- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007


By Edward W. Brooke

Rutgers University Press, $29.95, 320 pages


Long before Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, came on the national stage, the path for African Americans to Congress’ upper chamber was paved by an often-forgotten lawmaker, and a Republican one at that.

Sen. Edward W. Brooke, Massachusetts Republican and the first black senator since Reconstruction, had a distinguished legislative record that included achievements on civil rights, housing and health care. His 12 years of service were not, however, long enough to give him sufficient accomplishments to catapult him into the pantheon of senatorial superstars.

Nevertheless, his life as a political counterpart to Jackie Robinson is worth reviewing, as a case study of both a successful politician and the evolution of the modern-day Republican Party. Also, his experiences have given him many good war stories.

All those components make Mr. Brooke’s just-published memoir, “Bridging the Divide,” a work that will be of interest to political history buffs and those interested in the progress of racial relations. Unfortunately, both his long absence from the political stage (he left the Senate in 1979 after losing his bid for a third term) and uninspiring writing style make it unlikely that the book will have broader appeal.

Mr. Brooke, who grew up as the son of a government lawyer in Washington, D.C., paints a vivid portrait of the city during the early 20th century and its sharp racial divide. “I was taught in school that America was a melting pot, unique in world history, but we never saw the amalgamation that implied. All we knew was that there were white people and colored people, in our city and in our land, but we never met on common ground,’ he recalled.

Like many black families in the pre-Great Depression era, the Brookes were Republicans and were attracted to the party’s emphasis on self reliance. This philosophy stayed with him throughout his life, though he always supported an activist government in the area of civil rights policy. He forged cordial relations with some civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King and Ambassador Andrew Young but always had strained relations with the more radical black activists.

Mr. Brooke spends part of his book criticizing the Republican Party for its tin ear when it comes to reaching out to blacks. He never considered leaving the party and became a strong critic from within, rather than a bomb thrower.

His temperament is apparent throughout his memoir. He states his opinions strongly, but never allows the book to become a diatribe. That caution, and the tenor of the times in which he served, were among the factors that prevented him from rising higher in politics and running for president. His sometimes messy personal life, including a nasty divorce and some questionable investments, didn’t help either.

Although he is best known for his Senate career, some of the most interesting parts of this book center on his early days in politics. Mr. Brooke moved to Boston to attend law school at Boston University and stayed in the city after earning his law degree. While setting up his own law practice — no major firm would hire a black man in the 1950s — he became active in local affairs. He lost three elections, two for state representative and one for secretary of state, before winning a 1962 race for attorney general.

To win the Republican nod that year, he had to defeat another rising star, the quintessential Boston Brahman Elliot Richardson, who would go on to serve in the Cabinets of two presidents. “They seemed to think they could throw me a few crumbs,’ Mr. Brooke recalled when describing how party leaders discouraged him from making that race and running for lieutenant governor instead.

During his four years as attorney general, Mr. Brooke prosecuted the rampant political corruption in the Bay State and helped solve the case of the Boston Strangler. He also planted the seeds for his successful Senate race two years later. Though Republicans were the minority party throughout his 12 years in Congress, Mr. Brooke was not relegated to the sidelines. One wishes he had told more behind-the-scenes stories from those years.

Despite that flaw, one comes away from the book thinking that his has been a life well lived and worth more than the historical footnote to which it is likely to be relegated.

Claude R. Marxis a political columnist for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass., and author of a chapter on media and politics in the forthcoming book “The Sixth-Year Itch,” edited by Larry Sabato.

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