Edward Brooke dies at 95; Republican Senator from Massachusetts

Edward Brooke, who has died at 95, was the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote

Edward Brooke, the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote and the first Republican senator to call for the resignation of President Nixon over the Watergate scandal, died Saturday at his home in Coral Gables, Fla. He was 95.

He died from natural causes, said his former legislative aid, Ralph Neas.

Upon winning the Senate election in Massachusetts in 1966, he became the first black member of that legislative body since Hiram Revels and Blanche Kelso Bruce were sent to Washington during the post Civil War Reconstruction-era by a "carpetbag" Mississippi Legislature.

Brooke achieved a number of social firsts in the Senate, including the integration of its swimming pool and barbershop. To this day only four other black senators have been popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, one of them being Barack Obama.

It was an era of moderation when Brooke entered the Senate. He joined a small band of liberal Republicans, when centrist voices like Jacob Javits of New York, Charles Percy of Illinois and Mark Hatfield of Oregon influenced political debate. Brooke supported housing and other anti-poverty programs, advocated for a stronger Social Security and for an increased minimum wage, and promoted commuter rail and mass transit.

He also bedeviled the Nixon White House, criticizing the administration for adopting a "Southern strategy" of wooing Southern whites by not enforcing civil rights laws. He also sponsored a resolution calling for an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam and opposed three of the president's conservative nominees to the Supreme Court.

In November 1973, in the midst of the Watergate crisis, Brooke called for the president to step down. "President Nixon has lost his effectiveness as the leader of this country, primarily because he has lost the confidence of the people," Brooke said. Nixon resigned the following August.

Brooke lost his reelection bid in 1978 to Democrat Paul Tsongas after admitting he made "misstatements" under oath about his personal finances during a divorce proceeding.

Four months after his loss, the Senate Ethics Committee issued a statement saying that although Brooke had engaged in "improper conduct" under the Senate's financial disclosure rules, his violations did not merit disciplinary action.

Brooke retired to a 152-acre farm in Warrenton, Va., raising cattle and growing hay. He had two daughters from his first marriage and then had a son with his second wife, Anne Fleming.

When the boy — Edward William Brooke IV — was 9, his father said in an interview, "I'm 70 now, and having a boy that age will keep me young or kill me in the process."

Edward William Brooke III was born Oct. 26, 1919, and reared in Washington, D.C. His mother fed her son's love of opera by taking him to hear performances in New York.

After graduating from Dunbar High School in Washington, he enrolled at Howard University in pre-med, later switching to social studies with a focus on political science and history. He trained in the ROTC program in college, and upon graduating in 1941 he entered the Army, serving in combat in World War II with a segregated unit in Italy.

After the war he enrolled in Boston University Law School and opened his first practice in the suburb of Roxbury.

He first threw his hat into the political arena in 1950 when he ran for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. By a quirk of state law, he was able to file nomination papers in both parties — leaving it to voters to decide his partisan label. He lost in the Democratic primary, won in the Republican one and charted his course with the GOP from then on.

Though popular GOP presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower rode with him across the district, Brooke lost in the general election, and then again two years later.

Returning to his law practice, he did not run for office again until 1960, this time trying for secretary of state. He lost again, but only by 12,000 votes out of 2 million cast, positioning himself as a proven vote-getter at the state level.

Finally, in 1962, when no other Republican won statewide office, Brooke was elected the state's first black attorney general. On election night, President Kennedy — a native of Massachusetts and the first Catholic to serve as president — proclaimed it "the biggest news in the country."

In Brooke's memoirs, "Bridging the Divide: My Life," he wrote, "My campaign confirmed my belief that although there are bigots in America, whose hateful rhetoric seizes the media's attention, the vast majority of people do not harbor such prejudice."

Two years later, Brooke was reelected with a plurality of almost 800,000 votes, a record for a Republican in Massachusetts.

His steady ascendance riled competitors, including Republican Gov. John A. Volpe, who on learning of his plans to run for the Senate asked, "Ed, why the rush? Why are you in such a hurry?"

Brooke was not so much in a hurry as he was shrewd in seeing opportunities. "Politics is not a tea party," he wrote years later. "When it is time to act, you have to move fast and decisively."

After his time in the Senate, he didn't leave public service entirely. In 1980 he was appointed to a nine-member federal commission charged with reviewing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The commission's historic report found there had been "no direct military necessity" for the detention, and it recommended the issuing of a public apology and financial redress.

Brooke went public in 2003 with the fact that he had breast cancer, one of about 1,500 men diagnosed with the disease every year, saying, "It was worth invading my own privacy," to bring public awareness to the fact that males can get the disease.

He remained popular in Massachusetts, and in 2000, friends lobbied to have the New Chardon Street Courthouse in Boston named for him, making it the first courthouse in the state named for an African American.

In 2004, despite Brooke's fierce criticism of the White House and its war in Iraq, President George W. Bush presented him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And in 2009 Brooke received the Congressional Gold Medal the highest honor that Congress can bestow. In his presentation, President Obama praised Brooke for "breaking barriers and bridging divides."

In addition to his wife, Anne, and son, Edward, he is survived by daughters Remi Goldstone and Edwina Petit; stepdaughter Melanie Laflamme; and four grandchildren.

Neuman is a former Times staff writer.

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