Danny Brewster savors new life in the slow lane

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 08, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Danny Brewster was one of life's golden boys for a while, but then the glitter went away. Now the story can be told: On the surface, it was merely a political career that went bad. Behind the scenes, a life was coming unraveled.

Some of Brewster's friends packed into a big room at Captain Harvey's, in Owings Mills, the other night to tell him they love him. Brewster walked into the place and his jaw dropped at the sight. In all the years of politics, of charity work, of unsung and unpaid efforts, nobody had ever given him such a testimonial.

But these were the people who understood the trials of Danny Brewster, the war hero who came home not just to a career in politics, but to a sense of mid-century mission, a notion of the country embracing a new kind of race relations. And they understood how it had all gone bad when the drinking took control of his life.

For a time, though, the days and nights were golden and giddy: Brewster in the Maryland legislature by day and the Maryland Inn by night. They still talk about the time he wanted a colleague to change his vote. The colleague said no. Brewster, big and strong, dangled the colleague outside a hotel third floor window until the colleague had a change of heart.

Or that night at Carvel Hall, when the wind was whipping through the place and the thermostat was too low. Baltimore delegates, huddled in a big room, were freezing. Somebody called the front desk and asked for more heat. A snotty bellboy told them, "Why don't you just bust up the furniture and throw it in the fireplace."

So they did. To make matters worse, nobody remembered to open the fireplace flue, and everybody had to run into the street, choking on smoke, in their underclothes.

The days were more productive. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, quickly embraced by Lyndon Johnson, Brewster found himself in the Washington fast lane: assistant majority leader, LBJ insider, the future big as the horizon.

In 1964, Johnson asked him to stand in against George Wallace, when the segregationist governor of Alabama ran in the Maryland presidential primary. Brewster beat him, but not without heavy cost. Lots of people didn't like all this new talk of racial equality.

The drinking was beginning to take its toll now, and a difficult political season led to even greater intake. As he traveled the state, talking of the need for racial understanding, he was cursed and spat upon. He grew despondent.

He met Wallace on the nationally televised "Issues and Answers," Howard K. Smith the host. Wallace read a racist statement and then asked Brewster for a response. Brewster condemned it. Wallace dropped the other shoe: They were Lyndon Johnson's own words, from years earlier.

Brewster stumbled his way out of it, but barely: Johnson had grown, he said; the country had changed. But Wallace had thrown him off-balance. He felt foolish and depressed and turned to more drink.

By 1968, it was all coming undone. In what he called the worst mistake of his life, he went along with Johnson over Vietnam. In retrospect, he'd known war too well to let himself be manipulated this way, had seen too much suffering to let war be dictated by such naked politicking and ego.

And the drinking was now affecting his work and his personal life. His first marriage ended. His campaign finances were shaky. Old-time friend Charles McC. Mathias -- he'd been best man at Mathias' wedding, and Mac was godfather to Brewster's first son -- approached him one day and said, "Somebody's gonna run against you, and it might as well be me."

Mathias beat him. Brewster slipped from sight, surfaced briefly over an earlier campaign finance violation, got divorced a second time, checked into a hospital for the first of several times, tried to dry out.

Finally, having hit bottom, he cleaned out his system. A third marriage followed, and he and Judy have been together since the mid-70s. There are three teen-age children from this marriage, two grown sons from the first marriage: Danny Jr., now an executive with Life Magazine, and Gerry, the state delegate from Baltimore County.

And the old man has turned his life around: lecturing on alcoholism, heading the state AIDS Commission, the Korean War Memorial Commission, a trustee at Franklin Square Hospital.

Who said there are no second acts in American life? Brewster's has been a triumph. The other night, his old friends told him so. And Danny Brewster's not afraid to tell everybody the whole story.

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