Sen. Bill Brock, RIP

Remembering Senator Bill Brock: A Conservative Internationalist who was in the Arena

I’m going to miss Senator Bill Brock.  The former Tennessee Senator Bill Brock passed away at age 90 on Thursday, March 25th, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Senator Brock was a major statesman of the 20th century, but few under the age of 50 know him. He dedicated his life to public service and worked tirelessly to revitalize the Republican party in the late 1970s after Watergate. Mr. Brock was long associated with CSIS and worked closely with CSIS’s co-founder, Dr. David M. Abshire, also from Tennessee. He contributed immensely to CSIS, both as a Counselor and as a Trustee.

I first met Senator Brock when he was campaigning for the Senate in Maryland in 1994. I voted for him, but he lost that year against Senator Paul Sarbanes. 

Born a Democrat, Senator Brock began his career as a Republican in the late 1950’s. His family owned The Brock Candy Company. The company was founded by Brock’s grandfather, William E. Brock Sr., who served as a Democratic senator from 1929 to 1931. In 1962, Bill Brock was elected to Congress from Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional district, the first Republican to win the seat in over 40 years. Mr. Brock would go on to serve four terms as a representative before running against Senator Al Gore Sr. in 1970. Senator Brock defeated Senator Gore and served one term as a senator where he sponsored and co-sponsored a series of significant pieces of legislation. While in the Senate, he advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment. He was a senator in the tradition of other conservative internationalists from Tennessee such as Howard Baker, Bill Frist, and Lamar Alexander. Mr. Brock lost his bid for re-election in 1976 to Democrat Jim Sasser.  Jimmy Carter, a Southern Democrat, easily carried Tennessee that year, and Jimmy Carter had “coattails.”

After leaving the Senate, Mr. Brock was named chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). His leadership came at a time when the party was recovering from the Watergate scandal. Between 1977 and 1981, he worked to bolster the image of the Republican party. Mr. Brock was widened the reach of the Republican party and made significant efforts to get Republicans elected to local and state offices.  He was called the “architect of the Republican revival” in 1980, playing a major role in Ronald Reagan’s victory and GOP control of the Senate, winning 12 seats.

President Reagan asked Senator Brock to be the U.S. Trade Representative. During his tenure from 1981 to 1985, trade tensions with Japan were very high. And he worked to incentivize the first voluntary quotas of Japanese automobile sales in the U.S.  He played key roles in the US-Canada FTA and what became NAFTA.  He advocated the ‘group of the willing’ negotiating style whereby bilateral or limited country agreements set the stage for precedent-setting multilateral deals.  He also stood firm against trade deals he judged not to be in the United States’ interest.

In 1985, President Reagan asked Mr. Brock to lead the Department of Labor. As Secretary of Labor from 1985 to 1987, he focused on various aspects of job training and productivity. He also actively promoted non-confrontational labor-management cooperation and focused on improving the health and safety of U.S. workers.

He ran Senator Bob Dole’s 1988 Presidential campaign in the primary against George HW Bush.  Bush won the primary against Dole.

After leaving the government, he worked on commissions to reform American education. In 1990, Mr. Brock was invited to chair the Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, which significantly reformed elementary and secondary education. In addition, he would also lead the Commission of Skills of the American Workforce.

Senator Brock competed as a partisan and reached across the aisle when he could strike bipartisan agreement to solve a problem.

He had a long-time and very active association with CSIS.  No matter his busy schedule, he always made time to advise and assist “younger people” like me. When my colleagues or I needed someone of “stature” to help convene a group, he never failed to make himself available.  He always stood ready to contribute his vast experience to help tackle current issues. He will be greatly missed.

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