"A heavyweight among both Texas histories and the significant chronicles of the modern United States Congress"

BIOGRAPHY/HISTORY

Timothy J. McNulty (author), Brendan McNulty (author), Jim Wright (preface)

The Meanest Man in Congress: Jack Brooks and the Making of an American Century

NewSouth Books

Hardcover (also available as an e-book), 978-1-5883-8321-1, 576 pgs., $32.95

May 10, 2019

 

This biographical account of Jack Brooks’s extraordinary grit, resolve, and selfless service is a heavyweight among both Texas histories and the significant chronicles of the modern United States Congress. It’s a rewarding read once you accept the book’s terms: The narrative is episodic, cutting from topic to topic through a variety of viewpoints. Given the richness of impeccably sourced historical information, this cutaway narrative style is probably the most efficient way to deliver the multiple and detailed perspectives of key events.

 

For example, in the narrative of Brooks’s early years, the focus shifts from Jack Brooks to a new heading, “Grace Brooks,” then proceeds with both his mother’s early history as well as some wry quotes from her interactions with Brooks as a young man:

 

            “I wouldn’t answer [the phone] if it was Jesus Christ himself calling,” Jack says.

            “Don’t worry dear,” Grace Brooks answers, “If he called, it wouldn’t be for you.”

 

The authors portray Brooks’s early years as one part duty to two parts dogged determination in an all-American, classic midcentury story. He labored relentlessly and without complaint to help support his family even as a young teenager and all the way through early adulthood as a Marine Corps officer. He worked predawn– and late-night hours to pay for his University of Texas education while still sending money home. Brooks was never above parlaying a good deal, and from that knack stemmed an early and successful political career at the University of Texas and, eventually, in congress representing his home district of Beaumont, Texas.

 

No matter how hard Brooks worked—and he toiled mightily to surmount his short stature and skinny build—he did so with a sense of duty to his country and service to others, tempered with an innate sense of right and wrong. After the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Brooks literally fought his way—with his mother’s signature—into the Marine Corps as a teen and volunteered for the worst, most dangerous duty in the bloody Pacific theater.

 

Time and again he shunned rear-echelon posts in the combat zone in favor of deadly frontline fighting from Guadalcanal to Guam and Taipan and, eventually, one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the US Marine assault on Okinawa. Brooks never complained and fought like a legendary leatherneck: Commanding a platoon under fire in a bobbing landing craft approaching the bloody Okinawa beachhead, Brooks gave his sidearm to his sergeant and said, “If the LST driver doesn’t drop us off close-in on the beach, shoot him.”

 

Brooks served his country at war and again in peacetime under ten presidents and through forty years in congress, crafting landmark, bipartisan legislative compromises that always adhered to his sense of fairness and duty. Of course, Brooks was never above securing a good deal in the process, and that included helping Lyndon Johnson bring the bulk of the US space program, with its billion-dollar funding, to Texas.

 

By the end of this intriguing, detailed history, the reader is so impressed with relentless, cigar-chomping, deal-making congressman Brooks that it’s hard to resist a resentful backlash against the authors’ poor choice in the book’s opening chapter: Given Brooks’s remarkable life story, his doggedly won success, his sense of duty over self, his lifetime service to his country in uniform and in congress, it’s inexplicable that the authors dropped their pin in the map of history on one of the darkest, most horrendous days in the twentieth century, opening the biography with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas—for thirty pages.

 

Even in that dark hour, Brooks offered vital and timely counsel to newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson. But coincidentally being six cars back in the fatal motorcade is more of a footnote of happenstance than the epicenter of Brooks’s—or the late president’s—storied life and epic accomplishments. From a Texas point of view, there were so many better opportunities to open this biography in scenes of triumph rather than tragedy (in Houston for the return of the first moon landing crew, for example) that the authors’ choice borders on disrespect to Brooks, to Dallas, and to Texas.

 

Beyond that unfortunate pitfall, this book is an important historical account of one of the most remarkable men from Texas to serve this country at war and in peacetime, at home and in congress. The detail is fascinating, the narrative captivating. This is a worthwhile read.

 

Timothy J. McNulty is a journalist, former White House correspondent, and former public editor for the Chicago Tribune. He was a lecturer and then Codirector for the National Security Journalism Initiative in the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

 

Brendan McNulty is the son of Timothy J. McNulty and a senior consultant with the World Bank. The Meanest Man in Congress is their first book.