April 4, 1996 in Nation/World

Trademark Enthusiasm Guided Ron Brown’s Life

Washington Post
 

In the summer of 1991, when then-President Bush appeared invincible, few Democrats believed they could win back the White House. But Ronald H. Brown never doubted it would happen. “Nobody had hope,” said John Marino, who then was the New York Democratic chairman. “And you’d go to a meeting and Ron Brown was saying we’re going to win - and it gave you hope.”

Brown’s infectious enthusiasm and selfconfidence were at the heart of an extraordinary life that ended Wednesday in a remote corner of the world. It was a life rooted in politics and public service that bridged black and white America and brought him success as a Washington lawyer, Democratic Party leader and central figure in the Clinton administration.

The first African American to head the Commerce Department, Brown, 54, also was the first black elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and in that capacity rebuilt and reinvigorated a demoralized party and played a pivotal role in the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992.

Brown was known by friends as a man of great charm and graciousness who had few doubts about his own ability to succeed, a deep desire to break racial barriers and the kind of energy and ebullience that influenced those around him.

He was also one of Washington’s consummate operators, whether bringing peace to warring factions of the Democratic Party, acting as a rainmaker bringing business to his law firm or brokering deals between foreign governments and U.S. businesses.

“Ron could accomplish anything because he didn’t believe he couldn’t do it,” said John E. Jacob, former head of the National Urban League and now an executive at Anheuser-Busch Cos. “He did something everyone but him thought was impossible when he became chairman of the DNC and led the party back to the White House.”

Jesse Jackson, for whom Brown worked during the 1988 presidential campaign, noted that Brown had grown up in Harlem and was the only black in his class at Middlebury College. “He walked with amazing acumen between the cultures and learned about bridge building in his formative years,” Jackson said.

At the height of his success, as a commerce secretary with more access and clout at the White House than any before him, Brown was hit by allegations about his financial dealings that resulted in the appointment of a special prosecutor.

The inquiry, which began more than a year ago, focused on Brown’s partnership with Texas businesswoman Nolanda Hill. Friends said the probe had taken a toll on Brown and his family, particularly after it widened to include his son, Michael Brown.

President Clinton, speaking at the Commerce Department Wednesday afternoon, praised Brown as “one of the best advisers and ablest people I ever knew.

“Whether he was the commerce secretary or a civil rights leader or something else, he was always out there just giving it his all. And he always believed that his mission in life was to put people’s dreams within their reach if they were willing to work for it and believe in themselves.”

Brown, seemingly at ease with everyone, was nonetheless a complicated man who had straddled two worlds his entire life.

A pampered only child, Brown was born in Washington and raised in Harlem at the height of a renaissance of black musicians and artists there. His family lived in the Theresa Hotel at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, where his father was the manager, and across the street from the famous Apollo Theater.

At home in the elite world of black entertainment personalities, Brown attended white private schools before he went on to Middlebury in Vermont, where he had a job waiting tables at the college dormitory, and St. John’s University Law School, where one of his professors was former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

“He was one of the few politicians who could do all that had to be done,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. “He was a master strategist, extraordinary fund-raiser, unparalleled spokesperson and had an uncanny knowledge of policy. Usually people have only one or two of those skills. He was a renaissance man of politics.”

Brown began law school at night, working as a welfare caseworker during the day. But his legal education was interrupted by four years in the Army in Korea and Germany. He finished law school at night.

He married Alma Arrington in 1962. Both his son, Michael, and his daughter, Tracey, are lawyers. Brown had two grandchildren.

In 1967, Brown joined the National Urban League, honing his skills at speechmaking and negotiation. He rose to become the league’s deputy executive director, general counsel and vice president of its Washington office.

His political career began when he joined the presidential campaign of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who was challenging then-President Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination.

Brown ran Kennedy’s campaign in California, a state crucial to the challenger’s hopes of carrying his fight to the Democratic national convention. Lacking the money to run a media campaign, Brown devised a strategy that ultimately allowed Kennedy to carry the state - although he failed to win the nomination.

In 1988, Jackson attempted to recruit Brown for his second run at the Democratic nomination, but Brown, apparently believing Jackson could not win the nomination, resisted. Later, however, he agreed to manage the Democratic convention for Jackson and played a crucial role in the tense negotiations between Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and the Jackson forces.

Dukakis’ loss to Bush that fall left the Democratic Party in a shambles, but immediately after the election Brown decided to seek the chairmanship of the DNC, much to the surprise of his friends.

“I said he was crazy. I tried to talk him out of it for two weeks,” said Carl Wagner, a veteran Democratic strategist and long-time friend, who ended up managing the campaign.

Brown’s detractors said his connections to Kennedy and Jackson made him exactly the wrong symbol to lead a party seeking to regain support among white and Southern voters, but he overcame his critics, won the election and went on to become one of the most effective Democratic chairmen in decades.

“When the history books are written, they’ll show that Ron Brown unified the party and built the base for President Clinton’s victory in 1992,” said George Stephanopoulos, senior adviser to Clinton.

After Clinton’s election, friends urged Brown to go into business. Brown instead wanted a Cabinet post.

“He said I want to do something in this administration no black has ever done,” said Robert L. Johnson, chairman of Black Entertainment Television and a long-time friend, said.

Commerce appealed to Brown partly because he was breaking new ground and because Clinton persuaded him that he wanted his Commerce secretary to play a new role.

“He has been indispensable because he was at the center of what the president thinks is one of the most important things his presidency is about, which is keeping America in a leadership role in the global economy,” McCurry said.

Brown made numerous trips to foreign countries as Commerce Secretary to cement the relationships between U.S. businesses and other governments.

Jackson said there was something fitting about the way Brown died, “in service to his country in a war-torn region trying to connect the world through communication, which he felt would lead to economic growth.”

Then Jackson added: “He was in the noon day of his life and the sun has suddenly been eclipsed.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: RON BROWN Born: Aug. 1, 1941, Washington, D.C.; raised in Harlem Democratic National Committee: Held several leadership posts, 1981-89; chairman, 1989-1992 Other political work: Legislative chair, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 1976-79; deputy national presidential campaign manager, Sen. Edward Kennedy, 1979-80; Democratic Convention manager, Jesse Jackson, 1988; senior adviser, Dukakis campaign, 1988 Professional work: Deputy executive director, National Urban League, 1968-1979; chief counsel, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, 1980; staff director for Sen. Kennedy, 1981; partner, Patton, Boggs & Blow, 1981-1992. Commerce Secretary: Appointed by President Clinton, 1992 Firsts: First black leader of major political party; first black partner of law firm Patton, Boggs & Blow

Sources: Democratic National Committee, Who’s Who in America, KRT News Service, news reports Knight-Ridder Tribune

This sidebar appeared with the story: RON BROWN Born: Aug. 1, 1941, Washington, D.C.; raised in Harlem Democratic National Committee: Held several leadership posts, 1981-89; chairman, 1989-1992 Other political work: Legislative chair, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 1976-79; deputy national presidential campaign manager, Sen. Edward Kennedy, 1979-80; Democratic Convention manager, Jesse Jackson, 1988; senior adviser, Dukakis campaign, 1988 Professional work: Deputy executive director, National Urban League, 1968-1979; chief counsel, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, 1980; staff director for Sen. Kennedy, 1981; partner, Patton, Boggs & Blow, 1981-1992. Commerce Secretary: Appointed by President Clinton, 1992 Firsts: First black leader of major political party; first black partner of law firm Patton, Boggs & Blow

Sources: Democratic National Committee, Who’s Who in America, KRT News Service, news reports Knight-Ridder Tribune


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