When we think about the wars of our past, we tend to remember and celebrate the generals, not the foot soldiers. But it was often those foot soldiers and their field officers who did the most important work. Jack Brooks was one of those field officers.
Brooks was born in Louisiana in 1922, but his family moved to Beaumont, Texas, when he was 5 and that’s where he grew up and was formed as a full Texan.
He truly was a soldier – enlisting in the Marines and serving in the Pacific in World War II.
Brooks was immediately elected to the Texas state legislature when he returned home, and in 1952, to Congress.
“He was a protégé of [then U.S. House Speaker] Sam Rayburn, a big Texan politician, and then he became a friend of LBJ,” said Brooks’ biographer, Timothy McNulty. “So, he had tutors that were really showing him the ropes and that’s how, 42 years in Congress, he became known because he understood the system.”
McNulty spent years as a national, foreign and White House correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He now teaches some classes at Duke University and, along with his son Brendan, has a new biography of Brooks called “The Meanest Man in Congress.” That’s used as an endearing term for a guy who – like Lyndon Johnson – knew how to work a room and work people to get things done.
“When he talked to you, you were the most important person in the room, and you felt that he cared,” Brendan said.
Brooks was a key figure in the Nixon impeachment and legislation that affects us all today, like codifying the Civil Rights movement inspired by the Greensboro sit-ins into law.
“He had a real strong record on civil rights and on unions,” Timothy said.
But presidents didn’t always take Brooks’ advice. In 1994, for example, the huge crime bill that is a key issue in this year’s Democratic presidential debates was one that Brooks led the fight on – but he wanted to do it in a different way.
“He had been there for 42 years. Bill Clinton had wanted the crime bill passed and in it, Clinton wanted assault weapons banned,” Brendan said. “Brooks had separated all these bills and so that it was possible for people to vote on separate issues and still save face in the district.”
“Clinton insisted that it be all in one bill, despite Brooks telling him, ‘We’re going to lose, we’re going to lose, bad.’ And they did,” Timothy said.
Jack Brooks was one of 57 incumbent Democrats who lost their seats in Congress during the 1994 Republican wave.
See how Brooks’ work affects and informs our politics today in this edition of the Buckley Report.