Former senator Edward Brooke receives Congressional Gold Medal
Thursday, October 29, 2009
The crisp cadence of a fife-and-drum corps reverberated through the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday morning, the august room packed with nearly 500 people craning their necks to see the remarkable tableau arranged on a stage before them.
There sat Edward William Brooke III, who grew up in a segregated neighborhood not far from the Capitol, fought in a segregated Army in World War II and returned to Washington in 1967, the first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote -- and on this day, the recipient of the highest honor Congress can bestow, the Congressional Gold Medal.
And there sat President Obama, whose stunning electoral journey to the White House seemed no more improbable than the one made four decades earlier by the 90-year-old man who sat beside him, a black Protestant Republican who won in the overwhelmingly white, Catholic, Democratic state of Massachusetts. After Obama heralded Brooke for a life spent "breaking barriers and bridging divides," the two men embraced tightly. It was a reminder of how much this country has changed in their lifetimes.
Brooke is a tall and expressive man, unstooped by age, quick to smile and careful to put others at ease. His voice carries more of his youth at Shaw Junior High than his adulthood in Boston. On Wednesday, he wore a gold-striped tie and a dark jacket. And he turned his full charisma on Nancy Pelosi, noting, with some wonderment, "now the speaker of the House is . . . a . . . lady!"
In his two terms in the Senate, Brooke took up the causes of low-income housing, increasing the minimum wage and furthering mass transit. He took on big tobacco. A strong proponent of civil rights from his days as Massachusetts's attorney general, he was a lonely Republican voice against school segregation and for reproductive rights for women. Eventually, he took on his own president. Brooke, noted Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on Wednesday, introduced legislation to name a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, and he became the first senator in either party to call for President Richard M. Nixon's resignation.
Such a coalition-builder was Brooke, Obama said, that his "fan base includes Gloria Steinem, Barney Frank and Ted Kennedy -- as well as Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney and George W. Bush," who awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.
"He didn't care whether a bill was popular or politically expedient, Democratic or Republican -- he cared about whether it helped people, whether it made a difference in their daily lives," Obama said.
Brooke's way was "to ignore the naysayers, reject the conventional wisdom and trust that ultimately, people would judge him on his character, his commitment, his record and his ideas," the president said. "He ran for office, as he put it, 'to bring people together who had never been together before.' And that he did."
It was a far different time, of course. A third of the Republican caucus was considered liberal or moderate. The South was still a Democratic stronghold.
Wednesday was the first time Brooke had met the president. When Obama entered the Senate, the two men talked on the phone once. They exchanged their books, "each with kind inscriptions," Brooke said in an interview. "He wrote, 'You paved the way for us' or something like that, and I said something like, 'You are a worthy bearer of the torch.' "
He is proud of what Obama has accomplished, he said. "What really pleases me is that he is trying his best and succeeding with what he said he would do. The problem people have with politicians is that they say what they are gonna do, and that is the end of it."
Brooke added that he was particularly touched that Obama signed legislation Wednesday that extends protection from hate crimes to gay men and lesbians, a cause he first advanced in the 1960s.