Path breaker, but no trendsetter

the election of a charismatic African-American to statewide office continues to raise eyebrows in many places, most especially here in Massachusetts. Deval Patrick’s march to the Corner Office drew national attention last year, and rightly so, as he won the governorship of a state where just 30 years ago, state troopers in riot gear were escorting black kids through the metal detectors at Charlestown High.

Patrick’s victory has been hailed as a sign that Massachusetts has, in some fundamental way, changed—that the Commonwealth’s painful history of racial strife has given way to a new era, one in which an accomplished black man could be elected governor after a campaign in which neither he nor his opponents made more than passing mention of his race.

That’s a consummation devoutly to be wished, and Patrick’s resolutely positive approach offers the hope of a real change in the state’s political culture. But even as he looks to the future, the new governor might want to glance back at the past as well—at another charismatic African-American politician whose arrival seemed to herald a new era in state politics, one that never quite came to pass.

Few Americans have lived a life as full as Ed Brooke’s. The former senator, now 87 years old, saw combat in World War II and came home to fight his own political wars in Massachusetts and Washington. He has been at turns a crusading reformer, an icon of the civil-rights and anti-war movements, the subject of withering personal scandal, and, in his ninth decade, a cancer survivor.

Late in the winter of his years, Ed Brooke has finally set down the story of that full life. In Bridging the Divide: My Life, Brooke recounts, in unadorned prose, the details of a most extraordinary career.

As Massachusetts attorney general, US senator, and high-powered lawyer-lobbyist, Brooke was a player in most of the dramas that defined American politics, from Kennedy through Reagan. He was a major figure in the crusade for civil rights, a cautious critic of the Vietnam War, and an outspoken proponent of abortion rights. He served on the Kerner Commission on race relations, and years later on the panel that recommended reparations for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. After leaving office he would eventually be investigated (and exonerated) during the years-long probe of influence peddling at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

At times Brooke’s life story has an almost Zelig-like quality, with famous names popping their heads in and out for cameo appearances. In the early ’60s, for instance, Brooke bumped up against Albert DeSalvo while investigating the Boston Strangler case; years later he happened to be the commencement speaker at Wellesley College, getting the chance to be lambasted by a student orator who would go on to be known as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Brooke’s personal life was often chaotic. The very public dissolution of his first marriage, amid charges of financial misdealing and bitter denunciations by Brooke’s wife and daughters, played a key role in his 1978 defeat at the hands of an obscure congressman from Lowell named Paul Tsongas.

But Brooke found personal redemption in his later years. A second marriage brought him decades of happiness and a son. He enjoyed years of financial success, saw the New Chardon Street courthouse in Boston named in his honor, and achieved reconciliation with his daughters. Then, in his mid 80s, Brooke was diagnosed with male breast cancer, a condition that disproportionately affects African-American men.

Through it all Brooke has been the consummate survivor, overcoming the setbacks and always moving doggedly ahead. His writing reflects that resolutely moderate personal style. Bridging the Divide is a straightforward chronicle of events, presented in lawyerly prose. There are few rhetorical flourishes and little analysis of broad historical trends. If the reader sometimes yearns for something more, some personal introspection or an effort to connect the dots in a broad and sprawling life—well, that’s evidently not a book that Ed Brooke wanted to write.

four decades ago, Edward William Brooke III seemed to be the embodiment of the American Dream. Grandson of a slave, he was born to a middle-class family in Washington, DC. After college he shipped out and fought the Good War in Europe, brought home an Italian war bride, moved to Boston and went to law school on the GI Bill, and built a modest law practice. Like many other veterans he was drawn to politics—following his father’s footsteps he became a Republican, honoring the party of Lincoln—and soon found himself running and losing a couple of races for state representative.

But Brooke persevered. He lost again in 1960, when a young Kevin White beat him for Secretary of State, but in 1962 he won election as attorney general—the first African-American to win statewide office in the Bay State, and the first in the nation to be elected attorney general.

Brooke had run as a reformer, but he was no political naïf. Blessed with a shrewd sense of self-promotion, he spearheaded the investigation into the Boston Common parking garage scandal, and grabbed still more headlines by taking over the investigation of the Boston Strangler murders. Brooke was reelected easily in 1964 and then, in 1966, he won a landmark race for the US Senate, becoming the first black senator since Reconstruction.

In the Senate Brooke was a media star, the nation’s most prominent black office-holder at the height of the civil-rights movement. He was also one of the last of the Rockefeller Republicans, an outspoken social liberal whose positions on abortion, affirmative action, and a host of other issues put him squarely at odds with the emerging conservative leadership of his own party.

These days he is no fan of the current Republican administration, at least so far as its foreign policy goes. While his words are, as ever, courtly and measured, his condemnation of the Iraq war, in Bridging the Divide, is unmistakable: “I fear that those who gave us today’s war did not learn the lesson of yesterday’s…. Do we want to ‘stay the course’ when the course is legally and morally wrong?”

Brooke prospered as a ‘member of the club.’

In the final analysis, Brooke seems never to have been fully comfortable with the party he chose: “I have always been puzzled by the Republican candidates who approach politics as a ‘duty,’” he writes. “There was then, and perhaps still is, an overlay of grimness in Republican politics that scares away potential supporters.”

For all that, though, Brooke never considered leaving the GOP. That, after all, would be a radical step—and if his career proves one thing, it is that Ed Brooke is no radical.

brooke was always conscious of his position, both personally and politically. His public image was one of old-school decorum: A fastidious dresser himself, he insisted on a dress code for his staff that, among other things, forbade women from wearing slacks. On a substantive level, he understood that his success could help pave the way for a future generation of African-American candidates: “I also knew that if I was nominated and elected, it would encourage other African Americans to seek state and national offices and not restrict themselves to local elections or to predominantly black constituencies.”

And yet, at least in his adopted home state, Brooke’s political success did not spawn a new generation of black candidates for major posts. It took four decades for another African-American to win statewide office here, and Deval Patrick’s election owes more to the legacy of Bill Clinton than to the legacy of Ed Brooke.

In the final analysis, Brooke’s impact on Massachusetts politics has been less than people might have expected when he first headed to the Senate, 40 years ago. Partly that’s because the political landscape changed so dramatically. As Massachusetts became virtually a one-party state, and as national Republicans embarked on a Southern Strategy that essentially wrote off the black vote, there was little room for future Ed Brookes to make their way.

But it’s also a reflection of the man himself. Brooke, throughout his extraordinary career, has been a creature of the middle, a canny moderate schooled in the art of compromise and conciliation. As a senator he wielded his greatest influence in conference committees, where negotiation and deal-making are the order of the day. Brooke prospered in the Senate because he could, in the end, blend in and become a “member of the club,” as he titled the chapter on his first years in that most exclusive body.

Meet the Author
The ability to fit in made Brooke an effective senator, but not an inspirational national figure. Members of the club may, as Ed Brooke has done, live full lives and claim a significant place in history. But they cannot change the political culture that created them. In the end, Ed Brooke helped bridge the divide between two worlds, but he could not lead a new generation across to the other side.

Francis J. Connolly is a senior analyst at Kiley & Co., a public opinion research firm in Boston.