Uncertain judgments

April 14, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- In the respectful silence following the interment of Ronald H. Brown in Arlington National Ceremony this past week, an unspoken question lingers.

It is unspoken because asking it might seem insensitive and -- worse yet -- naive. In Washington especially, those are adjectives to be shunned. But out in the hinterlands we're not as fine-tuned. Because the question does seem topical, we might as well ask it, even if nobody's likely to answer us.

Um, we were just wondering -- do our leaders still think the Commerce Department ought to be closed down? Or has Mr. Brown's death changed their minds?

Before Commerce Secretary Brown's plane crashed in Croatia, the department's future as one of the government's 14 cabinet-level agencies was clouded. A lot of Republicans, and some Democrats, wanted to abolish it and distribute elsewhere in the government those of its component parts deemed worth salvaging.

This effort failed, but any proposal to dismantle portions of the federal government has considerable appeal for the voting public, and it was thought likely that after this year's elections there would be renewed attempts to downsize.

Commerce, certainly, wasn't the only department being considered for oblivion by the bounty hunters. Energy, the most useless of them all, headed by a giddy appointee who by contrast made Ron Brown look as serious as Norman Vincent Peale, probably topped the hit list. Education was on it too, along with Housing and Urban Development.

But now, with Secretary Brown killed in action on the job and buried with all due ceremony, Commerce at least is probably saved. Its defenders will make it all too clear that any move to abolish it now will be considered disrespectful toward Ron Brown's memory.

Ron Brown was regarded by political friends and foes alike as a highly gifted man, and it would be no small irony if the most enduring legacy of his career in government turns out to be the preservation of the lowly Commerce Department. "He died that Commerce could live," it might say on a memorial plaque there.

It's not at all unusual that a death, especially a sudden death, casts a different light on the work of a lifetime. Just as the paintings of recently deceased artists tend to surge in value, the policies of people who are no longer with us are sometimes re-energized by others who invoke their memories.

That was how Lyndon Johnson, by using the emotional power of John Kennedy's loss, was able to win congressional approval of Medicare. It's why the spouses and children of deceased politicians, even when they display no visible qualifications of their own, are so commonly elected to succeed them.

Another famous name in the obituary lists this past week was Maryland's Jim Rouse, the developer of Columbia, Harborplace, and other well-publicized projects. He was an intelligent and genial man, with an intellectual turn of mind and a flair for public relations, and he had the knack of expressing sentiments that at first seemed controversial but eventually proved to be as mainstream as a minivan bound for the mall.

In Columbia, he took a lot of rolling Howard County farmland and turned it into a big suburban development. In Baltimore he took a shabby commercial waterfront and put the equivalent of a big shiny suburban shopping arcade on it. Both of these fairly conventional projects were hailed as visionary. They made money for Mr. Rouse's company and produced important tax revenues for local governments.

Improvements questioned

But whether Howard County and Baltimore were truly improved by the Rouse makeovers is a question that can only be answered subjectively. Many will say yes, but most assuredly not all.

Mr. Rouse also had big plans for Wye Island, in Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore. He wanted to put a huge waterfront development there, and he said all the right things about how progressive it would be. But the Queen Anne's commissioners said no. They didn't give him the zoning, stopping the project cold.

Eventually the state of Maryland bought the land. Today farmers rent the fields, and the island looks much as it did in the days when steamers docked along Baltimore's Pratt Street, and in Howard County cows still grazed where one day Columbia would appear. Doubtless there are those in Queen Anne's who see Mr. Rouse's defeat on Wye Island as a setback for progress, but locally I doubt that view is unanimous.

The judgment of history upon the prominent careers of Ron Brown and Jim Rouse is just beginning, but it probably won't be unanimous either.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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