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Obama honors Brooke as bridge builder

From NBC's Athena Jones
WASHINGTON -- Inspiration, trailblazer, uniter were all words used to describe former Massachusetts Sen. Edward William Brooke as congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle gathered Wednesday in the Capitol Rotunda to honor the first African-American to be elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, House Republican Leader John Boehner and Sen. John Kerry joined President Obama at a ceremony to present Brooke with the Congressional gold medal, the highest civilian award presented by the legislative branch. It was an award made possible by legislation introduced by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a lifelong friend of Brooke's. Kennedy's widow Vicki Kennedy, was in the audience for today's presentation.

The first black president -- a man who made history himself last November -- lauded Brooke as a man who spent his life breaking barriers and bridging divides across the country.

"Today's honor bears a unique significance, bestowed by this body of which he was an esteemed member, presented in this place where he moved the arc of history, surrounded by so many -- myself included -- who have followed the trail that he blazed," Obama said.

The president told the story of Brooke's "unlikely" journey, from growing up in a neighborhood so segregated that black residents needed a note from a white resident just to pass through, to fighting heroically in his segregated Army unit in World War II to establishing his own law firm after being rejected by Boston's "old line" firms, and he noted that he wasn't discouraged from running for statewide office as a black, Republican, Protestant in a state that was largely white, Democratic and Catholic.

"It was, to say the least, an improbable profile for the man who would become the first African-American state attorney general, and the first popularly elected African-American senator," Obama said. "But that was Ed Brooke's way -- 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. He ran for office, as he put it, 'to bring people together who had never been together before.' And that he did."

Obama hailed Brooke's ability to build a "fan base" of people of wide-ranging political ideologies like feminist activist Gloria Steinem, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, Kennedy, McConnell, Mitt Romney and former President George W. Bush -- and said it showed he was a "coalition-builder."

He drew the biggest applause when he spoke of the need to set aside political differences after the campaign season and work together, to embrace what he called Brooke's spirit "to compete aggressively at the polls, but then work selflessly together to serve the nation we love. To look for the best in each other, to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and to remember that we're here for a purpose far greater than the sum of our own hopes, needs and ambitions."

The biracial president from Hawaii, a son of a Kenyan student and a white woman from Kansas who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, broke barriers with his own campaign, a campaign in which he promised to be a uniter who favored pragmatism over ideology and who pledged to change the way business is done in Washington.

According to the latest NBC/WSJ poll, he has so far fallen short. When asked whether Obama was "uniting the country," only 38% of respondents agreed compared with 57% in April. On the question of "changing business as usual" 38% agreed compared with 47% in April, while on the more general question of "achieving his goals" 37% of respondents agreed that he was, compared to 60 percent in April.