Ed Brooke’s lasting gift
Shortly before Christmas 1974, Ed Brooke found himself in anguish over the turmoil wrought that fall by the school busing battle raging in Boston.
He was hardly alone, of course, but it had to be especially painful for a man whose entire political persona was based on the belief that race didn’t have to matter. He was a moderate Republican, but there was little moderation to be found in the streets. So he did what his civilized manner dictated: he appealed to our better angels. He did this in a letter to his fellow Bostonians, which was published in the Globe on Dec. 26, 1974.
He noted that Christmas was traditionally a time of peace and joy — lamenting the absence of both: “For this holiday season finds our proud city imbued with anguish, bitterness, and divisiveness. It finds our children scared and abused. It finds our neighborhoods seared with fear and hate. It finds what should be wonderful days of peace and good will reduced to but a brief respite between storms. All of us should be ashamed.”
He insisted that Boston did not really want a segregated school system, and that protesters had been manipulated by “misguided politicians.”
“I would hope that we can put aside our differences and recommit our energies to ensuring that each and every one of our children is as prepared as possible for a rewarding life in our democratic society. For at stake is peace, our honor, and above all the education, safety, and lives of our children.”
Brooke, who died Saturday at the age of 95, was a singular figure. He was the first popularly elected black senator in American history, winning in 1966. His victory capped an unlikely but determined rise to power.
They truly don’t make them like Ed Brooke anymore. He was a transplant from Washington, D.C., who became more of a Yankee than those born here. Well-spoken and endlessly conciliatory, he was proud to claim friends on both sides of the political aisle. At a time when the country was exploding over unresolved racial tension, he was a man who didn’t see why we couldn’t get along. He assured the public, repeatedly, that he laid no claim to being a civil rights leader. He was, as he saw it, a man for all Massachusetts.
He climbed the political ladder by fits and starts. He lost his early races. His big break was being appointed to run the Boston Finance Commission, in the days when the FinCom mattered. His success in pursuing political corruption paved the way for him to get elected attorney general in 1962 — the first black AG of this state, or any other. He won his Senate race with breathtaking ease.
By his own account, he loved Washington, and he had admirers there. Richard Nixon offered him three Cabinet posts. But maintaining his perfect image must have chafed after a while. He had an affair with Barbara Walters, according to her memoir, and flirted with Elizabeth Taylor. His career unraveled in the late 1970s amid a string of miniscandals, including a decidedly nasty divorce from his wife of many years. In 1978, he was unseated by Paul Tsongas, a defeat he never understood or forgave.
In retirement he retreated from Boston, which was too bad. He was far too gracious to admit to bitterness, but he never denied that losing brought deep and lasting pain.
Irish pols, like James Michael Curley, could be lovable rogues. That path was not available to Brooke. He was the Sidney Poitier of Massachusetts politics: a pillar of rectitude, an exception, a man voters could feel proud to cheer on. Once he turned mortal, he was toast.
The magnitude of Brooke’s success only became more apparent with time; it would be a generation before another black candidate, Deval Patrick, was elected to a major statewide office. Brooke’s legacy to Massachusetts was to enlarge our collective sense of possibility. It was a gift that survives him.