If only we didn't have to look into the past to find leadership.
Disgusted by the pornographic presidential primary, repulsed by the filth pit of modern American politics, I recently took solace in the autobiography of a man who represented an older, more noble tradition of public service, a man whose very essence signified statesmanship, a man who blazed too many trails and broke too many barriers to count.
That man was Edward W. Brooke III, who became the first African American elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate in 1966. His 2007 book, Bridging the Divide: My Life, is a heartbreaking work, largely because it represents an era of political decency that may never return to American life.
Brooke was born in segregated Washington, D.C., in 1919, the grandson of a slave. His parents did the best they could to shield him from explicit racism, and convinced him that there was nothing he couldn't achieve with hard work. Brooke graduated from the acclaimed Dunbar High School and Howard University before serving in the Army during World War II. He was horrified by the unrelenting racism of the military:
In the army I felt racial discrimination more keenly than ever before. I could not ignore that our government's policy endorsed blatant inequities in the treatment of black and white soldiers. The segregation was total. The whites had their part of the post, and we had ours. Their facilities were far superior....In every regard, we were treated as second-class soldiers, if not worse, and we were angry. I felt a personal frustration and bitterness I had not known before in my life.
Despite the blistering bigotry of the age, Brooke served with honor; during his service in Italy, he would meet Remigia Ferrari-Scacco, who would later become his wife. After the war, Brooke moved to Massachusetts, attended Boston University Law School on the GI Bill, and started a private practice after failing to receive any job offers from Boston's most prestigious firms. A growing civic awareness led the charismatic lawyer to consider public service. Although Boston was dominated by Democrats, Brooke found himself drawn to the Republican Party:
My parents were Republicans, and I had always admired the party of Lincoln and the Republican virtues of duty and self-help...I agreed with Abraham Lincoln that 'government should do for people only that which they cannot do for themselves.' At the same time, I realized that there were a number of things people could not do for themselves and that government must do for them.
Aligning himself with the moderate wing of the GOP, Brooke ran unsuccessfully for state representative and secretary of state before making history in 1962 as the first African American to be elected Attorney General in the U.S. President Kennedy declared his win "the biggest news in the country."
Four years later, Brooke again made history with his Senate victory. He drew notice for his efforts to push back against what he regarded as the GOP's increasingly reactionary tenor. He had refused to endorse Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, finding the extremism of his supporters to be a vice:
To me, theirs was a pseudoconservatism, sharply at odds with our party's honored past. Their racial views would have appalled Abraham Lincoln. Their contempt for our environment would have disgusted Theodore Roosevelt. Their blind hatred of every federal program was a slap at every veteran who had used the GI Bill to go to college or buy a house.
Brooke's conscience led him to strongly support fair housing and women's rights; he also vigorously opposed President Nixon's efforts to curry favor with Southern segregationists. He won re-election in 1972, even as Massachusetts rejected Nixon. He continued to fight for the rights of disadvantaged Americans, but bitter divorce proceedings and a strong primary challenge weakened his chances to secure a third term in 1978; he ultimately lost his Senate seat to the late Paul Tsongas.
Brooke's achievements were not forgotten; in 2004, President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom despite his criticism of the Iraq War. (President Obama would award Brooke the Congressional Gold Medal two years after the book's publication.) Brooke continued to fight for a more rational Republican Party, summarizing his views in an August 2004 op-ed for the New York Times that called on the GOP to be intolerant of intolerance.
As I read this magnificent book, I found myself regretting my youth, wishing that I had been born 40 years earlier so that I could have voted for this man in his trailblazing contests. Had I been alive then, I would have had the opportunity to vote for a real leader -- something I've never had a chance to do.
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