This week’s entry: Candy Desk
What it’s about: The United States Senate. That august body plays a vital role as a check against executive power, whether it’s looking the other way while the president lines his pockets with taxpayer money, or looking the other way while the president commits human rights violations. But when they’re not busy doing all that, senators are just like us! Not in terms of influence, or demographics, or income level, or basic morals, but at least in the sense that they like to eat candy at work. Thus, while our basic democratic traditions are rapidly being erased, one remains: Since 1968, one senator has maintained a desk drawer full of candy in the Senate chamber.
Biggest controversy: The Senate’s collective sweet tooth was a secret for 20 years. The tradition was started by George Murphy, an Oscar-winning song-and-dance man from the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, who in 1964 joined the proud tradition of laughably unqualified figures from the entertainment industry vaulting into high office. Although eating on the floor of the Senate is forbidden, Murphy filled a drawer of his desk with candy, and offered to share with his colleagues. Murphy wasn’t re-elected, but his candy drawer was—Arizona Senator Paul Fannin carried on the tradition, and since then, there has always been a senator with a desk full of candy. This wasn’t publicly known until 1985, when Washington Senator Slade Gorton sent out a press release not only identifying the candy desk, but also outing all of its previous occupants.
Strangest fact: The candy desk threatens to make even Rick Santorum relatable. Santorum—who was so good at his job that when you Google his name, “man on dog sex” is the second-worst thing that comes up—occupied the Candy Desk from 1997 to 2007. Pennsylvania, the state he represents, is home to both Hershey and Just Born (a family-owned company that produces marshmallow Peeps, Mike And Ikes, and other confections), and between the two companies, hundreds of pounds of candy were shipped to Washington for the Senate’s consumption each year.
When Santorum was voted out of office, his replacement at the Candy Desk, Wyoming’s Craig Thomas, had to make do with small-scale chocolatiers from his home state. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk brought in Wrigley’s to fill the desk, and since 2015, the desk has been held by two-term Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, so Hershey’s and Just Born have returned.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Some pretty distinguished statesmen have filled the Senate desk with candy. Apollo 17 astronaut-turned-New Mexico Senator Harrison Schmitt occupied the Candy Desk for two years, as did war hero and former presidential candidate John McCain. Republican-turned-Democrat Jim Jeffords also had the desk, but passed it on several years before switching parties in 2001.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Candy Desk has always been held by a Republican, though that’s likely because one particular desk has held the role since 1981, and that desk is on the Republican side of the aisle. The Democrats have had their own candy desk since 1985, and it’s not clear whether that’s due to partisan spite or the Republicans refusing to share. The Democratic desk belongs to whichever senator is the party’s Conference Secretary (currently Tammy Baldwin)—the fourth-ranking position behind majority/minority leader, whip, and vice-chairman. Democratic Senators chip in to buy the candy, and Jay Rockefeller spent his 30-year tenure in the Senate collecting the money.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Naturally, Europe has a much older version of this tradition. The U.K.’s governing body boasts a Parliamentary snuff box, instituted in 1694 after smoking was banned in the House of Commons. In 1941, the House chamber was destroyed by a German bomb; when the room was rebuilt, a new snuff box was made from timber from the remains of the front door frame. That box still has a place in Parliament, but it’s not clear that any members of Parliament have actually used the tobacco within in recent decades.
The Parliamentary snuff box has a link to Presidential M&Ms, a commemorative gift to White House visitors given out by presidents from Reagan onward. (Reagan changed a tradition started by JFK of giving out presidential cigarettes, replacing them first with jelly beans, then M&Ms in a specially designed package with the presidential seal and the commander-in-chief’s signature.)
Further down the Wormhole: Florida’s George LeMieux was only 40 when he was elected to the Senate, but that didn’t stop him from stocking the Candy Desk with Werther’s Originals. The quintessential old man candy is made by the German company August Storck KG (Werther is a town in Westphalia), but is distributed all over Europe, North America, and Japan. The candy’s Japanese distributor, Morinaga Milk Industry, sells dairy products and candy, and distributes Kraft’s foodlike products to Japan. The company got in trouble in 1955 after a mass poisoning, resulting from industrial arsenic accidentally being mixed into its powdered milk. A British confectioner had similar problems a century earlier, when he accidentally sold candy made with arsenic. We’ll look at the 1858 Bradford Sweets Poisoning next week.