Black Clout in the Clinton Administration

Ebony, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Black Clout in the Clinton Administration


IT'S the hottest story to come out of Washington since Bill Clinton broke the 12-year Republican lock on the White House. For the first time in history, four African-Americans--Ron Brown, Mike Espy, Jesse Brown and Hazel O'Leary--will hold seats in the president's cabinet. That's the largest number of Black cabinet officials ever.

Just how significant are these appointments? Never before has a president appointed so many Blacks to the highest ranks of the executive branch. In fact, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, since Lyndon Johnson became the first president to appoint an African-American to his cabinet in 1966, the number of Black cabinet officials in any administration has never exceeded one. One.

But it isn't just the unparalleled increase in number that makes Clinton's selections so historic. Never before has a Black American headed any of these departments: not Commerce, not Agriculture, not Energy, not Veterans Affairs.

What's more, with the appointment of Clifton Wharton Jr. as the No. 2 man at the State Department, Black America has achieved yet another historic first.

In the White House, two Black women--Maggie Williams and Alexis Herman--hold two of the most powerful jobs in Washington. Williams is the first Black chief of staff to a first lady--a first lady who, insiders say, is the second most powerful person in the government--while Alexis Herman directs the White House Office of Public Liaison.

Now more than ever, African-Americans are poised to wield unprecedented influence at the highest levels of government. More importantly, the government they create could very well define America in the 21st century.

So, as they begin to direct the policies and budgets that will shape the quality of life for all Americans, here is a roll call of the five most influential Blacks in the Clinton Administration. Name: Ronald H. Brown Position: Secretary of

Commerce Budget: $3.2 Billion Personal: Age 51, married,

2 children

FOUR years ago, when he became the first Black leader of a major political party, his selection was considered by many to be a political debacle. "He just sends the wrong message to the electorate in this state," Louisiana Democratic State Chairman Jim Brady said at the time, "and I think to the country." Though no one would admit it publicly, that was a sideways way of saying that the Democratic National Committee wasn't ready for a Black chairman.

Of course, now that everyone agrees Brown was the principal architect of the strategy that took Bill Clinton to victory, the commentary about the D.C.-born lawyer couldn't be more different.

Those who know the outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman say the turn-around shouldn't be surprising. After all, they point, out, his whole career has been a blueprint for proving others wrong. Take, for example, his appointment as the first Black secretary of commerce.

When President Clinton announced Brown was his choice to head the federal agency responsible for promoting international trade and domestic economic growth, Washington insiders insisted the Senate would never confirm him because of his past legal and lobbying work on behalf of such clients as the government of Haiti and American subsidiaries of Japanese firms. Brown coasted through the three-hour hearing.

Just as he ignored the he'll-never-be-confirmed talk, Brown has never let other people's judgements affect him. He grew up in Harlem, spending much of his childhood in the Hotel Theresa where his father was manager. Brown has said, "You can't grow up in Harlem, surrounded by legendary figures in Black sports and entertainment, and come away without a strong ethnic identity."

And, apparently, a burning desire to succeed. His first job after graduating from Middlebury College (where he was the only Black student in his class) was as a New York City welfare caseworker, a job he held while attending St. …

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