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Ex-senator Brooke gets gold medal of Congress

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / October 29, 2009

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WASHINGTON - For more than an hour yesterday, Washington’s most powerful politicians lauded former Massachusetts senator Edward W. Brooke, praising the 90-year-old Republican for breaking down partisan divisions and racial barriers.

And Brooke, while soft-spoken and respectful, had a stern response: Why can’t you people do the same?

“We’ve got to get together,’’ Brooke pleaded, turning to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell - whom Brooke companionably called “Mitch’’ - during a Capitol ceremony to award Brooke the Congressional Gold Medal. “It’s time for politics to be put aside on the backburner,’’ Brooke chided.

After President Obama, Senator John F. Kerry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, McConnell, and others expanded on Brooke’s history-making role as the nation’s first popularly-elected African-American senator, Brooke put aside talk of race and urged the senior lawmakers to address the nation’s most pressing issues.

There is “a health care bill I’m sure none of you care to hear about,’’ Brooke said, drawing chuckles. He then praised the bipartisanship and commitment of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy - who had pushed for Brooke’s medal, the highest civilian honor Congress bestows.

“We can’t keep fighting wars,’’ he told guests packed in the Rotunda, including Vicki Kennedy, the late senator’s widow, and Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“We’ve got hungry people to feed. Homeless and ill-housed people to shelter, and young people to be educated,’’ Brooke said. And while he said he was deeply honored to receive the medal, he said he would trade it in a minute if that meant Congress would give full voting rights to the District of Columbia, which is majority African-American.

Brooke grew up in a segregated Washington neighborhood, served in a segregated Army, and then was rejected from top-line Boston-area law firms after he graduated, Obama noted. But Brooke instead went on to “ignore the naysayers, reject the conventional wisdom, and trust that ultimately, people would judge him on his character, his commitment, his record, and his ideas,’’ the president said.

Obama sounded a familiar theme, remembering “our dear friend Ted Kennedy’’ and the bipartisanship he showed by first campaigning for Brooke’s Democratic rival, then 40 years later campaigning for Brooke’s medal.

“While we grace Senator Brooke with this honor today, perhaps a better tribute to him would be to embrace that spirit: to compete aggressively at the polls, but then work selflessly together to serve the nation we love,’’ Obama said.