OBITUARY: Ron Brown

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Ron Brown, who was killled in a plane crash in Croatia on Wednesday, was one of the most important of a new breed of black American politicians who succeeded not by playing the card of his race, but by his skills as a political organiser.

President Bill Clinton, who made Brown his Commerce Secretary, is known to have leaned heavily on his advice. At the same time, Brown's ambition and his pragmatism occasionally took him into dodgy areas. When he died he was under investigation for what amount to bribery allegations, not for the first time, though he was cleared on the earlier occasion and strenuously denied the later charges; and his law firm represented the Duvalier regime in Haiti.

When he was chosen as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1989 he was the first black chairman of either major party in American history. He played a vital role making his election happen.

"He was one of the best advisers and the ablest people I ever knew," Clinton said of Brown yesterday, "and he was very, very good at everything he ever did."

After his 1992 victory, Clinton offered Brown the cabinet-level post of US ambassador to the United Nations. Brown turned it down, apparently because he thought it had become a stereotyped "black job". Instead he opted for being Secretary of Commerce.

Of recent years the Commerce Department has scarcely been at the centre of Washington's attention, and there have been proposals that it should be abolished. Ron Brown made it a power centre. Picking up the Clinton Administration's interest in aggressive campaigns for free trade, he saw the political potential of bashing foreigners in the interests of protecting the jobs of those American industrial workers who are tempted to become Reagan or Buchanan Republicans because of their fear of unemployment.

Transforming the dowdy department building into a trendy post-modernist place full of fish-tanks and photographs of himself, Brown set a national target of doubling US exports to one trillion dollars by the end of the century. He claimed this would create 6 million new jobs in America.

He made it his special business to look for opportunities for American business in the world's trouble-spots. He paid repeated visits to South Africa, the West Bank and Northern Ireland. His philosophy was to reinforce peace negotiations with economic development - and to use American military and strategic power to generate opportunities for American business.

On the trip to Bosnia and Croatia which cost him his life, Brown was hoping to replace Airbus with Boeing as a supplier of airliners to the Croatian government. "Two weeks ago," he told Washington reporters shortly before leaving, "that was a done deal for Airbus. Just the fact that we are going has at least had the impact of getting Boeing back to the table."

His interventions were generally welcomed. Baroness Denton of Wakefield, the Northern Ireland Economy Minister, yesterday called Brown "a real mover and shaker". He organised the Washington investment conference on Northern Ireland last May and is credited with playing a major part in persuading President Clinton to visit Belfast last year.

Ron Brown was born in Washington in 1941 to a middle-class African-American family which later moved to Harlem. His father, a university graduate, was the manager of the famous Hotel Theresa, a Harlem landmark much frequented by black musicians and show- business types, and later served as an official in the Roosevelt Administration.

He was educated at Middlebury College in Vermont. While there he was invited to join a student fraternity as an associate member because of the colour of his skin. He agreed to join only on condition he became its first black full member, which obliged the fraternity to change its national constitution.

He did his law degree at St John's University in New York and then went to work for the Urban League, a civil rights organisation whose strategy has always been to work within the system. In 1980 he joined Senator Edward Kennedy's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The following year he went to work for the Washington law-and- lobbying firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow. He was perfectly suited to the firm, with its deep network of connections in Congress, the Washington bureaucracies and the Democratic Party around the country.

Brown's function in the firm was as a "rainmaker", to bring in wealthy clients. In law practice and in politics Ron Brown was the ultimate pragmatist. His instinctive political sympathies were with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and he worked for the Rev Jesse Jackson in the 1984 and 1988 campaigns.

In fact, Brown had drawn from the experience of 1980 the conclusion that the Democrats must not be divided. Even as an impeccably dressed, opulently fed lawyer-around-Washington pulling down a huge salary, and as a high- flying cabinet member and presidential adviser, Brown continued to argue for policies to help ordinary working Americans, black or white.

Ronald Harmon Brown, lawyer and politician: born Washington DC 1 August 1941; US Secretary, Department of Commerce 1993-96; married 1962 Alma Arrington (one son, one daughter); died Dubrovnik, Croatia 3 April 1996.

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