The Harlem hotel boy who loved money, power

April 05, 1996|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Even to a White House toughened by shocks -- a presidential friend's suicide, another sent to prison, gunshots against the mansion walls -- the death of Ron Brown was numbing.

No one expects a zestful, complicated life to be snuffed out.

Of the people around Bill Clinton, Mr. Brown had the most style. He was best-dressed man in any room, oozing self-confidence, wit and elegance -- too smooth for critics' tastes. He took a dead-end job as commerce secretary and ran hard with it.

He was also the most complex. Mr. Brown loved power and he loved money. When he mixed them, he found trouble. Something else -- if there had been no Ron Brown, there might have been no President Clinton.

Meet death with words

It's no wonder that when Mr. Clinton was told that the Air Force plane carrying Mr. Brown and 32 others had crashed on a foggy, wind-swept crag of the Croatian coast, he canceled everything.

Everyone reacts differently to grief. President Clinton likes to talk, to console, to bridge death with words. He falls into a country preacher's mode. But after spending time with Mr. Brown's widow Alma, the president had trouble controlling his emotions when he faced stunned Commerce Department employees.

''I asked Alma what to say at Commerce,'' he said, ''and she said, 'Tell them Ron was proud of them and fought for them. And that now you'll do it.'''

Silence, then a hot wind of applause.

President Clinton, in his pulpit mood, quoted an Old Testament verse: ''They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They will run and not grow weary.'' Well, he said, Ron Brown ran and flew through life: ''He was a magnificent life force.''

Some eulogies sound tinny. But you couldn't doubt the president's heart. When everyone from Republican congressfolk to New York Times editorial writers tried to chase him out of town, Mr. Clinton hung tough for Ron Brown.

A million a year

Face it, Mr. Brown wanted to be a political insider but he yearned to get rich. ''I want to make a million a year,'' he told friends. As rainmaker for Patton, Boggs, he came close. But as commerce secretary, tangled finances haunted him.

Trouble had walked in Mr. Brown's door in the shape of Nolanda Hill, a Harley-riding, scheme-a-minute gal from Texas. Both loved to gab of big deals. Her ideas, selling china from Poland, wine from Hungary, flopped. Problem was, Mr. Brown was paid $400,000 for a company in which he did no work, invested no bucks.

Amid a criminal investigation and Republican cries that Mr. Brown must be fired, President Clinton obeyed the politician's creed -- dance with the one who brung you.

''He's the best commerce secretary we ever had,'' said Mr. Clinton, as if that non sequitur erased Mr. Brown's money-grubbing.

A debt repaid

The president owed a debt. He knew that Ron Brown, more than anyone else, got him to the White House.

Mr. Brown had been a long-shot, a black man who'd worked for Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, to win the Democratic national chairmanship. But he charmed Southern doubters, revived the party from its Dukakis fiasco. Thanks to Mr. Brown's rainmaking, Mr. Clinton had money and organization ready to roll, an edge over George Bush.

I remember Mr. Brown's exuberance, telling the '92 Democratic convention, ''This demonstrates what my mother and father told me -- a kid from Harlem can go anyplace, do anything.''

Then he roared Bill Clinton's introduction: ''The next president of the United States.''

Victory fruits

They had rough spots. Mr. Brown thought he deserved the '92 victory fruits -- secretary of state or White House chief of staff. He yawned scornfully at Commerce. The job fit him like a silk glove.

Driven by his deal maker's itch, Mr. Brown lived on airplanes -- Russia, Brazil, Belgium, Spain, Middle East, China. Always he brought along U.S. executives. He sold $42 million of American goods. Without his flamboyant salesmanship, Newt Gingrich's Scrooges might have dismantled the Commerce Department.

Now they may do it.

When the plane hit the foggy hillside, Mr. Brown was on another mission, lining up U.S. companies to rebuild bombed-out Bosnia. ''When I talked to him, he was so excited about it,'' said President Clinton.

Charlie Rangel knows where the journey began for Ron Brown: the Theresa Hotel, 125th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem. Mr. Brown's father ran the hotel. Across the street was the Apollo Theater, where the 1940s black stars appeared: Joe Louis, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington.

Source of confidence

''With a father like that and heroes like those,'' said Representative Rangel, D-N.Y., who was the Theresa desk clerk, ''you can understand where Ron Brown got such terrific confidence.''

You can also understand why Bill Clinton -- whose wife flew on the same ill-fated plane a week ago -- would ennoble Mr. Brown's tragedy.

He must feel that the crash left an unfinished life.

Mr. Brown now has no chance to fight his legal shadows.

He wanted power and loved deals.

Ironically, Ron Brown died on a rain-swept Croatian hill reaching for both prizes.

Sandy Grady is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 4/05/96

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