served as the director of entertainment for the presidential inaugurations in 1953, 1957 and 1961. Bitten by the political bug, Murphy next decided to run for office himself. He picked a rough year to do it. Unpopular presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) proved to be a drag on the downballot races. Democrats gained Senate seats from Republicans in every state but one. Only one Senate seat held by a Democrat elected a Republican that year, and that Republican was George Murphy. He beat his opponent, Democrat Pierre Salinger, by only three points, but in a year that was such a difficult one for Republicans, that was quite an accomplishment. More importantly, it got him the job.

Silver screen heartthrob George Murphy in the 1930s, California Senator George Murphy in the 1960s.

As an actor, Murphy knew how to work crowds. He was well known across the country, which put him in demand to campaign for other Republican candidates. His conservative politics left him a bit out of step with the more liberal Republicans of California. His famous comment about how Mexicans were better for farm work because they are “built close to the ground” haunted him until the 1970 Senate election, when he did not win a second term. Also working against him was the fact that he lost his voice to throat cancer late in his term, and couldn’t speak louder than a whisper for the rest of his life. Senator Murphy is mostly unknown to the under-70 crowd these days, and even to many people over 70. (When was the last time you caught Broadway Melodies of 1940 on TV?) His unfortunate comment about Mexican laborers would not be his only legacy to American politics, though. During his campaigns for president in 1968, 1976 and 1980, Ronald Reagan cited Murphy as an inspiration, comparing him to John the Baptist, since he led the way for actors (like Reagan himself) to seek elective office. Reagan has passed from the scene, but Murphy’s other legacy persists: the Candy Desk. When Senator Murphy was first elected to the Senate, he was given one of the 100 desks on the Senate floor. It was in the back row, near one of the exits, and was well traveled by senators coming in and going out. There was nothing unusual about Murphy’s desk until he set himself up in it. He decided to devote one of the desk’s drawers to candy.

The location of Senator Murphy’s desk: the randomly-assigned No. 24.

While eating is forbidden on the Senate floor, Murphy invited senators to come take candy from his desk whenever they wanted to. (They simply had to take the candy into the hall to eat it.) Murphy paid for the candy out of his own pocket. Had he tried to expense it, putting the taxpayers on the hook for free confections for the Senate, he might have faced some blowback! When Murphy lost his seat in 1970, he moved on, and another senator was assigned his desk. This was Senator Paul Fannin of Arizona, who was happy to keep up the tradition, which he did until 1977, when he was voted out. After him, all subsequent occupants of the Candy Desk obligingly kept stashes of their own in the same drawer. (The desks themselves do move around, so the current Candy Desk is probably not the original piece of furniture. What makes the Candy Desk the Candy Desk is its location.) The existence of the Candy Desk was not generally known outside the Senate before 1985. Senator Slade Gorton of Washington spilled the beans during an interview in which he said that he was seated in the Candy Desk, and that he intended to carry on Senator Murphy’s tradition. Gorton went on to name the other Candy Desk occupants. The high-water mark of the Candy Desk occurred when Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania occupied the desk. Since Pennsylvania is the location of the Hershey Chocolate Company, they started shipping chocolates to the senator in hundred-pound deliveries, four times a year, which he would use to restock the desk whenever it ran out. It’s illegal for senators to accept gifts valued at more than $100 over one year’s time from a single source, and it’s reasonable to assume that each of these chocolate deliveries had to be worth more than that. However, due to an exception to the rule, Santorum was in the clear. Senators can accept such gifts as long as they were produced in the senator’s home state, and they were primarily used by someone other than the senator and his or her staff. This loophole made Hershey’s annual donation legal. When Senator Santorum was defeated in his 2006 bid for reëlection, Hershey had to stop its deliveries, since a Pennsylvanian wasn’t assigned the Candy Desk anymore. The Candy Desk’s next occupant was Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas. Since Wyoming doesn’t have any large confectionary concerns of its own, Thomas either had to pay for the candy out of pocket, or start hitting up whatever small confectionaries he could find in the state and ask them for donations. Thomas chose the latter, and kept various native Wyoming candies in rotation in the Candy Desk from the time he took the desk in January 2007 until his death five months later. Some Candy Desk occupants seem to revel in the opportunity to promote their own state’s products. While Florida senators Mel Martinez and George LeMieux bought their own non-Floridian Hershey bars and Werther’s Originals, Senator George Voinovich favored Ohio-produced Dum Dum lollipops and Harry London products. Senator Mark Kirk repped out Illinois by stocking Wrigley’s gum, Tootsie Rolls, and Garrett’s Popcorn. (Kirk wasn’t a home state boy through and through. He also kept a supply of Jelly Belly candies from California, possibly in homage to Ronald Reagan, who kept a jar of them on his desk while throughout his presidency.) Since 2015, the Candy Desk has been the responsibility of Senator Pat Toomey, another Pennsylvanian. Senators enjoy the return of Hershey’s generous donations, as well as candies from other Pennsylvania-based companies like Just Born and Josh Early Candies. Toomey narrowly won reëlection in 2016 which might not suit everyone’s politics, but it’s good news for the Senate candy pipeline.

Pennsylvania’s offerings have been some of the favorites, from companies like Hershey’s and Just Born.

Politically savvy readers might have noticed that all the senators who have sat at the Candy Desk have been Republicans. The reason for this is that the Candy Desk is on the Republican side of the Senate chamber. Democrats sit on the left side, and Republicans are on the right. Desks in the middle of the chamber will change parties, depending on which party makes more gains in a given election year, moving the Democrat/Republican border one direction or another. The Candy Desk is far enough to the right side that the Democrats would have to capture 25 seats from the Republicans in order for there to be a possibility of a Democrat getting assigned the Candy Desk. It’s not impossible, but it’s not likely (and certainly won’t happen this year. There just aren’t that many Republican-held seats up for election. Even in the unlikely event that every Republican senator gets defeated by a Democrat in 2018, that still only means an eight-seat Democratic gain. Democratic control of the Candy Desk might take a few election cycles.) Democrats, rather than having to hover over the desk of whichever Republican is occupying it, have started their own Candy Desk. It’s an antique rolltop desk that sits on the Democratic side of the chamber. It belongs to the US Senate Democratic Conference Secretary, and serves as the Democratic candy depot. This tradition was started by Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who managed the Democratic candy fund, which is just a jar placed on the desk where senators can leave their goodwill donations. Senator Rockefeller retired in 2014, leaving his duties in the collective hands of the Democratic pages.

The legendary US Senate Candy Desk, operating continuously since 1968.

George Murphy does his song and dance with Virginia Grey in "Song and Tap Dance" (1936)

Tom Lehrer on the TV program That Was the Year That Was (1965) singing not-so-complimentary things about newly-elected Senator George Murphy.


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