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An honor for a Senate pioneer

The crisp cadence of a fife-and-drum corps reverberated through the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday morning, the august room packed with nearly 500 people craning their necks to see the remarkable tableau arranged on a stage before them.

There sat Edward William Brooke III, who grew up in a segregated neighborhood not far from the Capitol, fought in a segregated Army in World War II and returned to Washington in 1967, the first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote -- and on this day, the recipient of the highest honor Congress can bestow, the Congressional Gold Medal.

And there sat President Obama, whose stunning electoral journey to the White House seemed no more improbable than the one made four decades earlier by the 90-year-old man who sat beside him, a black Protestant Republican who won in the overwhelmingly white, Catholic, Democratic state of Massachusetts. After Obama heralded Brooke for a life spent "breaking barriers and bridging divides," the two men embraced tightly. It was a reminder of how much this country has changed in their lifetimes.

Brooke is a tall and expressive man, unstooped by age, quick to smile and careful to put others at ease. His voice carries more of his youth at Shaw Junior High than his adulthood in Boston. On Wednesday, he wore a gold-striped tie and a dark jacket. And he turned his full charisma on Nancy Pelosi, noting, with some wonderment, "now the speaker of the House is . . . a . . . lady!"

In his two terms in the Senate, Brooke took up the causes of low-income housing, increasing the minimum wage and furthering mass transit. He took on big tobacco. A strong proponent of civil rights from his days as Massachusetts's attorney general, he was a lonely Republican voice against school segregation and for reproductive rights for women. Eventually, he took on his own president. Brooke, noted Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on Wednesday, introduced legislation to name a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, and he became the first senator in either party to call for President Richard M. Nixon's resignation.

Such a coalition-builder was Brooke, Obama said, that his "fan base includes Gloria Steinem, Barney Frank and Ted Kennedy -- as well as Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney and George W. Bush," who awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

"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," Obama said.

Brooke's way was "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," the president said. "He ran for office, as he put it, 'to bring people together who had never been together before.' And that he did."

It was a far different time, of course. A third of the Republican caucus was considered liberal or moderate. The South was still a Democratic stronghold.

Wednesday was the first time Brooke had met the president. When Obama entered the Senate, the two men talked on the phone once. They exchanged their books, "each with kind inscriptions," Brooke said in an interview. "He wrote, 'You paved the way for us' or something like that, and I said something like, 'You are a worthy bearer of the torch.' "

He is proud of what Obama has accomplished, he said. "What really pleases me is that he is trying his best and succeeding with what he said he would do. The problem people have with politicians is that they say what they are gonna do, and that is the end of it."

Brooke added that he was particularly touched that Obama signed legislation Wednesday that extends protection from hate crimes to gay men and lesbians, a cause he first advanced in the 1960s.

Brooke said the two men "share a pragmatism" that enabled each of them to vault over old fears. When he first sought statewide office as attorney general, he said, "I heard it: 'White voters will never vote for you.' And I would say: 'We've been voting for whites all these years. I can't see any reason why, if the candidate has integrity and intelligence and commitment and ideas, he can't be elected to statewide office.' "

Brooke, too, angered supporters who thought he was not moving quickly enough or speaking loudly enough as the lone black member of the Senate.

But, he said: "While I could rabble-rouse in my time, I made a lot of enemies by saying, 'I am not a civil rights leader, I am a politician. They are doing their job, and I welcome it. My job is to be a legislator, and to get things done in the Congress.' "

In a period of about 10 years after the Civil War, the Mississippi legislature voted twice to send black men to the Senate. In 1913, the 17th Amendment allowed voters to elect their senators directly. Only four African Americans have served in the Senate in the nearly 100 years since then: Brooke, Carol Moseley Braun, Obama and Obama's successor from Illinois, Roland W. Burris, who was controversially appointed by the governor.

After he lost his bid for a third term and left the Senate, Brooke practiced law in Washington and became chairman of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. After he received a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2002, he spoke out to raise awareness of the disease in men.

On Wednesday, Brooke discussed the things he believes Congress still must do. As sunlight glinted through the windows high in the marble dome, he talked from the stage about the halting economy, multiple wars and "people who still are hungry, who still are homeless," and he charged his former colleagues to get busy.

And then, he displayed a flash of the fortitude he used when cajoling fellow lawmakers. Using the license accorded to a man who has lived for 90 years, Brooke turned, fixed his eyes on McConnell and directly addressed the Senate Republican leader.

"We've got to get together," Brooke lectured, with a smile. McConnell fidgeted. The crowd burst into applause, and McConnell joined in. "We have no alternative. There's nothing left. It's time for politics to be put aside on the back burner."