I pointed out that this version was less poetic.
“It is less poetic,” Brown said. “But it’s also more just.”
We were sitting at a long table in the gray-carpeted, barely decorated conference room of Brown’s office on Capitol Hill—an unlikely setting for either poetry or justice. But Brown was getting to the heart of his moral philosophy, and he moved on to the second source—lines from a 1967 speech by Martin Luther King Jr.:
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and Earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
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These first two are favorite quotations; Brown pulled them out when he won reelection in November. The third isn’t the sort that politicians generally cite. It comes from Tolstoy’s Resurrection—his last and most obscure novel, about a well-to-do man who forces himself to experience the misery and degradation of those lost souls in society’s lower depths. The novel makes us see what horrors we accept as normal when we allow ourselves to feel no love for other human beings. Brown quoted a phrase about a certain church official named Toporoff—a man “like all those who are quite destitute of the fundamental religious feeling that recognizes the equality and brotherhood of men.”
“Underpinning all faiths is really a belief that all people are equal,” Brown said, “whether you street sweep, or whether you write for The Atlantic, or whether you run for office.”
You don’t hear politicians talk about “the equality and brotherhood of men” any more. It sounded to me like Eugene Debs, the great socialist leader of the early-20th century. “Jeez, don’t put that down,” Brown said, before acknowledging that with Debs pretty much forgotten, the comparison would have no effect one way or the other. Even “the dignity of work”—the name Brown has given to the tour that he’s currently taking through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada with his wife, Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist—feels nearly outmoded. The language asks a lot of us. It asks more than many voters want to give. It’s out of sync with the mercilessness of American politics today, and completely antithetical to the selfish cynicism of the current president, a man like Toporoff: “At the bottom of his heart he believed in nothing, and found such a state very convenient and pleasant.”
If you’re going to talk about “the equality and brotherhood of men,” you’d better mean it, and you’d better live it. Brown grew up comfortably in Mansfield, Ohio—his father was a doctor and his mother a social activist—and he attended Yale, where he majored in Russian studies. (Schultz forbids him from speaking Russian in public.) He was elected to the Ohio state legislature right out of college, in 1974, and he learned his trade by hanging around local union halls and listening to the members talk about their lives, troubles, hopes. In other words, Brown discovered Tolstoy before he discovered the working class. In the shallow version of American politics, he would have had to choose between bookish idealism and the cause of ordinary people. Instead, his love of the first nourished his commitment to the second.