The passing of former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke III, at age 95, gave obituary writers and political commentators a rare opportunity—perhaps one of the last—to put together the words “liberal Republican.” Brooke, who served as attorney general of Massachusetts before becoming the first African-American elected to the US Senate by a popular vote, was an epic figure in the politics of the 1960s and 1970s. With his ardent support for civil rights, faith in the ability of an active and engaged government to address economic and social challenges, and deep skepticism about the Vietnam War, he took the lead in a liberal Republican vanguard that included New York Mayor John Lindsay, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, New York Senator Jacob Javits, Michigan Governor George Romney, Maryland Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias, Michigan Congressman Don Riegle Jr., Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, New Jersey Senator Clifford Case, New Jersey Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, California Congressman Pete McCloskey and a young Ripon Society activist, Wisconsin legislator and future congressman named Tom Petri.
The list of liberal—or at least liberal-leaning “moderates”—in the Republican Party was once long and diverse. But as the party has veered further and further to the right, even politically engaged Americans have begun to forgot how influential those liberals were, and how close some of them came to changing their direction of their party and the course of history.
Brooke offers a remarkable reminder of what might have been.
Elected to the Senate in 1966, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine and the front page of The New York Times. He rose immediately to a position of great prominence in a party that was proud of its anti-slavery and anti-segregationist roots. Brooke was a speaker at the 1968 Republican National Convention, where he was speculated about as a potential vice presidential nominee. Later, he was offered a cabinet post and a nomination to serve on the Supreme Court by the Republican who was elected president that year, Richard Nixon.
As the man who became Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Agnew, stirred more and more controversy, Brooke was frequently mentioned as a potential replacement for Agnew on the 1972 Republican ticket. The top Republican in the US Senate, Pennsylvania’s Hugh Scott, told reporters that Brooke “would be an asset to the G.O.P. national ticket.” In October of 1971, Time magazine highlighted the “Brooke Talk” and speculated that adding the senator to the ticket might help Nixon and the Republicans to renew the party’s appeal to African-American and young voters.
In any scenario that made Brooke Nixon’s second in command—as a member of the 1968 and 1972 Republican tickets, as a replacement for Agnew on the 1972 ticket, or after Agnew’s 1973 resignation perhaps as an appointee to the nation’s number-two position—the Massachusetts senator would have been the first African-American vice president. And, upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Brooke would have been positioned to become the first African-American president.