You might expect the first black man ever popularly elected as a United States senator would be out there rooting for the election of the first black President.
But no. Edward W. Brooke has never thought race — or gender, for that matter — had anything to do with worthiness.
Alternatively, you might think Mr. Brooke, a Republican all his political life, would be supporting one of the Republican contenders for the next Presidency.
But no. He is not overly impressed with any of them either.
You might even wonder if the former senator, a lifelong moderate and fierce critic of the Iraq war, might lately have reconsidered his political allegiance.
Wrong again. You just cannot box Mr. Brooke in with assumptions. He defies them. He always has.
Way back, when he was just starting out on his political career in Massachusetts, he recalled, “They said Brooke is a Republican in a Democratic state, he’s a Protestant in a Catholic state and he’s a black in a white state, he’s a carpetbagger and he’s poor.
“I said, ‘I plead guilty to all of that, now go out and vote for me.’ ”
And people did. They put him in the U.S. Senate from 1967 to 1979, making him the first African American to sit in that house for almost 100 years, and the first ever popularly elected, instead of having been appointed by a state.
Now at age 87 and almost 20 years out of active politics — although still a sharp commentator — Mr. Brooke has written about his extraordinary life in a book, Bridging the Divide, My Life.
But early this week as he sat back in his living room with its stunning views of Oak Bluffs harbor to talk about his extraordinary history, it was contemporary matters which got him most animated.
Specifically, next year’s election.
“I think this may be the most important election in the history of this country and of this world,” he said. “And you’ve got to make the right decision.”
And much as it looked like the next President would be either the first black man or the first white woman, he said, issues of race or gender should be the least of considerations for voters.
“I don’t think, in these troubled times, with the world in such turmoil, that we ought to be making a decision based upon whether we want a white woman or a black man,” he said.
And as he has watched the debates so far, “I have not been overly impressed by any of the candidates . . . on both tickets.” He continued:
“We need leadership like we’ve never needed it before. You know what that status of this country is in the rest of the world today?
“Billions upon billions have been spent on this war. Education is suffering. Health is suffering. Infrastructure is suffering The bridges are falling down. The environment . . . There are so many issues out there that cry out for solution.”
He apologized for preaching but admitted he is so frustrated by the current state of politics and the way big issues are dealt with — or more properly, not dealt with.
Like the war. Where was the debate before the war?
“Not one senator stood up about this war. And this was our constitutional responsibility. If we’d been there,” he said, referring to the bloc of about 10 moderate Republicans of which he had been a part in his Senate days, “they would have still been talking today.”
But politics were less partisan then. And the Republican party was different.
“We had a moderate wing when I was in the Senate. Men like Jacob Javits and Cliff Case and Mark Hadfield — we formed the Wednesday club. We had about 10 votes and that’s a lot in the Senate. We voted as a bloc. We were able to make a big difference,” he said, adding:
“You can’t fight the battle outside the party; you have to fight inside the party.” And this is why he does not regret his party affiliation, even now.
Edward Brooke was really only accidentally a Republican anyway.
His parents, who worked in Washington and voted in Virginia, were both religious supporters of the party of Lincoln, he said, as were most black people in those days.
“But I didn’t have any affiliation with either party. When I went to Massachusetts, to the community of Roxbury, [and] hung out my shingle and practiced law, I was urged to run for state representative. You could run on both tickets in those days.
“So I ran on both, won the Republican and narrowly lost the Democrat. I was impressed with the moderate Republicans in Massachusetts. They were the progressive party.
“The party has never denied me at any time in my political life, the nomination I’ve sought, secretary of state, attorney general or senator.”
By contrast, he said, the first African American to be nominated by the Democratic party for any statewide office in the commonwealth was Deval Patrick. “That was in 2005; I was running in 1960 and ’62.”
In those days, he said, some of the southern Democrats were “clearly racist,” although issues of race never bothered him much here.
It was very different from Washington when he was growing up. “You couldn’t even go to the theatres or sit down at a 10-cent drugstore for a hot dog and a Coca-Cola and there were separate colored toilets and white toilets in all the public buildings,” he said, adding:
“I never interfaced with whites until I went to law school in Boston after the war. The Army I served in [for five years from 1941, during which time he saw combat in Italy] was a segregated Army.
“But I never felt overt racism during my whole political career in Massachusetts. I wanted to prove that white voters will vote for qualified black candidates.”
And he did. Even in his first, losing campaign, where he figures about two per cent of the voters were black, the majority of his support came from white voters.
He joked about one opponent’s bumper sticker which said: “Vote White,” but then again the man’s name was Eric White.
That is not to say all here was sweetness and light. When Mr. Brooke bought his first home on Martha’s Vineyard in 1949, there was still segregation on the Island.
“It was rampant here,” he said. “We couldn’t go to the Edgartown Yacht Club, we couldn’t go to the country club to play golf. That place over there, The East Chop club, or whatever it’s called, wouldn’t have us. They wouldn’t allow Jews in either.”
So he set up an alternative, called the Island Club, as a place where people could “come and sit around.”
“We didn’t apply for a license but people would bring their own drinks and stuff. Mostly it was just a gathering place. It served its purpose.”
Nonetheless he loved the Island right from the start, and he writes a good deal about his experiences here in the book.
And why was this book so long in the making?
For a number of reasons, he said. It started as something for his family, back in about 1980, so he felt no great urgency about it. Also, it was all written longhand, on yellow legal pads.
Mr. Brooke had never kept a diary, so he had to rely on conversations with former colleagues to refresh his memory on a lot of the details. And life crises intervened.
He was in great shape, he said, until about age 80. “Then suddenly I had all these health issues.”
First it was breast cancer. His wife noticed the tumor, the day after he’d been cleared in a medical check-up.
“I had a radical mastectomy and they took out my breast tissue on the right side but some on the left and some lymph nodes.
“So that slowed me down in the writing. Then I had atrial fibrillation. They put a pacemaker in. I guess a lot of things associated with aging caused a delay in the writing.
“And I’ve always thought when you write an autobiography it ought to be your words, your thoughts your ideas. I never wanted a ghost writer.”
So it took a long time and turned into a long book, at least until the publishers, Rutgers University Press, got hold of it.
“They cut out one-third of it,” he said. “They cut out some of my favorite anecdotes and people. And I said these people made my life. And they said send them flowers. I said but I’m not writing this to make money, and they said no, but we’re publishing it to make money.”
He smiled. “So now it’s a small book, but, as they say, very readable.”