Our man Jack: Rep. Jack Brooks, 1922-2012

Our man Jack: Rep. Jack Brooks, 1922-2012

 

The message from the family came suddenly, without warning. 

“Long-term area Congressman Jack Brooks died this evening, Dec. 4, 2012, at Beaumont Baptist Hospital after a sudden illness. Congressman Brooks, just shy of his 90th birthday, passed peacefully surrounded by his family. The family asks that our privacy be respected as we grieve our loss.”

Jack Brooks – a towering figure in the history of Southeast Texas – is survived by his wife, the former Charlotte Collins, who he married in 1960;  children Jeb Brooks, Kate Brooks Carroll and her husband Rod, and Kim Brooks; and grandchildren Matthew Carroll and Brooke Carroll. 

Our Man Jack

Jack Bascom Brooks wasn’t born in Texas, but he got here as soon as he could. A native of Crowley in Acadia Parish, La., he moved with his family to Beaumont in 1927 before his fifth birthday.

This son of Beaumont attended public schools here while working as a grocery clerk, magazine salesman and a carhop at the Pig Stand on Railroad Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway). He told the story about the time Ben Rogers first came to town and Brooks waited on him.

“He tipped me a nickel,” recalled Brooks with a twinkle in his eye. Rogers would later found Texas State Optical and become one of Beaumont’s most influential citizens – as would the carhop who waited on him so long ago.

After graduating from Beaumont High School, Brooks enrolled in Lamar Junior College in 1939, where he majored in journalism. Reportedly he worked 54 hours a week at the Beaumont Enterprise while at Lamar, completing his first two years of college there in June 1941. He finished his Bachelor of Journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin, but urgent events in the world called him to serve, not for the last time.

Brooks enlisted as a private in the United States Marine Corps on Nov. 7, 1942, serving overseas twenty-three and one-half months. He saw heavy fighting on Guadalcanal, Guam, Okinawa, and in North China.

His first combat action came at Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, where a battle raged for more than six months. By the time Japanese forces were driven from the island, the Allies had lost 7,100 men killed in action with 29 ships and 615 aircraft destroyed. The Japanese casualty rate was ferocious, with 31,000 killed in the battle.

That was typical of the bloody war in the Pacific as the Allies fought for every inch of every island on the way toward a planned invasion of Japan, with a casualty rate expected to exceed 100,000 Allied troops. That invasion never materialized because Japan surrendered after a devastating nuclear bomb attack.

Years later, a reporter for The Examiner noted that Brooks was among the troops in the Pacific waiting for the order to invade Japan that never came. Had President Truman made the right decision to drop the bomb on Japan? Brooks, then well into his 80s, stiffened at the question, which has been the subject of some historical debate over the years.

“You’re damn right he did,” said Brooks fiercely, his blue eyes flashing. “And he dropped two.”

Brooks was discharged as a first lieutenant April 23, 1946, but maintained strong ties with the military as a colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserve from 1946 to 1972.

Man of the House

Like a lot of the young men returning from World War II, Jack Brooks was in a hurry to get on with his life. He felt called to public service and in 1946 was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. While representing Jefferson County, he authored the bill making Lamar a four-year institution – the first new senior college in Texas in 25 years.

He never forgot his alma mater. Brooks was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus of Lamar in 1975. The Jack Brooks Center for Government and Public Service was established at LU in 1983 and, until about three years ago, housed Brooks’ papers, spanning his congressional career. The Center, including a replication of Brooks’ Washington, D.C., office, is on the seventh floor of the Mary and John Gray Library. His impact on Lamar continues through the Jack Brooks Chair in Political Science, which he established in 1997. 

A statue in his honor adorns the campus quadrangle. A Southeast Texas Legends Endowed Scholarship was established in his honor by the Beaumont Foundation of America in 2008. At the formal presentation of the scholarship, foundation chairman and CEO Wayne A. Reaud said of Brooks, “He’s a man you can ride the river with… . The Brooks that I know is Brooks the man. He exemplifies all of the qualities I hold dear. He is loyal. He understands that loyalty is the rarest and  most valuable of all human qualities. His word is his bond. I can tell you it was hard to get his commitment, but when Jack Brooks gave you his word you could take it to the bank… He was courageous and great, and he would not run off and leave you in a fight… Time after time after time, when he had to choose between the people of America and what was good for big business, he chose the people and that is a very significant point.”

After three terms in the Texas House, Brooks took his talents – and drive – to the national stage. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, where he served for 42 consecutive years.

His stat line – like you might read on the back, if there was such a thing as a Congressional baseball card – is impressive:

Brooks represented the 2nd District of Texas from 1953 through 1966 and the 9th District from 1967 through 1994. Brooks served as chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, the Select Committee on Congressional Operations, the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations, and the Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security. In 1979, Congressman Brooks became the Dean of the Texas Delegation, the member with the longest tenure in the Congress.

But you have to read between the lines to take the full measure of the congressman in a time when Democrats dominated Texas politics – and Democrats from Texas had huge influence in Washington. Brooks was a protégé of fellow Texan and legendary 21-year Democratic House Speaker Sam Rayburn, of whom he once said, “I’m just like old man Rayburn — just a Democrat, no prefix or suffix.”

Another Rayburn protégé was Lyndon Johnson, already well established in the Senate by the time Brooks made it to town. They became friends, neighbors and close political collaborators until LBJ’s death in 1973.

Speaker Rayburn named Brooks to the House Judiciary Committee in 1955; he served there until 1995, the last six as chairman, putting him at the crossroads of many historic events. But Brooks wasn’t just a witness to history. He was a frontline participant who helped shape his times.

When John F. Kennedy tapped Lyndon Johnson as his vice-presidential nominee in 1960, Brooks ran the campaign in his district, which Kennedy carried by 40,000 votes. Three years later, Brooks was in the motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when the president was assassinated.

He can be seen in one of the most famous news photographs of the 20th century as Johnson was sworn in as president on Air Force One. Brooks is standing behind Jacqueline Kennedy.

When LBJ picked up the mantle of the slain president to pass a civil rights act, Brooks was already on board. In October 1963, Brooks had been the only one of nine Southerners on the judiciary committee to vote for the Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, co-authored by Brooks, became law and he was one of 11 out of 92 Southerners to vote for it on the House floor in 1964. Martin Luther King came to the White House for the signing of that historic legislation; also present that day was Jack Brooks.

When he died, the New York Times described Brooks as “an irascible, cigar-chomping former Texas congressman who over 42 years defied fellow Southerners to support civil rights, investigated abuses by Presidents Nixon and Reagan and repeatedly attacked government waste, down to the cost of wrenches” and noted he was “a swashbuckling Texas character in his own right. His politics were pro-labor, pro-gun, fiercely partisan and boldly unapologetic, particularly when it came to funneling federal funds to his East Texas district.”

Truth, Justice and the American Way

From his seat on the House Judiciary Committee, Brooks had a chance to weigh in on the legal issues of the day for over 40 years. He was already in Washington when Eisenhower made Richard Nixon his vice-president, but Brooks was never a fan of the man many Democrats called “Tricky Dick.”

Brooks once said he would have voted to impeach President Nixon on Jan. 21, 1969, but it “would not have looked good” to do it the day after he was inaugurated. Five and a half years later, he did more than that — he helped draft the articles of impeachment that prompted Nixon to resign.

A junior attorney who worked for the House Judiciary Committee during that time caught Brooks’ attention. Her name was Hilary Rodham, and he would endorse her candidacy for president of the United States 34 years later in 2008 after having backed her future husband Bill Clinton for the same office in 1992 and 1996.

A decade later, Brooks would help lead the House investigation of a bizarre scheme by the administration of Ronald Reagan to sell arms to Iran, then an enemy of the U.S. under an arms embargo. The plan – which became known as the Iran-Contra affair – was to use Israel as a middle-man to ship the arms and free seven American hostages being held by a group with Iranian ties. The proceeds of the weapon sales were diverted to fund anti-Sandinista and anti-communist rebels, or Contras, in Nicaragua – a violation of U.S. law under the Boland Amendment. It was a disaster by any measure – trading arms for hostages, illegally supplying Nicaraguan rebels – and the wheels came off in front of Brooks’ committee as details of the rogue operation run out of the White House basement by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council became public.

Two of the central figures in the scandal – Admiral John Poindexter, Reagan’s national security adviser, and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams testified to the judiciary committee about the debacle. Brooks called each “a lying son of a bitch.” Those words proved prophetic as both Poindexter and Abrams were convicted of multiple counts including perjury. Also indicted were Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, and William Casey, director of the CIA, along with North and a host of other high-ranking administration officials. Most were eventually pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, who had been vice-president when the wrongdoing occurred but was never proved to have been involved.

Another significant part of the Brooks legacy can also be traced to Speaker Rayburn, who long ago named Brooks to the House Government Operations Committee, a panel Brooks eventually would chair. Brooks was known for tolerating no nonsense from bureaucrats he suspected of wasting taxpayer money.

He authored a law that required full and open competition to be the standard for awarding federal contracts. The 1965 Brooks Act set policy for the government’s computer acquisition program, requiring competitive bidding and central management. His Inspector General Act established independent Offices of the Inspector General in major agencies to prevent fraud and waste.

Other Brooks bills reduced federal paperwork, provided a uniform system of federal procurement, eliminated overlapping audit requirements and established the Department of Education.

“He literally has saved American taxpayers billions of dollars through his actions in improving government efficiency and eliminating waste,” former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe, a longtime friend who died in 2010, said two years earlier when Brooks donated his congressional papers, photos, correspondence and other items to the Center for American History at the University of Texas.

“Congressman Brooks played an integral role in shaping our national policy from the Cold War era of the 1950s to the global economy of the 1990s,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the center now named for Briscoe. “We mourn his passing, but his legacy lives on. His papers will provide historians and researchers with tremendous insight into the critical issues America faced in the second half of the twentieth century.”

Serve the people

It wasn’t just weighty matters of state that concerned Congressman Brooks. Constituent services – helping the people in his district navigate the government maze – is an important aspect of a representative’s work not recognized by many people – at least until they need help.

Bill Lytle, a former classmate at Beaumont High, was a Brooks friend for years who became a legislative aide in the Beaumont office in the 1970s, helping local folks with issues dealing with the VA, Social Security, IRS and other agencies, federal and otherwise.

“He was always looking out for the people of Jefferson County, of his district,” said Lytle. “Anything he could do to help them, all they had to do was call him and he’d help them.”

Lytle recalled a case that had no connection to the federal government.

“One guy was trying to get into college here in Texas and he didn’t have any luck, so he called Jack Brooks and Jack Brooks called the college and talked to them and it wasn’t long – a couple days later – they called this young man and told them they had an opening for him to come to school there,” said Lytle.

Although the name of this aspiring student is lost to the mists of time – the school was Texas Tech University – the incident described by Lytle was indicative of the Jack Brooks approach. While it became fashionable in some circles to decry government as the problem, not the solution, Brooks knew better that solving the real problems of real people large and small was a worthy endeavor and put that belief into practice throughout his public career and beyond.

Another illustrative example came from a family in Vidor whose son had joined the Navy in the early 1980s. He had been taking Dilantin and phenobarbital for epilepsy and had not had a seizure for nearly three years. The Navy recruiter told him not to mention it, and the young man weaned himself from the medication. He was doing great in basic training, selected as a squad leader with talk of Officer Candidate School when a drug test detected traces of the phenobarbital still in his body long after he stopped taking it. Angry Naval officials demanded to know the name of the recruiter but the young man refused to ruin the guy’s career so he was threatened with a court martial and dishonorable discharge, a black mark he would carry the rest of his life.

His teenaged sister heard the story and thought it so unfair she called her Congressman’s office as her father scoffed at the futility of it all. Two days later her little sister answered the phone and said, “It’s for you. He says he’s Congressman Jack Brooks.”

She told the Examiner she described the situation to Brooks, who said he would make a couple of phone calls and see what he could do. Two days later her happy brother called home to say everything had changed – he was being given a medical discharge under honorable conditions. Days later, Brooks called the family back to ask if everything had been taken care of.”

Many years later, the girl – now a married woman with children – moved onto a street in the same middle-class neighborhood in the West End of Beaumont where Brooks and his wife Charlotte lived. One day she had a chance to relate to Brooks the story of how he had helped her family.

“Of course he didn’t remember it, but said he made sure to return every call that came into his office,” she said. Brooks listened attentively to her recitation then asked one question.

“Did I fix it?” he inquired.

“Yes, sir, you did,” was her reply,

“OK then,” he said with a smile.

Michael “Shane” Sinegal is a former Port Arthur City Councilman who is currently Precinct 3 commissioner for Jefferson County, but his first experiences with Jack Brooks came long before he took his own place in the halls of power.

“My mom was about to lose her house over some issue when I was young, and she made a call to Congressman Brooks in 1969 or 1970, and he made one call and she still lives in that house today,” Sinegal recalled. “I don’t remember the specifics of it all, but he has always been good to this community. … Congressman Brooks was good to us, and his support of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act means a lot.”

Carl Parker, the long-time state senator and current Examiner columnist, knew Brooks for most of his life.

“Jack ran for office when I was a teenager. That was one of my first involvements in politics, nailing up signs for Brooks all the way from Port Arthur to Jasper along with my dad. Brooks was a lot like Lyndon Johnson in a way; he was a master of political maneuvering and how to move people in the legislative process,” he said.

Parker chuckled when asked to recall his long relationship with Brooks. “Jack and I have always been friends but I think he was a little leery for a short time that I may have ambitions to be in Congress,” recalled Parker. “I remember I was in Washington, D.C., one time and it was about 5 degrees and nasty weather, and I stopped by his office and told him, ‘Jack, I may consider living in Washington, D.C., to be a United States Senator, but I sure as heck wouldn’t do it just to be a Congressman.’ I think that kind of alleviated that stuff. He was a great friend of my dad’s, and he and I have always been good friends. He introduced me to the Supreme Court when I got admitted (to practice law before) the Supreme Court of the United States.”

But in 1994, the year of the Republican “Contract with America” led by Newt Gingrich finally caught up with Brooks. The 42 years he’d spent in Congress was seen as more of a liability than asset, and a lightly credentialed Republican who had run before named Steve Stockman narrowly ousted him. Well-funded Republicans, anti-abortion organizers and the gun lobby created a perfect storm that cost Brooks his seat.

After he came home for good, Brooks continued to receive prestigious awards. On April 23, 2001, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin presented the agency’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, to Brooks at a ceremony in the John Gray Center of Lamar University. Goldin cited Brooks’ longstanding support of the U.S. space program and praised his role in “strengthening the agency during its formative years.” Goldin, who served as NASA administrator from 1992 until 2002, added “Congressman Brooks took it upon himself to personally deliver support to one of the agency’s key programs: the design, development, and on-orbit assembly of the International Space Station.”

In 2010, a standing-room-only crowd at Jefferson County Commissioners Court cheered as county leaders voted unanimously to rename the Southeast Texas Regional Airport after Jack Brooks.

“This is an honor that is well-deserved for Jack Brooks,” said attorney Hubert Oxford III, who spearheaded the initiative along with attorney and local philanthropist Wayne Reaud. “Jack Brooks has done so much for our County. … if you drink water in Jefferson County, thank Jack Brooks. What I have found outstanding is that in the two weeks since we made this presentation that the number of people who called me to tell me their story and how Jack Brooks saved their house or he got someone’s veteran’s benefits or did that — on and on. The number of people he helped in our community is overwhelming. It is a great day for Jefferson County.”

Although we couldn’t have known it at the time, it was a great day for all of us in 1927 when the Brooks family moved to Beaumont with their young son Jack. We won’t see his likes again. Godspeed, Jack.

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