Saturday, January 3, 2015

US Senator Edward Brooke (R-Massachusetts): 1919-2015

Edward Brooke, former Attorney General and US Senator from Massachusetts, has died in his Florida home. At 95, he retained a vitality of core issues, and passed away quietly from natural causes. A Congressional Medal of Honor winner in 2009, after witnessing the election of the first African-American US President, he could also welcome another Republican US Senator representing the Bay State the following year, a rejection from the same voters against a President whose policies were so illiberal, that even progressive New Englanders said “Stop!”

Born in segregated Washington DC in 1919, Brooke ascended the ranks in a regarded military career, then through legal and political achievements to national office, with great preeminence as well as controversy. From his record of prosecuting local corruption in Massachusetts, Brooke built up a network of support and acclaim which brought him into the Attorney General’s office in 1962, then the US Senate in 1966, later reelected in 1972 (a watershed of Republican victories nationally under a popular incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon and a weakened, unimpressive Democratic challenger). As a Republican in a deeply Democratic state with a 2% black population (where the Kennedy machine had propped up Senators and even a President), Brooke faced long odds, yet won.

Following his reelection loss in 1978, Brooke joined a Washington DC law firm, served as chairman of the Boston Bank of Commerce, then took on leadership roles in diverse, global philanthropic efforts. Retiring to a Coral Gables home in Florida, Brooke passed away with his family by his side.
US Senator Edward Brooke (R-Massachusetts)

Reading about Brooke’s passing today, I recall first learning about him following Massachusetts State Senator Scott Brown’s (R-Wrentham) upset in special election 2010. Brown defeated a well-moneyed machine (as did Brooke), replacing the deceased US Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Forty years had passed before another Republican would represent the Bay State in the upper chamber. Sadly, media reports obsessed over Brown’s nude photo-ops from his youth (which he had taken while earning his way through college). Apparently, the media were intent on neglecting the Brooke legacy of a minority Republican, a fact which disrupts the liberal narrative of GOP = Old, White Men. ABC news anchor and investigative journalist Barbara Walters shamefully alleged a heated affair with Brooke in her memoir, and on The View. Such lurid details were rightfully ignored. Incidentally enough, similar publicize voyeurism derailed Brooke’s 1978 reelection bid.

I also retold Brooke’s story in defiance of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s uninformed remarks that the Republican Party still retained a “dark vein of intolerance”. Brooke was a walking, talking repudiation of that narrative. Granted, Brooke would have definitely fallen into the class of liberal (i.e. Rockefeller) Republicans, like Susan Collins of Maine: socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Fox News indicated his ideology at the outset, but also reminded voters that Brooke was not just the first Black GOP US Senator, but the first one of either party to be popularly elected.

Despite his pro-abortion stance, plus his press for government-enforced equal housing and inner-city busing, Brooke’s stance on civil rights for all Americans holds true for his party, then and now. His expectations for fiscal discipline and individual responsibility never wavered.  For Brooke, civil rights was never about grievance mongering, but equal opportunity. He rejected the virulent rhetoric and violent reactions of the Black Power movement, stating his views cogently in a contentious meeting with Black Power leaders in the early 1970s. While they claimed that Brooke was not black, because he was “in the system”, he declared that he was in the place where he wanted to be, where blacks would have power supervising the military as well as federal money.

In another interview, Brooke affirmed his Republican credentials, indicating that the GOP gave him the nomination for office, and had the better record on civil rights, such as desegregating the Massachusetts National Guard. He also repeated his distaste for “huge government, and huge bureaucracy.”

Reading over the media’s general obituaries, I remember his advice to young black people, which would serve all youth just as well. “I’m a strong believer in the work ethic”, Brooke declared, and advised the same for young people, reminding them that there is no quick route to success. Brooke recounted his childhood in segregated Washington DC, how his mother and grandmother warned him: 'Remember your place now.' Now, that disturbed me." Brooke rejected those warnings from a now long-gone era. In his later years, he told young black children: "Your place is anywhere you want it to be. It's left up to you. You make that decision. "

Stirring words from a trailblazer, indeed. To politicians, he pleaded: “Seek power. There is nothing wrong with power if it’s used wisely, used rightly. Power is essential. Power is what gets things going, and it can be used for good as well as for evil.” He reiterated similar remarks upon receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. He made his place when others rejected him for it, and still encouraged others to do the same. Whatever one’s stance on the issues, Brooke’s life and legacy were admirable.

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