Their lives were worse because of us

April 08, 1996|By RICHARD REEVES

DENVER -- I was on a radio talk show when I heard the news that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's plane had crashed in the Balkans. My first thought was personal and chilling. My wife, who works with refugees, had flown around that part of the world and was, in fact, going back to Bosnia in a few days.

My second thought was public outrage at the verbal acid we are throwing at each other's faces in this country these days. The press, talk shows, the politicians themselves and their consultants, the guys around the corner -- we have all raised trash talk to the American dialogue.

Ron Brown, in addition to being black and a New Yorker, two strikes in many parts of the country, was a politician and a bureaucrat. A once and future lobbyist, too, if he did not make a run for the U.S. Senate. It doesn't get much worse than that on talk shows and the other scoring matches that pass for public discourse in the land of the free and the home of know-nothing big mouths.

Now he is dead at 54, serving his country. Pretty well, too, by all accounts.

I knew Mr. Brown; it was pretty hard not to in my business. There were things about him I did not like, a certain sharpness in many senses of that word, including a sharp eye for the main chance. He seemed to be surviving a couple of ethics investigations. But, remember, the reason he and other people are investigated is because they are in the government.

The public ethic in this country is, I believe, higher than the private ethic. Perhaps that is because there are more laws and regulations governing the behavior of public officials and public servants. Or perhaps the people willing to endure public life are more honest than, say, trial lawyers or investment bankers.

He was enormously talented -- smart, likable, tough. He made a lot of money and was as important as anyone, including Bill Clinton, in breathing new life into the Democratic Party, and by extension putting some blush on the cheeks of political liberalism.

The highest praise anyone can give him is that Ron Brown did not have to be on a plane flying in the most dangerous air in the world. He did not have to work for $99,500 a year, which is what we pay Cabinet members. He was capable of making that much in a good week in the vaunted private sector.

American fool's mission

Mr. Brown was risking life and limb on another American fool's mission, trying to make the world a better place for folks not lucky enough to share in what President Clinton called ''the wonderful ordinary lives that we Americans too often take for granted.''

And if Ron Brown deserves honor and respect for the way his life ended, the ''bureaucrats'' who died with him deserve even more, because the rewards in terms of prestige and future prospects were tiny compared with his.

''What do you do? How much do you make?'' could be the American motto. On that scale in these nasty times, it is foolish for most of us to go into public life or public service. Who among us is willing to take the ignorant contempt, the abuse, the ridicule, the presumptions of corruption, the blame heaved and shoveled at government employees?

And the danger. I found myself thinking of the State Department people killed trying to put together the Balkan peace accord; of Arnie Raphael, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, killed in a plane explosion there; of the young clerks in the Karachi consulate machine-gunned down on the way to work.

Last summer I met Jack McCready, the press officer in the embassy in Islamabad, a paraplegic now because sprinting on his bike early one morning he ran into a rope left tied across a street for some reason. An accident like that can happen anywhere, but it's more likely to happen in a place like that instead of, say, Bronxville, New York. So is being taken hostage. So is dying of cerebral malaria, as did the American consul in Mombasa, Kenya, on a day I arrived there 10 years ago.

Stepping on or driving over a land mine, too, is not a danger in most of our work. But that will happen to more young government employees in uniform before this year is over. Why? Because being an American means we are driven to make the world what we, often in innocence or ignorance, consider to be a better place. We do foolish things often, but more often we do good things, and many of the best of us sign on to try.

Ron Brown signed on. Called a political hack and no-good bureaucrat, he died a hero. So did the other government people with him last Wednesday. The harsh words hurt. The deal they get is not fair. Our lives are better because of them and their lives were worse because of us.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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