Ed Brooke won and lost grace by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

ed-brookeWhen two-term Massachusetts Senator Ed Brooke woke at 3:30 in the morning on November 7, 1978 the election was already over.  And just after 8 p.m. that evening, as the first votes trickled in, his long-time aide Roger Woodworth knew that the sad outcome was confirmed.  “I’m afraid it’s not going to work tonight, kids,” he sadly told Brooke’s hardworking young stalwarts.  As the stately Senator bid farewell to the crowded Copley Plaza ballroom, many workers were in tears.  “The press has won,” said Emily Lipof, Brooke’s Newton coordinator, now well known as a Boston-area rabbi.

A brilliant career, first as the nation’s first black state attorney general and then as the nation’s first popularly elected African-American Senator since Reconstruction, had come to an end, influenced in large part by a media obsession with his personal finances, sourced by his embittered daughter enraged by Brooke’s divorce from his first wife, Remigia.  The new Senator, Paul Tsongas, never attacked Brooke’s integrity or mentioned his personal problems. Tsongas just did better in the cities and in the western part of the state, and capitalized on his unpretentious style and the heavy involvement of his wife (now Congresswoman) Niki Tsongas and their daughters, a refreshing contrast with Brooke’s family dynamics.  At the end, Tsongas congratulated Brooke on “his grace and courage.”  He said he had actually developed a great affection for Brooke.

As I had.  Covering him for The Boston Phoenix, I had sat with him for hours including on primary day, September 14, when we shared his traditional cherrystones and chowder election day lunch at the Union Oyster House.  He told me that “Losing wouldn’t be the end of the world for me. There are disadvantages to public life.”  While declining to attribute his divorce to his Senatorial responsibilities, he knew he was rarely at home. His divorce was the first in his family, and he was ever mindful that his mother and father had been together 51 years.

Later that night, he sat on a couch holding hands with his mother, Helen Brooke, watching the returns. That night all went well for Brooke, who defeated primary challenger Avi Nelson. Some six weeks later, it would all be over.

Brooke’s significance was more than symbolic.  He left his mark forever on the nation’s housing policy.  A W.W.II combat veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star, he spoke out vigorously against the Vietnam War. He successfully fought to defeat Richard Nixon’s despicable Supreme Court nominees Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell and, after Watergate, was the first Republican to call for Nixon’s resignation.  Brooke was a stout proponent of women’s issues, and an authentic patron of the arts.  He was the real deal.

“He carried the added honor and burden of being ‘the first’ and did so with distinction and grace. I have lost a friend and mentor. America has lost a superb example of selfless service,” Governor Patrick told the Boston Globe in reflecting on Brooke’s death.

At some point during that ’78 campaign, Jesse Jackson had come to Boston and, in his formerly charismatic preacher role,   Jackson declared in a rousing speech that Brooke was “a symbol of hope, not just for blacks….If he can make it from where he was to the Senate, white, no matter how far down, know they can make it.”  Elegant, charming and thoughtful, Brooke also modeled how to work across the aisle to get things done and improve people’s lives. He mattered for everyone, and his death yesterday is a reminder of how much society and governance have lost over the years.

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