BROWN, RONALD HARMON
The career of Ronald Harmon Brown is a portrait of a consummate Washington, D.C., insider.
As an African American attorney, Brown broke several color barriers during his rapid rise in politics from the 1970s to the early 1990s. He first entered the public eye as a CIVIL RIGHTS leader for the NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE. Soon his reputation for persuasiveness and ingenuity led to a variety of assignments: political strategist to Senator EDWARD M. KENNEDY (D-Mass.) and JESSE JACKSON, chief counsel of the U.S. SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE, and lobbyist for foreign governments. In the 1980s, Brown became the first black chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He steered the DEMOCRATIC PARTY toward a more centrist position, thus helping prepare the way for President Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Clinton picked him to head the DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE.
Although Brown had some notable successes in reviving the lifeless bureaucracy, allegations of corruption damaged his tenure. Born on August 1, 1941, in Washington, D.C., Brown was raised in the company of successful role models. His parents,William Brown and Gloria Brown-Carter, were both graduates of Howard University, and they moved the family to Harlem, where William managed the Hotel Theresa. Brown grew up in the hotel, surrounded by famous black entertainers and celebrities: it was a stopover for them after playing
Harlem’s Apollo Theater.As a young man, he
attended Middlebury College, where he was the
school’s first black fraternity pledge. He married
Alma Arrington in 1962, and then served in the
Army from 1963 to 1967, attaining the rank of
captain. Leaving the service, he joined the
National Urban League as a WELFARE caseworker.
Brown did not toil in the trenches for
long. His skill at negotiation stood out, and,
after adding a law degree from St. John’s University,
he became the organization’s Washington,
D.C., vice president and assumed the role of
The give-and-take of politics suited Brown.
“What I love most,” he said, “is changing minds.”
In 1979 Brown’s association with the Democratic
party got a boost when Senator Kennedy
named Brown his deputy campaign manager in
an unsuccessful run at the presidency. The job
marked the beginning of a stellar ascent through
party politics. Kennedy chose Brown as chief
counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee—
and that position led to a stint as chief counsel
of the DNC, the party’s steering council. By the
mid-1980s, Brown was an insider, well-known
and highly regarded in the nation’s capital.
Politics offers alluring choices to its bestconnected
practitioners, liberal and conservative,
and Brown’s next career move was perfectly
in step with the ethos of Washington, D.C.
Brown became a lobbyist. He joined the Washington,
D.C., firm of Patton, Boggs, and Blow,
known for its high-profile clients. The attorney
had no shortage of these: the businesses he represented
included the financial giant American
Express and twenty-one different Japanese electronics
firms. Yet what gained him notoriety was
his representation of foreign nations.He worked
for the interests of Zaire, Guatemala, and Haiti,
and the last two affiliations, in particular, hurt
him. While he lobbied on behalf of Haitian
strongman Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier,
Haitian citizens suffered political repression and
saw their national treasury pillaged. Guatemalans
were tortured and murdered. Later,
when Brown prepared to assume the high position
of secretary of commerce, critics would be
quick to recall that he had supported dictators.
Democrats wanted Brown back, and he left
LOBBYING to become chairman of the DNC.
The job demanded much: Democrats, after all,
had failed to capture the White House since
1976. He had to unify a party that had lost three
consecutive presidential elections, seen massive
defections of its traditional voters, and suffered
from an identity crisis that split its moderate
and left-wing members. He also had to soothe
fears that he was too closely allied with one of
the party’s most liberal leaders, Jesse Jackson.
“My chairmanship won’t be about race,” he told
critics. “It will be about the races we win over the
next four years.” As it happened, Brown was
everything the ailing party hoped for. He helped
orchestrate a shift to the center in the Democrats’
national agenda—abandoning traditional
bullishness on taxation and welfare, for instance,
and asserting a pro-business outlook—which
paved the way for the centrist candidacy of Clinton.
And as a party boss, he was decisive. Once
Clinton emerged as the front-runner, Brown
curtailed the primary process; he even secured
Jackson’s endorsement. “This party was ready,”
Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s campaign manager,
said after the election, “and it was because of
Ron Brown . . . the best chairman we’ve ever
As a reward, Clinton nominated Brown for
the cabinet role of secretary of the Department
of Commerce. Originally conceived as a regulatory
agency, Commerce had seen better days; by
the 1990s, both liberal and conservative critics
considered it to be an ineffective bureaucracy
tied up in red tape. Despite his credentials and
the reform-minded talk of the Clinton administration,
Brown’s nomination faced some fears
and objections. Business worried about his
being too tough on it with new regulations.
Some critics, such as the Center for Public
Integrity, worried about the opposite. This nonpartisan
watchdog group argued that Brown was
too well connected to avoid potential conflicts of
interest: he would have to regulate industries
and foreign countries that he had once represented,
seemingly in contradiction to Clinton’s
promise to clamp down on the selling of influence
by political appointees. The group’s
December 1992 report, The Torturer’s Lobby,
hammered Brown for representing repressive
governments. Brown called the Center’s charges
an attempt at implying “guilt by association.”
The Senate confirmed him with little difficulty.
As commerce secretary, Brown won praise
for breathing new life into the department. He
revived its export programs, winning lucrative
multibillion-dollar contracts for U.S. aircraft
and TELECOMMUNICATIONS firms. He also
presided over a $900 million annual budget for
promoting high technology in small and
medium-sized business, nearly double the
amount spent during the administration of
GEORGE H. W. BUSH. The New Republic called
him “the most formidable Commerce secretary
since Herbert Hoover” (1 May 1995). Business
fears about his being too liberal proved to be
wrong; he was utterly pro-business, even to the
point of attracting criticism for helping McDonnell
Douglas Corporation secure contracts to
build aircraft in China. The liberal Committee
for Economic Organizing complained that he
was “promoting companies, not jobs.”
But scandals nearly sank Brown. In 1993,
during Brown’s first year as secretary of commerce,
a Vietnamese businessman alleged that
Brown had accepted a $700,000 bribe from the
government of Vietnam to remove a long-standing
trade embargo. Brown denied the charge; the
FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION conducted
a year-long probe, and he was ultimately cleared.
By late 1994, rumors spread in the press that he
would resign to run Clinton’s reelection campaign.
In February 1995, new allegations
emerged. U.S. attorney general JANET RENO
opened another criminal probe into Brown’s
personal finances. This time, congressional
Republicans accused him of violating disclosure
requirements and evading taxes. Brown again
denied any violation of law, but Republican critics
began calling for his dismissal—as well as the
elimination of the Department of Commerce
itself, which they called irrelevant and outdated.
In May 1995, fourteen Republican senators told
Attorney General Reno that fairness required
that the probe be conducted outside of the Clinton
administration. Reno agreed; she requested
the appointment of an INDEPENDENT COUNSEL
to examine Brown’s finances. Particularly troubling
was one odd-looking business deal: Brown
had earned nearly $500,000 from selling his
interest in a firm in which he had never invested.
Brown won high regard for his work in the
law. He was the recipient of two American
JURISPRUDENCE awards for outstanding
achievement in jurisprudence and for outstanding
scholastic achievement in poverty law. He served as a trustee of Middlebury College, and as
a board member of both the United Negro College
Fund and the University of the District of
Columbia. He was a fellow of the Institute of
Politics, at the JOHN F. KENNEDY School of Government,
at Harvard University.
On April 3, 1996, Brown was killed in a plane crash near the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, with thirty-two other Commerce Department officials and U.S. business executives. They had planned to explore investment opportunities for the reconstruction of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Brown, Tracey L. 1998. The Life and Times of Ron Brown: A Memoir. New York: Morrow.
Holmes, Steven A. 2000. Ron Brown: An Uncommon Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
“Ron Brown Remembered” 1996. The Washington Lawyer 10 (May-June): 30.
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