American Odyssey

By Turque, Bill | Newsweek, April 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

American Odyssey


Turque, Bill, Newsweek


From his childhood among Harlem's black elite to his death on a mission to rebuild Bosnia, Ron Brown effortlessly transcended the racial divide on his way to the pinnacle of political power

IT WAS RON BROWN'S SIGNATURE role as commerce secretary--playing shepherd to a planeload of American CEOs in search of new foreign: business. The destination last Wednesday was Croatia, where executives from AT&T, Bechtel and 10 other firms would press government officials for a larger role in the postwar reconstruction of the former Yugoslavia. Brown was a dealmaker, not a philosopher, and he dismissed critics who called his trade missions--there'd been 19 all over the world in three years--jaunts that catered to Democratic corporate contributors (some were, many weren't). If there was a chance to burnish Commerce's moribund image by landing a new export market, he wasn't going to worry about appearances of purity. After a stop in Tuzla, where he came bearing McDonalds hamburgers and sports videos for U.S. troops, his air force T-43A took off for the 45-minute hop to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast.

Five minutes before his scheduled arrival, the plane dropped from airport radar. Brown's flight bad inexplicably drifted 1.8 miles off course and slammed into the top of a lonely ridge. The 23-year-old aircraft, a military version of the 737, was not equipped with a flight-data recorder. What little is known raises disturbing questions. The flight crew was apparently attempting a tricky landing in heavy rains and gusting winds at an airport with primitive navigational systems (page 48). The fuselage was discovered on the hillside, with the bodies of all 35 passengers strewn among the boulders and heavy brush. Early the next morning, an army general identified Brown's remains.

The crash ended an extraordinary American story. Brown, who was 54, wasn't the best fixer in Washington, nor the most adroit political strategist--although he did help revive a demoralized Democratic Party as national chairman in 1992. But he was that rare black figure in public life who moved effortlessly across racial divides that are still all too wide. He'd perfected what The Washington Post's Kevin Merida called "that uncommon skill ... the ability to glide like a swan between black and white worlds, touching down everywhere in between, neither a stranger nor a captive to his race." Brown faced the rigors of the successful "first black"--in his college fraternity, his law-firm partnership, as chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee and commerce secretary--without becoming consumed by the pain and loneliness that can seize those who cross over.

Like most uncommon skills, it was acquired early in life. Brown spent his childhood among the black and white elite of New York City. His father, Bill Brown, managed the Hotel Theresa, a glamorous crossroads for the black bourgeoisie in the 1940s and '50s. Shut out of the hotels downtown, the black elite of sports, politics and entertainment gathered here to live richly in the broadest sense--arguing, drinking, thinking, creating. Young Ron had the run of the place, where a trip through the lobby could turn up Jackie Robinson or Adam Clayton Powell. (It wasn't an entirely black milieu. In 1952, when he was 11, Brown had his picture taken with Richard Nixon, who was campaigning for vice president.) "The atmosphere was electric," said Rep. Charles Rangel, who once worked there. Outside, on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, Brown drank in the rich culture of street-corner orators extolling all manner of black consciousness, from the back-to-Africa movement to integration.

When school was in session, Brown was in the white world, attending private white prep schools downtown. He told a C-Span interviewer in 1992 that his parents "felt very strongly about a New England education," and Brown ended up as the lone black in his class at Vermont's Middlebury College. There he got his first real lesson in racial politics. …

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