Washington grieves over loss of Brown Clinton, colleagues remember a friend at memorial service

April 05, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Kerry A. White of The Sun staff contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- A gentle patter of bells sounded as President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and hundreds of friends of Ronald H. Brown poured out of St. John's Church yesterday. Bright sunshine and cherry blossoms eclipsed by grief, mourners wiped away tears and hugged tightly. The traffic outside the small maize-colored church stopped.

And so, it seemed, did the heart of official Washington.

With flags at half-staff and reminiscences swapped, disbelief and anguish hung over the town yesterday as the many friends and colleagues of the Commerce secretary -- and the other public officials killed in the plane crash Wednesday in Croatia -- tried to come to grips with their loss.

"It's inestimable," Lynn Cutler, a longtime friend and Democratic colleague, said after the short prayer service yesterday attended by Cabinet members, administration officials and Mr. Brown's many friends and associates.

"To have him go at this age and this way -- it's really the worst kind of shock," Ms. Cutler continued through tears, "because nobody gets to say goodbye."

Indeed, the untimely death of Mr. Brown -- who cut a wide swath through Washington during his decades here as a Democratic operative, lawyer and lobbyist, Cabinet secretary and role model for African-Americans -- seemed to hit like a thunderbolt.

At the Commerce Department, employees grieving the loss of their chief and 11 top aides huddled together during a lunchtime prayer service outdoors. Others consulted with grief counselors who were brought to the department yesterday.

"It doesn't matter how much time passes," said Yvonne Vines, Mr. Brown's secretary, who has worked at the department for eight years. "Things here will never be back to normal."

Testament to the devastation felt at the White House, where Mr. Clinton and other officials were longtime friends of Mr. Brown, much of the president's schedule for next week was postponed, as it was Wednesday and yesterday.

"Given the fact that we'll be doing a fair amount of grieving next week, it's probably not likely we're going to have a lot of public events that had been previously anticipated," said Mike McCurry, Mr. Clinton's spokesman.

White House staffers who had known Mr. Brown closed their doors to mourn privately. The administration was clearly not ready to deal with questions about a possible successor for Mr. Brown, Mr. McCurry said. Still, speculation began to swirl, some of it focused on Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, a White House aide and former chief of staff who was formerly a business executive in Arkansas.

"If you get a hold of anyone here at the White House who engages in that kind of speculation, tell them on my behalf that they ought to be fired," Mr. McCurry said. "It will be many days before we get to that kind of question."

In the meantime, Undersecretary of Commerce Mary Good has been named acting secretary.

Also uncertain yesterday was the state of an independent counsel's investigation into Mr. Brown's finances that had expanded to touch upon others.

The investigation of Mr. Brown "is concluded with his death," said John O'Sullivan, the deputy independent counsel. But Mr. O'Sullivan said investigators would meet with Justice Department and court officials in the next several days to determine whether to proceed with the related investigations that involved Mr. Brown's business associate Nolanda Hill and his son, Michael.

Mr. Clinton, who gave much credit to the former Democratic national chairman for his election as president in 1992, ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at all public buildings and military installations through April 10.

Although he quietly signed legislation yesterday that ends the decades-old link between farm prices and government subsidies, the president postponed a scheduled signing ceremony for the "line-item veto" bill and spent part of the day phoning the families of the crash victims.

Mr. Clinton still plans to travel to Oklahoma City today, as scheduled, for a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the bombing of the federal building there. Noting the "reconciliation and healing" that has occurred in Oklahoma City, Mr. McCurry said: "That is a process that I think will be very much in need here at the White House, across Washington and across the nation as people mourn the loss of Secretary Brown and his colleagues."

Yesterday morning, Mr. Clinton called Mr. Brown's widow, Alma, to inform her that the secretary's body had been identified, Mr. McCurry said.

The Brown family, who did not attend yesterday's brief and quickly assembled service at St. John's, was working out details for a funeral and memorial service.

Yesterday, the Clintons and Vice President Al Gore formed a receiving line outside St. John's Church, about a block from the White House, and greeted with a heartfelt embrace or handshake each of the Brown colleagues and friends as they left the historic Episcopal church.

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