Long before there was a Barack Obama there was Edward W. Brooke III, the first African-American elected to the United States Senate by popular vote. A Republican, Brooke won in a landslide in Democratic Massachusetts in 1966. He was re-elected in 1972. According to the New York Times, he’s still the only black senator to have been returned to office.
Brooke took pains to avoid labels, but his positions were more liberal than those of the rising number of conservative Republicans joining the upper chamber. As the Times noted, he opposed the expansion of nuclear arsenals, favored more cordial relations with China and championed civil rights, the legalization of abortion and fair housing policies. He strongly supported programs to aid cities and the poor.
In a 1966 book, “The Challenge of Change: Crisis in Our Two-Party System,” he asked, “Where are our plans for a New Deal or a Great Society?”
A sharp critic of his party’s leader, President Richard M. Nixon, Brooke led the fight to deny two Nixon nominees to the Supreme Court on grounds their positions on civil rights were open to question. When Nixon was ensnared in the Watergate scandal, Brooke called for the appointment of a special prosecutor. He was the first Republican senator to demand Nixon’s impeachment.
I’d long been gone from my native Massachusetts when Brooke was first elected, but I remember my mother, a Republican, and other family members, mostly Democrats, imagining Brooke’s one day becoming the first African-American president. It never happened but it was a glimmer of an America to be.
In 1974 when I was working for the Today Show there were rumors that Barbara Walters and Brooke were in a clandestine romance. Many years later, in 2008, Walters wrote about the affair in a memoir. Before the book was written Walters told Brooke in a letter that she would write about the affair. Walters said he wrote back “a very nice note.” In the book, “Audition,” she said “only my closest friends knew” of the relationship which she described as “a long and rocky affair,” adding, “Oh, yes. He was also married.”
Edward Brooke, she said, “was simply the most attractive, sexiest, funniest, charming, and impossible man. I was excited, fascinated, intrigued, and infatuated.”
The story was bound to come out. Neither could afford the risk for their careers. “He was proud of being in the Senate and his future could only get better,” Barbara said. “I also could not risk my career, I had a child and my family in Florida to think about. We decided wisely but very sadly that we had to stop seeing each other. That was that. We stopped.”
Brooke, who lost his bid for a third term in 1978, died January 3, 2015, at his home in Coral Gables, Florida. He was 95. Barbara is in her 80s but that may be as much as she is likely to say.
This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.