WASHINGTON -- A smooth and masterful political tactician, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, a self-described "kid from Harlem," rose to the center of pin-striped power in Washington, where he helped rebuild the Democratic Party in 1992 and then glided easily into the Clinton Cabinet.
Mr. Brown, 54, who died after his plane crashed yesterday near Dubrovnik, Croatia, was the consummate Washington insider, a man of elegance, warmth and a magnetic personality.
Always immaculate in custom-tailored suits with Hermes ties and monogrammed shirts, Mr. Brown deftly managed the levers of power here and, as a lawyer and lobbyist between political posts, turned himself into a millionaire.
But along the way, questions about his personal finances arose that, in recent years, marred an otherwise glittering career and seemed to stunt his political ascent. Last year, the Justice Department appointed an independent counsel to investigate his financial dealings.
Despite the controversy, Mr. Brown had the confidence and friendship of President Clinton, who, along with Hillary Rodham Clinton, yesterday visited Mr. Brown's wife of 34 years, Alma, and the Commerce Department. "He was one of the best advisers and ablest people I ever knew," Mr. Clinton told the Commerce staff yesterday.
Mr. Brown, the father of two grown children, Michael and Tracey, was widely admired, even beloved in Washington political circles.
"He was so unique as a personality -- you love Ron," said Brian Lunde, a consultant and former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. "Every- body was attracted to him."
Mr. Brown, in earning high marks as commerce secretary, fostered more business opportunities abroad than any predecessor and claimed to have secured at least $20 billion in contracts for U.S. companies. He was saluted by Business Week as "the toast of Corporate America" and made big business a friend of the Clinton administration.
A globe-trotting goodwill ambassador known for extraordinary energy and persuasive charm, Mr. Brown regarded a key part of his mission to be improving the global climate for U.S. corporations.
His trade missions -- usually with business executives in tow, as in the Balkans, where he was trying to interest American companies in investment -- took him across North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Although many praised his efforts abroad, critics complained that he spent too much money and used his frequent trips to repay Democratic donors. Still, even Republicans applauded his tenure at Commerce for its championing of U.S. business overseas, especially in emerging markets.
"It was ironic that the Republicans decided to use the Commerce Department as an example of an institution that needed to be shut down -- while Ron Brown was the secretary," Kenneth Hagerty, a Republican lobbyist for high-technology companies, said yesterday. "He was the most aggressive and articulate proponent of American business who has ever held that job. He really showed what a commerce secretary could do."
But many said they believed that Mr. Brown's greatest legacy was as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1989 to 1992, when he not only reinvigorated a moribund party that had been out of presidential power for a decade but was instrumental in the '92 election of Mr. Clinton.
"Against great odds, Democrats won in large measure because of Ron Brown's bridge-building," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a longtime friend who was aided by Mr. Brown in his failed 1988 presidential bid.
Mr. Brown had been a prominent Democratic player for more than a decade before he ran for chairman of the DNC in 1989. After a stint as a lobbyist and executive for the National Urban League from 1968 to 1979, he served as an adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in his 1980 challenge to President Jimmy Carter, and was active in DNC affairs, including as deputy chair.
In the spring of 1988 -- after a lucrative decade with the influential Washington law firm Patton, Boggs & Blow, Mr. Brown joined the Jackson campaign as convention chairman. At the time, it was clear the civil rights leader could not win the nomination, but Mr. Brown's role gave Mr. Jackson's campaign a leader with widespread credibility with whom the successful campaign of Michael S. Dukakis could negotiate.
Despite those credentials, Mr. Brown was an underdog in his campaign for DNC chair. Neither party had ever chosen an African-American chairman, and Mr. Brown was seen by conservative party leaders -- especially in the South -- as too liberal because of his connections to Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Jackson and organized labor.
But Mr. Brown persisted. He gained critical backing from Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York -- his former law professor at St. John's University -- and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and won the Democratic national chairmanship. Within months, many state party chairs who had resisted him most adamantly had become vocal admirers.
Mr. Brown's most conspicuous quality as chairman was his optimism, even when the Republican president, George Bush, was soaring in the polls and few Democrats believed he could be defeated. Mr. Brown insisted that Mr. Bush was vulnerable because he didn't understand voters' concerns.
As a result, the DNC prepared early for the 1992 campaign. Mr. Brown began aggressively raising money for the presidential campaign, and charged the DNC's political director, Paul Tully, with putting in place a state-by-state organization for the general election campaign.
Mr. Brown also played a key role for Mr. Clinton by serving as the intermediary with such prickly figures as Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Jackson to assure a Democratic convention in New York that proved more harmonious than perhaps any since World War II.
Later, Mr. Clinton said privately that he believed Mr. Brown had done as much as, or more than, anyone else in the party to help elect him. The president-elect rewarded his party chairman with an appointment as commerce secretary. But right from the start, Mr. Brown's tenure was tainted by allegations of impropriety.
In his first year, the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into accusations that Mr. Brown accepted a $700,000 bribe from the Vietnamese government in exchange for his efforts to lift the U.S. trade embargo against the country. The department closed the case in 1994, saying it had found no wrongdoing.
But a later probe of his personal finances by an independent counsel had been proceeding. At the center of the case was the question of how Mr. Brown came to earn about $500,000 as a shareholder in a company in which he invested no money, and whether he deliberately filed inaccurate financial disclosure statements and a misleading mortgage statement.
The investigation expanded to touch on others, including Mr. Brown's son, Michael. It was unclear yesterday whether, because of Mr. Brown's death, the entire investigation would fold or only those portions directly targeting the secretary.
Mr. Brown steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, and Mr. Clinton has stood by him.
But even friends say Mr. Brown may not have been as careful as he might have been in separating his political leadership from his business deals.
"The things that attracted people to Ron in the political world attracted people in the business world, too," says Mr. Lunde, who worked with Mr. Brown at the DNC. "If there was any trouble, it was because he didn't separate those two worlds enough."
Mr. Brown grew up in Harlem, where he lived in a hotel that his father managed across the street from the famed Apollo Theater. His parents, he said, always told him that in America, "a kid from Harlem can go anywhere and can do anything."
An only child who came of age during the time of segregation, Mr. Brown has always moved easily between black and white America.
After attending white private schools -- while mixing with the black artists and musicians, like Duke Ellington, who stayed at his father's hotel -- young Ron Brown integrated the fraternity system at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Later, he became the first black partner at Patton, Boggs & Blow.
Kweisi Mfume, president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called Mr. Brown an "irrepressible positive force."
Mr. Mfume, who knew Mr. Brown for about 15 years, said the Commerce secretary "wasn't content with just trying to make a difference in the lives of black people. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of Americans."
Pub Date: 4/04/96