Skilled fixer who healed the Democrats

Rupert Cornwell in Washington on Ron Brown, champion of US business abroad
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The Independent Online
Ron Brown, the US Commerce Secretary whose plane crashed yesterday off Dubrovnik, has been one of the less trumpeted successes of the Clinton administration, an assiduous promoter of US business abroad and a powerful behind-the-scenes counsellor in the affairs of the Democratic party whose chairman he used to be.

Of all the major agencies of American government, the Commerce Department is arguably the least understood, portrayed by its foes - not least among would-be government downsizers in the Republican party who would simply abolish it - as a rambling ineffectual bureaucracy that consumes taxpayer dollars to no appreciable purpose or result.

Try telling that however to the scores of chief executives of US corporations who have accompanied him on trade missions to every corner of the earth, from Russia to China to the Middle East, and now to the former Yugoslavia where several CEOs were believed to be aboard Mr Brown's Boeing 737 jet. "As far as I am concerned, he is the star of this administration," Edgar Woolard, chairman of DuPont, has said. George Fisher, head of Eastman Kodak and another beneficiary of the Brown selling skills agrees: "He's given us more support than anyone I've ever seen in this department."

In fact, such skills come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his earlier political career before he was appointed to the Cabinet in December 1992. Ron Brown, born in Washington DC in 1941, epitomises the capital insider, suave and discreet, a master of that intricate, incestuous world where politics, lobbying and business interlock - usually under the umbrella of high powered law firms like Patton, Boggs & Blow, where he was a partner for 11 years until 1992.

Above all he is a negotiator and a conciliator. In the dark years spanning the late 1980s and the start of the 1990s, when the prospect of a Democrat ever recapturing the White House seemed to border on the impossible, no-one did more to heal the party's internal wounds.

In 1988, as campaign manager of the Rev Jesse Jackson, he was an architect of the truce with Michael Dukakis, the eventual Democratic nominee. The following year he was named party chairman, and the recovery since is in fair measure his achievement. It was Mr Brown who soothed bruised egos, won over doubters, and prevented any campaign to ditch Bill Clinton in the spring of 1992, when the Arkansas Governor was trailing in the polls.

In July came the triumphant Democratic convention in New York, orchestrated by Mr Brown, after which Mr Clinton's ultimate victory was never seriously in doubt. Bill Clinton owed Ron Brown, as they say - bigtime. A Cabinet- level job was an almost inevitable reward.

"He is one of the most talented people I've ever met in politics, says Susan Estrich, a leading Democratic party worker in California and longstanding friend. "Few have greater skill and charisma, and the sheer ability to bring people together. If you want to understand the resurgence of the Democratic party, look no further than Ron Brown."

In Government as well, that work has continued. Brown's visits to California - up to a dozen a year - are no small reason why Mr Clinton is riding so high in the polls in a state he must win this November to secure re- election.

But Mr Brown's private business dealings have long been a controversy, above all a payment of almost $500,000 from a former partner as settlement for his stake in a business which made no money and in which he invested neither money nor time. He received the money in 1993, when he was already in government. Whether the transaction amounts to influence-peddling is being investigated by an independent counsel.