Brown, Ron(ald) Harmon

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Brown, Ron(ald) Harmon

(b. 1 August 1941 in Washington, D.C.; d. 3 April 1996 near Dubrovnik, Croatia), lawyer, first African American leader of a national political party, and secretary of commerce.

Brown, the only child of William Harmon Brown, a hotel manager, and Gloria Elexine Osborne, a salesperson, grew up amid the expanding black middle class that emerged during World War II. His father graduated from Howard University in 1941 and worked for the federal government until 1947, when he became the manager of the Hotel Theresa in New York City, which was just down the block from Harlem’s world-famous Apollo Theatre. Thus Brown’s formative years were spent in the Theresa, the favorite hotel of visiting black entertainers, sports figures, and politicians.

Brown grew up in Harlem, which was almost exclusively black. However, the student bodies of the prestigious schools he attended, Hunter Elementary School for Gifted Children, the Walden School, and finally the Rhodes School, from which he graduated in June 1958, contained only a few African American children. When his parents separated in early 1958, Brown continued to live with his father at the Theresa until September, when he enrolled in Middlebury College, a small school in Vermont. One of three African Americans in the entire student body, Brown became the first black ever admitted to a fraternity at Middlebury. Both of his parents remarried, and Brown gained a half brother by his father’s second marriage.

In June 1962 Brown received a B.A. degree in political science and a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. As he was not to report for active duty until March 1963, he took courses at St. John’s University Law School in Queens, New York. On 11 August 1962 he married Alma Arrington, a graduate of Fisk University. The couple had two children.

Brown served with the U.S. Army in Virginia, Germany (where he was the first black officer in his unit), and Korea, attaining the rank of captain before his discharge in June 1967. He immediately enrolled in night school at St. John’s University Law School, where he was the only black student. During the day he worked for the National Urban League.

After graduating from law school in June 1970, Brown advanced to ever more responsible positions with the National Urban League, becoming its general counsel in January 1972. In October 1973 he was named the director of the league’s Washington, D.C., bureau. He acted as a liaison between the league and government agencies, lobbying for funds and legislation on key issues, such as equal opportunity. He testified before committees, drafted legislation, published reports, and slowly developed the political connections that eventually gained him the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

In December 1979 Brown left the league to work on Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign. Kennedy lost the Democratic nomination to the incumbent, President Jimmy Carter, but in September 1980 Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, named Brown the chief counsel to the committee. The appointment was not effective until the end of the year, so in the interim Brown served as a consultant to the committee and was a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, where he taught a weekly seminar.

When the Republicans took control of the Senate in January 1981, Kennedy lost his chairmanship, and Brown became the minority counsel. Brown left that position to join Kennedy’s staff until he was named the general counsel to the DNC in April. In July 1981 Brown, who always appeared in public impeccably dressed and sported a large mustache that could not hide his “baby face” and impish smile, resigned to become the first African American partner at the prestigious Washington lobbying law firm of Patten, Boggs & Blow.

Brown maintained ties to the DNC but turned his energies to lobbying the government on behalf of his clients, including Haiti, then under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Many black leaders opposed any dealings with Haiti because of its numerous human rights violations, but Brown claimed the Haitian people would be helped through “commercial diplomacy,” which he hoped would force the Duvalier regime to reform its human rights policies in return for U.S. aid.

In 1984 Brown declined to work on the presidential campaign of the reverend Jesse Jackson, and in 1988 he declined to become Jackson’s campaign manager. However, in May 1988 Brown reluctantly agreed to be Jackson’s convention manager. Brown was later credited with brokering a deal between Jackson and the Democratic nominee, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, that helped prevent a breakup of the party and a split in the black leadership over Jackson’s candidacy.

In December 1988 Paul Kirk, chairman of the DNC, announced he would not seek reelection. Despite opposition from many southern Democrats, some of it blatantly racist, Brown sought the post. One by one his rivals withdrew, and Brown was elected by acclamation on 10 February 1989. He declared that his chairmanship would not be about race but about winning races for the Democratic party. He fulfilled his promise when he refused to support a black candidate running as an independent in a special mayoral election in Chicago in 1989. Instead he worked for the Democratic nominee and eventual winner of the contest, Richard M. Daley.

As the chair of the DNC, Brown, who remained a full though nonworking partner at Patten, Boggs & Blow, raised money for the Democratic party with the ultimate goal of capturing the White House in 1992. During the primary campaign he concluded that Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was the candidate most likely to defeat the incumbent George Bush. Despite scandals that plagued Clinton during the campaign, Brown devised a winning strategy. The Democrats attacked Bush as too interested in foreign affairs to the neglect of domestic problems, which gave birth to the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Although Brown would have preferred to be the secretary of state, he accepted Clinton’s offer of the Department of Commerce. To win Senate confirmation Brown agreed to sever all ties with his lucrative law practice. He also gave up the chairmanship of the DNC on 23 January 1993. Brown took a tremendous cut in pay to become the first African American secretary of commerce, and the job also took a toll on his reputation. In August 1993 he was accused of accepting $700,000 from the government of Vietnam in exchange for pushing the Clinton administration to normalize U.S.–Vietnamese relations. The Justice Department formally cleared Brown of those charges in February 1994.

Meanwhile Brown pressed ahead with efforts to “grow” the economy and provide jobs for American workers by securing foreign contracts for American companies. He led trade missions to numerous countries, and American businesspeople scrambled for inclusion. Republicans, who took control of both houses of Congress in January 1995, charged that Brown “sold” places on trade missions in return for contributions to the Democratic party, and they called for the abolishment of the Commerce Department.

Congressman William Clinger, Jr., the new chairman of the House Governmental Oversight and Reform Committee, accused Brown of violating financial disclosure rules and claimed to have uncovered questionable dealings from which Brown profited. On 16 May 1995 Attorney General Janet Reno asked for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the allegations. On 6 July 1995 a federal judicial panel appointed Daniel Pearson to the post. Pearson assembled a staff and began his investigation, but he declined to pursue the matter after Brown’s death in a plane crash in Croatia. Brown had been leading a trade mission composed largely of American business executives who were seeking contracts for projects aimed at reconstructing the war-torn region. Brown’s plane, an Air Force version of a Boeing 737, missed the approach to Cilipi Airport in stormy weather and crashed into a nearby mountain. All thirty-five people aboard were killed.

Brown’s body was returned to Washington, D.C. After a funeral service at Washington National Cathedral on 10 April 1996, Brown was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Brown, who compiled a remarkable list of African American “firsts,” was a controversial figure. His supporters contended that he was the victim of unwarranted attacks, often racially motivated, and that he was a surrogate for the enmity of the enemies of his boss. Unable to get at Clinton, they unjustly attacked the man who helped put him in the presidency. On the other hand, Brown’s detractors charged that he was corrupt and used his position for personal gain. In addition, the circumstances of his death have led to several conspiracy theories, including the allegation that Brown died of a gunshot wound to the head before his plane crashed. Adherents to this theory appear to believe Brown was murdered to silence him, and his plane was destroyed to cover the crime.

Tracey L. Brown’s loving memoir of her father, The Life and Times of Ron Brown (1998), tends toward the filiopietistic; however, it is invaluable for personal details about Brown’s family, life, and career. More critical is Steven A. Holmes, Ron Brown: An Uncommon Life (2000), a “warts-and-all” portrait of a smooth political operator. Nicholas A. Guarino, Murder in the First Degree:An Interim Report on the Death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 Other United States Citizens (1996), contends that Brown, who “knew too much,” had to be silenced before he brought down the Clinton presidency, and his plane was deliberately crashed to cover his murder. Daniel Pearson, Final Report of the Independent Counsel in Re: Ronald H. Brown (1996), sets forth the rationale for shutting down the investigation of the allegations against Brown because of his death. Sean Wilentz, “The Fixer as Statesman: Ron Brown and the Perils of Public Service,” New Yorker (15 Apr. 1996), provides a brief but perceptive assessment of Brown’s services to the Democratic Party and the nation. See also Memorial Tributes Delivered in Congress: Ronald H. Brown, 1941–1996, Secretary of Commerce (1997). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 4 Apr. 1996), Time (15 Apr. 1996), and Ebony (June 1996).

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