Jack Brooks: Unpredictable but influential Democrat

 

Jack Brooks was a Congressman who served 42 years in the US House of Representatives. An unpredictable but influential Texas Democrat, he who was one of the few politicians who cast fear in President Lyndon Johnson.

First elected to Congress from a south-eastern Texas district in 1952, Brooks became a protégé of two fellow Texans, Johnson – then a powerful senator – and Sam Rayburn, the long-time Democratic leader and one-time speaker of the House. Brooks became a committee leader in Congress, first of the House Committee on Government Operations and later of the Judiciary Committee, and was so effective behind the scenes that one of Johnson’s former aides said in 1977 that Brooks was “one of the few men LBJ was ever afraid of.”

On 22 November 1963 Brooks was with Johnson in the motorcade in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. In the famous photograph taken aboard Air Force One when Johnson took the presidential oath of office, Brooks is standing directly behind the grieving first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Brooks helped write the articles of impeachment against President Nixon in 1974 in the wake of Watergate and was referred to by Nixon as “the executioner”. In the 1980s he served on the House-Senate Iran-Contra committee investigating unauthorised arms-dealing during the Reagan administration.

Brooks was an old-style politician who favoured assertive talk, bold legislative action and a smouldering cigar clamped between his teeth. He was called “the last of his breed” long before he lost a bid for re-election in 1994. “Jack Brooks was a complete contrarian, a mass of contradictions,” Ross K Baker, a congressional historian, said. “He was a civil rights advocate and strongly pro-gun. He was fiercely combative, but he was someone who could easily cross party lines.”

Brooks began defying expectations early in his career by refusing to sign the 1956 Southern Manifesto, a pact among Southern congressmen to support segregation. He was one of only 11 congressmen from the South to vote for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was a strong advocate of Nasa, whose Johnson Space Center in Houston was for a time in his District. But as chairman of the Government Operations Committee from 1975 to 1988 he exposed billions of dollars in government waste. He said the Navy was spending $660 on ashtrays and the State Department had ordered $2 million worth of silverware.

“Brooks finagles and manipulates behind the scenes in the most adroit fashion,” the former House speaker Jim Wright said in 1994. “He knows how to operate, and he will not settle for mediocrity.” In 1973, Brooks questioned the director of the General Services Administration, Arthur F Sampson, who claimed that $10 million of taxpayer-supported improvements to Nixon’s private homes in California and Florida actually lowered their value. “Oh, really,” Brooks said. “Well, Mr Sampson, I’d like you to come down to my farm and desecrate it a little bit.”

Brooks was born in Louisiana and raised in Beaumont, Texas. He was 13 when his father died and he began to work at odd jobs to help support the family. He graduated in 1943 from the University of Texas at Austin in journalism and graduated from law school at the university in 1949.

During the Second World War he saw combat with the Marine Corps in the Pacific. He was elected to the Texas legislature in 1946. Six years later, he won election to Congress. For seven of his 21 elections, he ran unopposed.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 1994, Brooks had helped pass an anti-crime bill that included a ban on assault weapons. He lost his seat to candidate Steve Stockman during the Republican takeover of Congress, after opponents accused Brooks of advocating gun control.

“I think of myself as someone who tries to be constructive,” Brooks said in 1977, “someone who understands that politics is the art of compromise, that it’s a lot more important to get something done than get into a lot of battles and get a lot of publicity. All you do is make enemies that way, and who wants to have enemies?”

Jack Bascom Brooks, politician: born Crowley, Louisiana 18 December 1922; married Charlotte Collins (two daughters, one son); died Beaumont, Texas 4 December 2012.

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