If there were a top 10 list of civil rights pioneers, former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke (R) would unquestionably be among them.
Today, in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, Congress will award the Congressional Gold Medal to the first African-American Senator elected by popular vote, a legislator best remembered for defending the constitutional rights of all people. President Barack Obama is also scheduled to deliver remarks.
“He was the quintessential coalition builder. And when you think about it, someone who was African-American, Episcopalian and Republican in an overwhelmingly white, Catholic state had to be a coalition builder,— said Ralph Neas, Brooke’s former chief legislative assistant.
The bill to award Brooke, 90, with the Congressional Gold Medal was authored by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and was passed with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
A statement from Norton’s office explains: “Although he served as Senator of Massachusetts, he worked vigilantly for his hometown throughout his service. He called his Republican and Democrat friends in the Senate seeking support for full representation for his native town.—
Brooke, a native Washingtonian, served first as Massachusetts attorney general, when he filed legal briefs in support of landmark civil rights legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1966, and he grew to epitomize bipartisan lawmaking in the chamber. During the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, he led a coalition of liberal Republicans and northern Democrats to pass landmark civil rights legislation. He would go on to co-author the Fair Housing Act with then-Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.). And he introduced and passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which leveled the playing field for women seeking access to credit and loans.
“He was the go-to person in the Senate on issues of civil rights,— Neas said. “Even during the most acrimonious days of Watergate and Vietnam, the Senate was a place where civility was always in order. Moderate Republicans and Democrats committed to social justice made the Senate a great place to work.—
Perhaps the most strident example of Brooke’s fierce independence was his handling of President Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate. He was one of the first Republicans to call for Nixon’s resignation, despite the partisan calculation. Then, when Nixon actually stepped down, Brooke weighed the cost of prolonged criminal proceedings and decided that if Nixon would apologize, President Gerald Ford should pardon him.
Neas recalled Brooke’s internal monologue over Watergate, saying that Brooke realized that “President Nixon’s continuance in office would be divisive and would hurt the country. ... [But] if there’s not a pardon, that would also result in more divisiveness and it would also hurt the country. I remember it so vividly because we discuss putting in the statement a paragraph of how [Nixon] should admit what he had done.—
Brooke introduced a Senate resolution to this effect, calling for a pardon if Nixon would admit guilt and apologize. His resolution became moot when Ford issued the pardon anyway without any mea culpa from Nixon.
“He thought it was very wrong to give a pardon without an admission of guilt,— Neas recalled. “He was disappointed that the second half of what he requested did not happen.—
“It took so much courage to do that,— Neas said. “That’s the person I knew on a day-to-day basis. That’s the person who taught me the legislative process, the players, the substance.—
Brooke could not be reached for comment by press time. The ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. in the Capitol Rotunda.
Byron C. Tau contributed to this report.