President Obama Honors Senator Edward William Brooke

President Obama Honors Senator Edward William Brooke


President Obama:
Thank you very much. Please
be seated. Thank you so much. It is an extraordinary
privilege to be here today. And let me begin by
acknowledging this distinguished group gathered on the platform:
our extraordinary Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi;
Majority Leader Harry Reid; Republican leader
Mitch McConnell; majority leader Steny Hoyer;
Republican leader John Boehner; Senator John Kerry;
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton; Representative Patrick
Kennedy; my dear friend, Vicki Kennedy; to our honoree,
Senator Edward Brooke, his wife, Anne, and family. It is a great privilege to be
here today as we confer the Congressional Gold Medal on
a man who’s spent his life breaking barriers and bridging
divides across this country — Senator Edward Brooke. Now, with his lifetime
of achievement, Ed is no stranger to a
good awards ceremony. He’s been through
a few of these. (laughter) He’s won the Bronze Star, the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary degrees from 34
colleges and universities, and more. So he’s a pro when it
comes to getting awards. But I think today’s honor bears
a unique significance: bestowed by this body of which he
was an esteemed member; presented in this place where
he moved the arc of history; surrounded by so many — myself
included — who have followed the trail that he blazed. Ed’s journey to this day was, by
any measure, an unlikely one. Raised nearby in a neighborhood
so fiercely segregated that black residents needed a note
from a white person to pass through — at a time when so
many doors of opportunity were closed to African Americans,
others might have become angry or disillusioned. They might have concluded that
no matter how hard they worked, their horizons would always
be limited, so why bother? But not Ed Brooke. Serving in a segregated army,
barred from facilities at the base where he trained, he
fought heroically in Europe, leading a daring daylight attack
against a heavily armed enemy. Rejected from Boston’s old-line
firms despite his success in law school, he established
his own practice, handling everything from
wills and divorces to real estate and criminal cases. And when he ran for statewide
office in Massachusetts, and one reporter pointed out
that he was black, Republican, and Protestant, seeking office
in a white, Democratic, and Catholic state
— and also, quote, “…a carpetbagger
from the South and… poor” — Ed was unfazed. It was, to say the least, an
improbable profile for the man who would become the first
African American state attorney general, and the first popularly
elected African American senator. But that was Ed Brooke’s way
— 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. He ran for office,
as he put it, “…to bring people together who
had never been together before.” And that he did. I don’t know anyone else whose
fan base includes Gloria Steinem, Barney Frank, and Ted
Kennedy — as well as Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney,
and George W. Bush. (laughter) That’s a coalition-builder. (laughter and applause) And few have matched his reach
across the aisle — from working with Birch Bayh to protect Title
IX so girls can compete on a level playing field, to
sponsoring the Fair Housing Act with Walter Mondale and small
business legislation with Ted Kennedy — one of the many bills
he would sponsor with the senior senator from Massachusetts. He didn’t care whether a bill
was popular or politically expedient, Democratic or
Republican — he cared about whether it helped people,
whether it made a difference in their daily lives. That’s why he fought
so hard for Medicare, for mass transit and
the minimum wage, for civil rights
and women’s rights. It’s why he became a lifelong
advocate for affordable housing, establishing protections that
are the standard to this day. So it’s a record that defies the
labels and categories for which he had little use and
even less patience. When pressed to define himself,
he’d offer phrases like “creative moderate,” or “a
liberal with a conservative bent.” But in truth, Ed Brooke’s
career was animated not by a faith in any particular party
or ideology, but rather, by a faith in the
people he served. Ed always got to see the
best in people — because that was the effect he had. Maybe it was his old-fashioned
manners — his unfailing courtesy and warmth. Maybe it was his charm and
charisma — known to melt even the staunchest adversary. Or maybe it was his genuine
interest in people’s stories — the way he listened to
their concerns and worked to ease their struggles. 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. They rose to meet
his esteem for them. Around Ed, people wanted
to be their better selves. Over the years, he made an
impression on just about everyone he encountered,
including a young Congressman named John F. Kennedy,
whom he met back in 1952. The two men had a
lively conversation, and as they parted ways,
the future President said, “You know, you ought
to be a Democrat.” (laughter) And Ed smiled and replied,
“You know, you ought to be a Republican.” (laughter) It was a sentiment that many
in my party would share, including the President’s
brother, our dear friend, Ted Kennedy. While Ted campaigned vigorously
for Ed’s Democratic opponent, the two later became
lifelong friends. And four decades later, Ted
would campaign even more vigorously to secure Ed’s
nomination for this medal. So 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. (applause) To look for the
best in each other, to give each other the
benefit of the doubt, and to remember that we’re here
for a purpose far greater than the sum of our own hopes,
needs and ambitions. That’s the legacy of our
friend, Senator Edward Brooke. And may we each do our
part to carry it forward. Thank you. God bless you. Congratulations, Senator Brooke. And God bless the United
States of America. (applause)

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