Congressional Medal For Former Mass. Sen. Brooke

Former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Edward W. Brooke III receives the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday. President Obama will be on hand as Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate by popular vote, is honored.

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Today, President Obama paid tribute to another African-American who broke the color barrier in elective politics. Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke in 1966 became the first African-American elected to the Senate by popular vote. Senator Brooke turned 90 this week. And this morning the president awarded him the congressional gold medal.

NPR's Nina Totenberg was there.

(Soundbite of music)

NINA TOTENBERG: In the rotunda of the Capitol, the Armed Forces Color Guard entered, and the crowd of dignitaries rose, but this was not your typical Washington crowd. In addition to senators and congressmen and party leaders, there were lots of Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots of World War II, for instance. There were former staff members who'd flown in from around the world.

Brooke was born and raised in Washington, D.C., attended segregated schools, fought in a segregated Army in World War II, was wounded and decorated for bravery in action and then returned to the U.S. where he went to law school at Boston University, becoming an editor of the law review.

When he ran for the Senate in 1966, he seemed a most improbable candidate: a black Protestant Republican in an overwhelmingly white Catholic, Democratic state. GOP leaders tried to dissuade him, telling him he couldn't win and offering him a judgeship instead. But Brooke said he could win, and he did.

When he walked onto the Senate floor for the first time, this grandson of a slave was applauded, but he was joining a club that included many avowed segregationists from the Deep South.

In an interview with NPR yesterday, he said he was treated well, swam in the Senate pool with everyone. Brooke said he could live with people who really believed their racist views, but not with people who use racism for political expediency.

Mr. EDWARD BROOKE (Former Republican Senator, Massachusetts): I left the Senate prayer meetings because I thought there was so much hypocrisy because they said one thing in the prayer meeting and then went out on the floor and said something exactly the opposite.

TOTENBERG: Brooke said that while he never expected he'd live to see a black president, he did expect there'd be many more African-American senators. But there have been only two elected in the 40-plus years since his election.

In the two terms Brooke served, Republican moderates held the balance of power in the Senate, and Brooke was a major player in enacting legislation promoting civil rights and women's rights and fighting off limits on abortion. He was fearless in opposing the president of his own party, Richard Nixon. He not only led the behind-the-scenes battles against three of Nixon's Supreme Court nominees, he was the first senator of either party to call for Nixon to step down. And yet, he didn't have enemies. As Republican leader Mitch McConnell put it today, he was a bridge builder.

President Obama said that Brooke brought out the best in people. Maybe it was his unfailing courtesy or his willingness to listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: Whatever it was, even if people didn't fully agree with him, they saw how hard he fought for them and how much he respected them, and they respected him back.

TOTENBERG: At the end of today's ceremony, the former senator rose to make his remarks. Turning to Republican leaders on stage, he spoke to them by name and almost seemed to plead.

Mr. BROOKE: We can't worry that you all can't get together. We've got to get together. We have no alternative. There's nothing left. It's time for politics to be put aside on the back burner.

(Soundbite of applause)

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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