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Crusty Texan Takes Over Judiciary Committee

January 29, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When the Army Corps of Engineers general told Jack Brooks that the federal government would never build the proposed Sam Rayburn dam, a sneer crossed the face of the crusty Texas congressman.

″General,″ said Brooks as a hush fell over the committee room, ″long after you’re gone, I’m still going to be here and so is that dam.″

He is. And it is.

Today, Rayburn Dam stands astride the Angelina River, 10 miles north of Jasper in East Texas.

And Brooks, a tough, prickly Texas Democrat, stands astride the House Judiciary Committee, new chairman of the panel whose authority ranges over narcotics, gun control, civil rights and a host of other explosive issues.

Brooks, a gritty, 66-year-old ex-Marine, is renowned for the defiant jut of his cigar and putting House committee witnesses on the griddle.

Federal bureaucrats who sought to outfox Brooks, until now chairman of the House Government Operations, have emerged from the committee room pale and wobbly on their feet after getting a dose of his treatment.

In recent years, he pilloried the Air Force for excessive computer purchases costing an estimated $800 million and savaged the State Department for a costly attempt to replace the silverware in U.S. embassies around the globe.

With a flash of earthy humor, Brooks locked horns with the Reagan administration over a plan to expand lie-detector tests for federal employees.

″If the polygraph were worth a cotton-picking thing,″ he snorted, ″every wife in this place would buy one.″

Brooks was born Dec. 18, 1922, in Crowley, La. His father died when he was 12 and he was forced to go to work.

He worked his way through the University of Texas, was a reporter on his hometown Beaumont Enterprise, served in World War II and earned a law degree while sitting in the Texas legislature. He won a House seat in 1952.

Since then, he has come to dominate the district, and a decade ago the federal building there was named for him.

From the start, though, Brooks carved out a political style that at times verged on the downright ornery.

In one early campaign, his opponent called Brooks a communist. His response was pure Brooks.

He threatened to get a gun and shoot his opponent or anyone else who repeated the charge. Some old-timers claim he underscored the point at one stop by taking out a gun and placing it on the dais.

So proud of his fierce image is Brooks that once, when The Washington Post published a picture of him wearing an unusually mean expression, he went from one fellow lawmaker to another jubilantly showing it off.

Almost everyone agrees that a key influence was the late Speaker Sam Rayburn, D-Texas, the most powerful man in Congress when Brooks arrived.

″Mr. Sam″ liked to mete out excruciating political punishments to those who crossed him and Brooks learned from the old master, saving his choicest acid-tinged remarks for committee witnesses caught diverting from the truth.

″He has a real penchant for zeroing in on something like that,″ says administrative assistant Sharon Matts. ″He just sort of smells it.″

Understandably, Europeans grumbled several years ago when Brooks became president of the North Atlantic Assembly, a group of parliamentarians from NATO nations. Their style and his were never quite in sync.

Indeed, Brooks once led a junket on which the Americans were dined royally at a palatial country estate owned by an English nobleman. Afterward, Brooks toasted the host and, his eye resting momentarily on an oil portrait over the hearth, added thanks ″to your daddy, the Duke, who made all this possible.″

Today, Brooks is a far cry from the awestruck poor boy who came here three decades ago. A Dallas Times-Herald story in 1978 told how Brooks engaged in sophisticated real estate and bank investments that led to some hefty insurance commissions.

It was all perfectly legal, but the stories showed that behind the just- folks manner lay a complex mind capable of deft financial footwork. For a time, Brooks grew testy about it and toward the author, Paul West.

One old-time Texas journalist tells how he sat down next to Brooks at a Texas delegation meeting and was asked by the congressman if he happened to know West. The answer was yes.

Brooks fell silent a moment, blew an immense cloud of cigar smoke into the air and said finally, ″I’d like to take that boy a-huntin’.″

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