As the national press reported the death Saturday of Edward Brooke at age 95, news was dominated by recollections of the Massachusetts Republican’s unique niche as the first black senator since Reconstruction.
Defeated for re-election in 1978, Brooke was the last black senator until Democrat Carol Moseley Braun was elected to the Senate from Illinois in 1992. Her seat was later won in 2004 by fellow Democrat Barack Obama, making him the third of seven black senators since Reconstruction.
What is less reported is that Brooke, very much like Obama, was boomed for a spot on his party’s national ticket even before arriving in the Senate.
When he won his first term as senator in 1966 against Democrat and former Gov. Endicott Peabody, Brooke was already a national figure. After losing bids for the state legislature and secretary of state, the Bronze Star winner and Boston attorney in 1962 became the first black to be elected attorney general of any state.
Four years later, Brooke was widely known for his adherence to justice ("I would much rather prevent a man from committing a crime than punish him for it afterwards") and his role in capturing "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo.
In the "Boston Strangler" movie starring Tony Curtis, Brooke was portrayed by William Marshall, the famed stage actor who later played the vampire "Blacula."
Republicans took pains to secure the nomination and election to the Senate for their "superstar" candidate Brooke. Amid rumors that he would face a primary challenge, Republican National Chairman Ray Bliss that if the first black since Reconstruction with a chance to be elected to the Senate had to be beaten, it would be better for the Republicans to let a Democrat do it.
Like Gov. George Romney of Michigan, liberal Republican Brooke refused to support Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 because of the Republican nominee’s vote against the Civil Rights Act.
But in 1966, Goldwater sent a $100 check to Brooke, leading the Senate hopeful to say: "I only hope I would be as big under the circumstances."
As they would with Obama after his election to the Senate, political pundits began discussing Brooke for a spot on his party’s national ticket by frequently noting that his ethnicity was not threatening to white voters. Using the term "Negro" that was in as wide use then as "black" and "African-American" is today, authors Stephen Hess and David Broder wrote in their epic 1967 book "The Republican Establishment" of Brooke: "He is really not a Negro politician at all but a Negro in politics. For his race is in no way his political determinant."
Because he was from Massachusetts, Brooke’s liberal stands, such as his support for fair housing, were accepted by party conservatives — "stands that they would not readily accept if they had been taken by a white candidate," Richard Fleming, a former research director of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, told Hess and Broder.
Brooke also took some stands that particularly delighted conservatives. As a Senate candidate in 1966, he denounced "extremists of black power and white power," singling out black militant Stokely Carmichael and Georgia’s segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox.
After a trip to Vietnam in 1967, Sen. Brooke announced he had changed his mind on bombing North Vietnam and "reluctantly conclude that the general direction of our present military efforts in Vietnam is necessary."
This statement made headlines because it came as Martin Luther King had embraced the anti-war movement and called on the U.S. to "stop the bombing."
As future pundits would write of Obama having little in common with the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Hess and Broder wrote that Brooke "has as little in common with [controversial and flamboyant black New York Rep.] Adam Clayton Powell as John F. Kennedy had with [roguish Irish-American Boston Mayor] James Michael Curley."
Hess and Broder noted that "Brooke’s nomination [for vice president] would be the best proof a Nixon or a Reagan could offer that his conservatism is untainted by any appeal to racial prejudice or 'backlash.'
"But Brooke’s trump as a potential running mate for Romney is that his selection would be the most dramatic step the Michigan governor could take to prove his total commitment to equal rights, despite the second-class station of Negroes within his Mormon Church [which Romney and other Mormons successfully fought to change]."
But it was not to be in 1968. Richard Nixon chose Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew as his running mate and they went on to win in November.
As the Republican Party became increasingly conservative, talk of Brooke for president or vice president faded. His unabashed support of abortion, particularly, cost him good will on the right and, in 1978, he barely survived a primary challenge from conservative broadcaster Avi Nelson. That fall, Brooke was beaten by Democratic Rep. Paul Tsongas.
Among today’s black Republicans, Herman Cain was a serious candidate for the presidential nod in 2012 and Dr. Ben Carlson is gearing up for a race.
Last year, South Carolina’s Tim Scott became the first Republican since Brooke to be elected to the Senate and Mia Love, a black woman, was elected to the House from Utah.
All of the Republicans who happen to be black are conservatives, favorites of the "tea party," and use a lot stronger language criticizing the Democratic president than most of their counterparts, who happen to be white.
As different as they are from Ed Brooke, the trail they blaze in national Republican politics can be directly traced to the gentleman from Massachusetts who caught the imagination of the press and his party more than 40 years ago.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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