NEW YORK -- When Jesse Jackson spoke to the Democratic National Convention here the other night in a distinctly subordinate role, he was notably sparing in his praise of presidential nominee Bill Clinton. But he talked of the "genius of Ron Brown," the party chairman whose genius included squeezing an endorsement of Clinton from Jackson as the price of letting him address the party.
It was a recognition of Brown's deft handling of the job he won 3 1/2 years ago amid expressed concerns that he would be a tool of Jackson, or of Ted Kennedy, or of black Democrats generally. He was, after all, seeking to become the party's first black chairman after having been 1988 presidential candidate Jackson's convention manager and before that an aide to Kennedy.
Over that time, Brown has managed not only to quiet those concerns but also to keep Jackson, who was a thorn in the party's side at the 1984 and 1988 conventions, on the reservation. At the same time, he has shown a toughness when necessary, as in his firmness toward former Gov. Jerry Brown in refusing to give him a formal speaking spot on last week's convention agenda unless Brown agreed to endorse Clinton. The Californian was obliged to use time allocated for placing his own name in nomination to speak.
In all these functions, the chairman showed an unflappability and sense of humor. Asked what he would do if Jerry Brown spoke too long once he got on the platform, he noted that the platform could be raised and lowered, then added with a grin: "Just joking."
Later, a reporter told him the former California governor appeared to have left the convention and asked if he knew where he was, "and do you care?" The chairman shot back: "I don't know -- but I care deeply."
Ron Brown has maintained his equanimity in the face of setbacks as well as successes in the job. It was no secret that early on he thought his fellow New Yorker, Gov. Mario Cuomo, would give the Democrats their best shot at the White House. He sparred often with the Democratic Leadership Conference, regarded by many at his Democratic National Committee as a rival power center in the party.
In early 1991, he chided the conference, then led by Clinton, for not producing a presidential candidate. Clinton had pledged to Arkansas voters that he would complete his term as governor, which ran past 1992, and Brown told a reporter that it was too bad Bill Clinton couldn't run. He had reason to reflect on that jibe later.
When Cuomo seemed to be flirting with a late candidacy, although Brown continued to have high regard for him, he pressed the New York governor to fish or cut bait, arguing that Democratic primary voters needed to know who was and wasn't running so they could settle on their nominee early. It was a prime objective of Brown to avoid a drawn-out and divisive primary fight and focus the party on the general-election campaign as early as possible.
When Cuomo finally announced he would not run, he cited Brown's advice that he could not delay any longer without damaging the party's chances of victory. It may have been a dodge by Cuomo to take the heat off himself in what was a very unpopular decision for many liberals, but it made Brown look more like a party force for it.
Throughout the primaries, despite his earlier sparring with the leadership conference, Brown was credited with running an impartial chairmanship, treating Clinton the same as all the other presidential candidates. And once it was clear that Clinton would be the nominee, Brown hailed the early choice and did what he could to get Jerry Brown to tone down his opposition.
At the same time, Brown worked to make the conference an effective service organization for the eventual party nominee, and to coordinate activities with state and local party organizations. He was involved in crafting a general election strategy for use by the eventual nominee.
In pulling off one of the smoothest and most harmonious Democratic conventions in recent years, Brown has made himself a valued member of the Clinton-Gore team as it heads into the national campaign to which he has been pointing ever since he took the often thankless job.