Ron Brown's service to country Cabinet member missing: Plane on a business mission down near the Croatian coast.

April 04, 1996

COMMERCE SECRETARY Ron Brown is missing in action, perhaps a victim of a plane crash as he was flying into Dubrovnik to talk peace, reconstruction and investment in a town devastated by the Yugoslav civil war. It was a signature mission for the highest ranking African-American in the Clinton administration. Since taking office he has traveled the world, aggressively pushing U.S. exports and sealing big contracts with American corporate bosses in tow.

Mr. Brown reveled in the criticism and congratulations his high-profile actions provoked. A consummate Washington insider, a politician who managed the victorious 1992 Clinton campaign, a believer in the use of U.S. economic power, he took a demoralized department and restored its bona fides as a major policy player.

For his efforts he incurred the wrath of human rights activists who rejected the theory that increased economic ties with repressive regimes would lead to their liberalization. He infuriated Republicans who saw their plans to eliminate the Commerce Department compromised by the adulation Mr. Brown received from top CEOs who are usually a GOP constituency. He carried on his work with aplomb, backed by a grateful president, despite repeated efforts to undercut him through investigations into his personal business dealings.

Yet mixing the private and public sectors was the essence of Ron Brown's approach. He characterized the drive to reduce the government role in promoting American exports as "tantamount to unilateral disarmament in the battle for global competitiveness." Only U.S. rivals would cheer if his department were dismantled, he contended.

Though Mr. Brown never apologized for his single-minded promotion of his career, his party and his administration, his actions suggested another dimension. Many of his trade journeys took him to Third World countries where an infusion of U.S. investment and technology offered uplift for troubled societies. Croatia or Bosnia would not show up on any list of sure winners, but on what may have been his last mission he was prodding business leaders to support the U.S.-led peace process.

Out of this tragedy, the nation may gain a greater appreciation for both the symbolism and substance of Ron Brown's story. Growing up in Harlem, watching celebrities visit his father's famous Theresa Hotel, he developed a self-confidence that allowed him to deal comfortably with whites and blacks, rich and poor, conservatives and liberals. It said something about him -- and about America.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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