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Ex-Sen. Brooke Discusses Memoir, Race in Politics

Former Sen. Edward Brooke
Author, "Bridging the Divide"
Thursday, February 8, 2007 10:00 AM

Edward Brooke, a D.C. native and Howard University graduate who in 1966 became the first black man popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, was online Thursday, Feb. 8 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss his new autobiography, " Bridging the Divide," and the role of race in contemporary politics.

The transcript follows.

Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican who served two terms in the Senate, has two upcoming appearances scheduled in Washington -- 1 p.m. Saturday at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. N.W., and 11 a.m. Monday at Howard University's Ira Aldridge Theater, 2455 6th St. N.W.

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Edward Brooke: When I left the Senate in 1979 there were several publishers who had approached me about writing an autobiography, and I knew that politicians write books for many reasons, but at that time I just thought I wasn't ready and my story wasn't over and I knew I had a new life ahead of me. I found a new marriage, a new child. Now I'm in my 80s, my latter 80s, with most of my life behind me. I've embarked on this book hoping there will be lessons in it, that it will provide insight on American politics. Believing with Plato that the unexamined life is not worth living, I have attempted here to offer an honest and frank accounting of my personal and political life. As the readers of my book "Bridging the Divide" will learn, the two became all too entwined.

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Washington, D.C.: Growing up in Massachusetts in the 1960s and 1970s, Sens. Brooke and Kennedy were "my senators." Interestingly it never struck me as unusual that Senator Brooke was African-American -- just that he was a Republican in a heavily Democratic state. Of course at that time a Republican meant something different then than today, especially in New England -- it just really meant a political moderate. I am interested to learn Sen. Brooke's impressions about how the Republican party has evolved since he left public office, whether he still identifies with it, why he has kept such a low profile in politics since that time and what national policy issues concern him today.

Edward Brooke: Unfortunately the Republican Party has not faired well -- it has disintegrated to an extent. Not demised but certainly has not lived up to its responsibilities to the electorate. In Massachusetts, all the members of the congressional delegation are Democrats, the senators are Democrats, the governor and lieutenant governor are Democrats and the state House and Senate are overwhelmingly Democrats. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and I found that out when I was Attorney General in Massachusetts. There's nobody to mind the store, no new ideas. I'm just hoping the new governor of Massachusetts -- who happens to be an African-American -- that he will be able to bring the Republican and Democratic parties together and call upon Republicans for ideas.

The primary responsibility remains with the Republican Party, which means a total overhaul. They've got to do it from the grassroots, from the state level, they've got to get good candidates and they've got to moderate some of the social philosophies that they've gotten bogged down into -- the woman's right to choose for example. I think the attempt to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade ... I hope that even thought there's a lot of talk about it, I hope the Supreme Court in it's wisdom will not overturn that case. I think it's good law, I think it's right and I think the attempt to overturn that should not be part of the party's platform. There are many other issues that bog down -- gay rights, the absence of a program for global warming, overpopulation. I think it's got to be more of a centrist party to be successful in Massachusetts -- they just can't keep being hindered by the extreme right. The nation has rejected that and -- I think rightfully so -- the extreme left as well. It's a centrist nation and I hope the Republican Party will adopt that. Rebuilding can be done but it takes visionary leadership. It's so important to have two-party leadership -- in Massachusetts and in the nation and in other states as well.

I chose the Republican Party early on in the 1950s and 1960s in Massachusetts. My father was a Republican, as was my mother, in Virginia. They both voted Republican as did most Negroes and other minorities as well -- it was the party of Lincoln and emancipation. In Massachusetts we had such wonderful moderate Republicans as Henry Cabot Lodge. I just found more comfort in the Republican Party when I was running than I would have in the Democratic Party at that time. Most of the discrimination was in Southern states and they were Democrats. A lot has changed and a lot of those offices now are Republicans.

When I see the blue and red states on the map I wonder if we're going back to the days of the Civil War. I don't know, I hope that doesn't really come to pass -- we don't need division in this country. We need a nation that is united and has alleviated as much partisanship as we possibly can. I'm an optimist and think it'll come to pass and they'll see the light of day, if we are to fulfill the promise that is America. That's what my book is all about -- bridging the divide socially, religiously, economically, politically, and I hope they will see that light; I think it will come to pass.

As for the low profile, a combination of things transpired, including some rather serious health issues. I had male breast cancer and had dual radical modified mastectomy and I've spent a lot of time working with the Susan G. Coleman foundation to make men aware of male breast cancer -- if you have breast tissue, you can have breast cancer. Mammograms and examinations are unknown to men -- mine never would have been detected had my wife not found a lump. That led to mastectomy and the removal of lymph nodes -- that was quite an experience as one might expect.

My fear was that men get breast cancer and they don't detect it and they let it go and it spreads to other organs when, if they found out early that they had breast cancer, they would have been able to have it treated and survived. So I went public with this information. It was painful but it had to be done. I've spent a great deal of my time since then talking and writing about it -- I certainly mention it in some detail in my book. Other than that I was raising a young son who is now 25 years old. I have a new wife. I found a lot of time to read and write, to write editorials for newspapers. I'm not a critic, I don't go looking for things to criticize, but I'm not reluctant in the least to criticize things I need to criticize, including my party. I'll be a Republican until I die and I hope to have an influence in making it the party that it could be and needs to be for the success of American politics.

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Redondo Beach, Calif.: Sen. Brooke: I was in my second year at Boston University when you were elected U.S. Senator and was extremely proud that my state -- Massachusetts -- elected the first black U.S. Senator since Reconstruction. I had the pleasure of voting for you as well when I came of age.

My question is simple -- it was tremendously difficult to be elected as a black in any state including Massachusetts yet you were able to to be elected as Attorney General and U.S. Senator. This was more incredible in that your marriage was biracial. Would comment on how difficult it was then and also how it would be in today's world. Thank you for your service!

Edward Brooke: As to my biracial marriage, I married a woman I met in the waning days of my stay in Italy in WWII. The war had ended and I was in the staging area preparing to go to the far east and Japan, before Hiroshima. We corresponded and eventually she came to America and we were married for 30 years. Unfortunately it was not the marriage she wanted or that I had wanted for myself. We had good days and bad days, she was a wonderful woman, but our marriage came to an end in divorce in 1978, which was very painful as all divorces are. My daughters got involved in it unfortunately but all that has been cleared up. Unfortunately she has passed on, but I've reconciled with my daughters and their grandchildren.

The interracial part of my marriage was never much of a problem. It was used in campaigns against me but I think most thinking people were not deterred by that -- you marry who you love.

I went on after that divorce and married a lovely woman from Saint Martin in the Caribbean and we've had a wonderful marriage for 30 years and I'm very proud of the life we've had and of our son. I have not experienced racial discrimination about either of my marriages and I'm a happy man. All I can say is that it shouldn't be an issue in a political campaign, nor should my divorce have been an issue -- it had nothing to do with my service to the nation. I'm sure it contributed to my defeat in 1978. That's my story and I do discuss it in detail in my book.

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Holmdel, N.J.: Why is Sen. Brooke portraying himself as "the first black man popularly elected to the U.S. Senate" when the U.S. Congress Biographical Directory shows that the first black elected Senator was Hiram Revels in 1870?

Edward Brooke: I don't portray myself as anything. There were two blacks elected to the Senate during the days of Reconstruction. The first was Hiram Revels in 1870 and he served a year and left in 1871. He had a very difficult time being seated and all sorts of problems history has reported. The second was Blanche Kelso Bruce in 1875 and he served a full term. Both were elected by carpetbagger Mississippi legislatures -- back then senators were not elected by popular vote. I was the first elected by popular vote -- that's history, historians have said that, not Edward Brooke. Those are the facts.

It took almost 100 years after Bruce's term before I was elected in 1966 as the first black elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote. A few years after that Carol Mosely Braun and then Barack Obama. So only five blacks have served in the history of the Senate, which is tragic, somewhat unconscionable really. When I went to the Senate I was aware that Senators Revels and Bruce and been elected but not by popular vote -- they couldn't have been, didn't exist at that time -- but we've never had more than one black in the U.S. Senate at any one time.

When I went to the Senate also there was only one woman, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. There's been some progress among women in the Senate -- you now have 14 ladies serving in the United States Senate. That still does not reflect the population, but at least they've made some progress, and I'm really happy about them. We've made some progress in this country, but I'm dismayed when you look at the African-American experience -- there's been no progress at all. Sorry to see the fact that we've only had one black Senator -- we did have two running this year, Mr. Steele in Maryland and Mr. Ford in Tennessee, both of whom made great runs. We haven't had a lot of candidates, possibly because they feel they can't be elected or raise the money needed, and I think the country has lost because of that. I hope the Senate will someday more closely reflect the population of the United States than it does now.

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Clinton, N.C.: Sen. Brooks, in light of his lack of experience in many aspects of politics, do you think that Sen. Obama has a chance of winning the presidency or should he wait and consider running again in 2012?

Edward Brooke: I said I don't want to presume to offer any advice or counsel to Sen. Obama. He's obviously academically experienced and qualified. I think his resume is sort of golden in what he's been able to accomplish as a student at Harvard Law School and in the Justice Department. My thoughts about running for president -- I harbored the idea myself at one time, and there were times my name was mentioned for it. The Senator has only been in the Senate for two years but he also has experience in Illinois and I hear he served with distinction. Sometimes you strike when the iron is hot -- I think he's looking at this very closely and seeing what the problems would be in 2012 as opposed to 2008. There's a vacancy in 2008 and that in itself provides an opportunity and that's why I think you're seeing so many candidates -- some of them are thinking "now or never." I don't think it's going to be a handicap for him -- he certainly handles himself well, starting with his speech at the Democratic National Convention. Certainly gets a lot of media attention and I understand he's going to announce as early as two days from now. He certainly has better qualifications than a lot of candidates who run for president or even have been elected to the presidency.

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Lyme, Conn.: I remember arguing the Nixon should have selected you to be his running mate in 1972. As Nixon had the ability to go to China without drawing the great criticism from conservatives, I believe Nixon could have done much to bridge the racial divide had he made more of an effort and worked with you on this. What do you think you might have been able to achieve as Vice President and how well do you believe the nation would have taken to a Nixon-Brooke ticket?

Edward Brooke: Well there were polls taken showing what a Nixon-Brooke ticket had, and it was a favorable poll, as was a poll taken with a George Romney-Brooke ticket, and there was a Ford-Brooke ticket. I didn't take it that seriously at that time in the history of the country. I would much rather have run for president than been on any ticket as a VP. I'm sort of a maverick and independent and the VP of course is sort of an extension of the president -- if you disagree with him you shouldn't be there. I thought about it at the time and I don't think it would have been a handicap and in some polls said it would have been a winning combination. But that's conjecture. I don't think it will be too long, I think soon Americans will look closely at black candidates and a black man or woman will be able to be elected as President of the United States, with the proper qualifications. I think you're going to get good people of all races running for the highest elected offices in this country and in the world.

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Louisburg, N.C.: Senator Brooke: You are a hero from my early days in the civil rights movement. Forty years ago this year I was Operations Manager for the Carl Stokes Campaign in Cleveland and was active in Alabama and Georgia (Maynard Jackson). We never dreamed in those days that in forty years there would be a very viable African-American candidate for President. Black folks still were sitting in the back of the bus and much worse. Last weekend I sat and watched a high school wrestling tournament; young black men were wrestling young white girls and no one thought much about it at all. I thought back forty years and realized that yes, things have changed -- not yet what it should be and hopefully not what it will be, but by gosh, not what it use to be! Free at last? Not quite, but a heck of a lot closer!

Edward Brooke: I concur with everything that the writer has said. I think that's exactly the way it is. I wouldn't add anything to it and I certainly wouldn't subtract anything from it.

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Loudoun County, Va.: Good day Sen. Brooke. I was wondering whether you had any particular recollections or memories of President Lyndon Johnson that you might share. Thank you.

Edward Brooke: Yes, I served under President Lyndon Johnson. I was not in the Senate when he was majority leader, but I got to know him a little bit when he was VP and of course when he was president himself. He did more for civil rights than any president in my recollection, certainly in my lifetime and probably more than anyone before or since. I have some disagreement with Johnson on the war in Vietnam, but a lot on his refusal to back the recommendations of the Kerner Commission, which I was appointed to. He refused to give support to the recommendations of the commission. We found out America was two societies, one black and one white, and made all kinds of substantive recommendations -- had he endorsed those I think we would have been further along our road to progress in racial relations in this country. He was a pragmatic politician and he didn't think he could get the legislation through the southern Democrats in the Congress at that time. I think that's why he sort steered clear of the Kerner Commission, which he created and appointed.

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you for joining us Senator. As a member of "The Greatest Generation" you served in WWII. You have experienced war directly and you had a front seat as Congress struggled with issues related to the Vietnam War. I'm curious to know what your thoughts are about our actions in Iraq today, and whether you have thought about what your vote would have been on the Iraq War Resolution in 2002.

Edward Brooke: Well, you're very kind and I've heard it many times that we are members of "The Greatest Generation". The war in which I served has been called "The Good War". In my opinion there are no good wars -- they're horrible for those who fight them and for those who live through them, and World War II was no exception. But wars sometimes are necessary -- WWII was necessary. Hitler was a tyrant, taking over countries in Europe, incarcerating and killing Jews -- there were so many atrocities he was responsible for -- and he had to be stopped. I think we should have been in it even earlier than we were.

There have been several wars I've lived through since then -- Korea, Desert Storm and most recently now Iraq. I think Iraq was an unnecessary war, a colossal mistake. I think we relied on flawed intelligence. I obviously don't think anyone did it purposefully, but as my father always said, the quality of a man's judgment is as good as the quality of his information. Obviously the president did not have good information. I had three questions about it -- how did we get there, what are we doing there and how are we going to get out of there? Young Americans in a volunteer army -- it's not a draft, it's not an inequitable way of choosing, but at any rate -- are there. I think the administration admits now that it made a mistake, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that they should have listened. They didn't want to give the U.N. 30 days more to look for weapons -- I think they had already made a decision.

I think it was a preventative war, not a pre-emptive war -- the difference being that a pre-emptive war would be based on sure information that an enemy was about to attack you. A preventative war is based on an enemy's disagreeable policies and the faint suspicion that a country might be plotting against you. I think there was an abdication of responsibility by the United States Senate -- there was no real debate on Iraq, no one really took the floor to stand up and question. They were worried that to question this decision would be unpatriotic and thus unwise politically; they were thinking more of themselves than the country and peace in the world. They've been trying unsuccessfully since then to make amends for it. No one seems to know what an exit strategy is or should be. No one seems to know what the situation actually is in Iraq. We don't know the reliability of the Iraqi troops or government. We're second-guessing all the time. With the escalation of the insurgency and the battle going on there, it's inhumane really the number of Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers and British soldiers and other countries' soldiers have died. Of all the reasons offered -- spreading freedom, etc. -- none justify our presence in Iraq. I worry about it and pray about it as I believe everyone does and I hope the God over us all gives leadership the strength to make the right decisions and take the right actions. God knows when all of this will end, but I hope it will end soon.

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Edward Brooke: I, like all Americans, want a strong America. But I want a just America, a fair America, an America that recognizes that there is diversity in the world and that we've got to understand that diversity, the different religions, the necessity for helping each other do the things that cry out for solution and bring about the more just use of our great resources in this country. We've got so many issues there that we need to address and all these things are being put on the back burner if not totally ignored. We've still got the problem of corruption at every level of government and in corporations. We need an honest and fair tax code. We need to protect our planet and take immediate action to prevent permanent damage from global warming. We need the enfranchisement of Washington, D.C. -- I've been crying out for that for years. And we sorely need decent, safe and affordable housing for all Americans in keeping with promises made by Congress, and a built-in cost-of-living increase in the minimum wage so that we don't have to go through this year after year -- a more equitable and humane distribution of our wealth.

We can do that and maintain a strong nation that can defend itself from aggression and be helpful to its friends and allies. Some people think it's a show of weakness when we don't use our military might and strength -- we have it, we know we have it, they know we havit and can use it -- you can use diplomacy, and war should be a last resort. Give diplomacy an opportunity, a chance to work. If we were in diplomatic conversations with Syria and Iran and North Korea -- our three percieved enemies at the present time, I think we would have a better chance for peace in that region. If we were in constant talks in Lebanon and Israel to stop the horrible bombings and suicide bombings by people fighting with everything they have, as they don't have conventional weapons -- we've got to bring that to an end. I don't think we're doing as much as we should do in the field of diplomacy. It has worked for us in the past and it will work for us in the future.

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