TOPICS > Nation

Tragedy in Bosnia

April 3, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now some thoughts about Ron Brown from U.S. Trade Rep. Mickey Kantor, Vernon Jordan, a Washington attorney, former head of the Urban League, and Bill Gray, former Democratic congressman, now president of the United Negro College Fund. Amb. Kantor, first, you’re there at the White House. Can you add anything to, to the story at this point? The presumption is that, that Sec. Brown did not survive, is that correct?

MICKEY KANTOR, U.S. Trade Representative: I think we have to be pessimistic at this point. It appears that this was a great tragedy, although it’s nighttime, of course, in that area of that world, and it’s very difficult to determine just if there were any survivors, and, if so, how many, but I think everyone is very pessimistic at this point.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. On that presumption, Mr. Ambassador, how should we remember Ron Brown?

AMB. KANTOR: Always an optimistic, as a bridge builder, as a visionary, as someone who literally gave back to America what he believed America had given to him, and that is opportunity and hope, a person who had literally raised himself by his own bootstraps, but never forgot where he came from and no matter whether he was meeting with prime ministers or corporate chieftains, he always remembered his job was to build those jobs for the American people and grow our standard of living.

JIM LEHRER: Vernon Jordan, what would you add to that?

VERNON E. JORDAN, JR., Former President, Urban League: What I would add to that is first of all I’ve lost, Jim, a very dear, personal friend whom I met in New York in 1970, when I went to do what Bill Gray is now doing.

JIM LEHRER: At the United Negro College Fund.

MR. JORDAN: At the United Negro College Fund. Ron was then working for the Urban League, and–

JIM LEHRER: What was his job at the Urban League, do you remember?

MR. JORDAN: Well, he had many jobs at the Urban League. First of all, when he was there, he was working on youth programs and at the same time going to law school at St. John’s at night. And when I succeeded Whitney Young–

JIM LEHRER: As head of the Urban League.

MR. JORDAN: As head of the Urban League–I was honored to make him general counsel. And after a few years as general counsel, I asked him to come to Washington and succeed Senoria Johnson to be Clarence Mitchell’s equal in the Urban League, and he came here, and he just made a name for himself and for the Urban League, and he was really quite extraordinary.

JIM LEHRER: Did you know him before that? Had you–before 1970 had you heard of him?

MR. JORDAN: I did not. He was a New Yorker, and I was in Atlanta. We–Whitney brought us together.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. When did you first meet him, Bill Gray?

WILLIAM H. GRAY, III, United Negro College Fund: I met him at a very young age. I think I was about 12 years of age, growing up in Philadelphia. He was from New York, but we shared a mutual friend who was one of his best friends, as well as mine, and he would often come down to Philadelphia to stay at this friend’s house. His mother and this person’s mother were friends, and we would get together and play, and so we were sort of childhood playmates in the early teen years.

JIM LEHRER: Did you like him when he was 12 years old?

MR. GRAY: Oh, yes, very bright, uh, very insightful, uh, very articulate even at an early age, a likable person. And then I, of course, got to know him better when I came into the political arena and, of course, he had been a pioneer. And when I think of Ron, I think of someone who was a pioneer, who broke barriers, first African-American I think to be chief of staff of a United States Senator’s staff.

JIM LEHRER: That was for Sen. Kennedy.

MR. GRAY: Kennedy. First African-American, I think, to be general counsel for a full Senate committee, first African-American to be deputy chairman of a national party and then to become the chairman at a critical time when people said that a party couldn’t be pulled together, he did it. He was a very interesting guy who was excellent in everything he did.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mickey–yeah, go ahead.

MR. JORDAN: Ron had drive and perseverance and tenacity and ambition, and a little taste of ego, and he knew what he wanted, and he knew how to go get it, and he had this incredible feel for people, which made him a good politician, which made him a good public servant. He–he was excited about life and excited about his work, and I think gave up opportunities to go into the private sector because he wanted to do public service, whether it was at the Urban League or whether it was in the government.

JIM LEHRER: Mickey Kantor, you worked with him in the 1992 campaign very closely, did you not?

AMB. KANTOR: Oh, we did. We’ve been friends for 23 years, but we were real partners in 1992 when I chaired the President’s campaign and he chaired the Democratic National Committee and literally reinvigorated this party and of course–

JIM LEHRER: How did he do that? Everybody said that today, that he really brought the Democratic Party back to life. How does somebody go about doing that, or how did he go about doing it?

AMB. KANTOR: He was able to draw together, as he could in every pursuit in life he attempted, the various and disparate elements that make up not only the Democratic Party but the country and convinced them to work together, just like he convinced American businessmen and others to go to Bosnia to try to continue to build the peace there. He was an enormous infectious personality who was, as Vernon said, always committed and passionate to what he was doing. We have all lost not only a wonderful friend and a, and many young people have lost a great mentor, and certainly the country has lost someone who has been the most effective at this job in American history.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Bill Gray, where did the interest in politics come? Did he have that from the very beginning?

MR. GRAY: Well, we were born in the same month, the same year, and I think all of us in that generation were infected by the Civil Rights Movement and the natural next step was politics, to continue the revolution, continue the change. He grew up in a family where his father was manager of the Theresa Hotel, which was “the” black hotel in New York, so he saw–

JIM LEHRER: It’s in Harlem, right?

MR. GRAY: In Harlem–so he saw all of these famous people, but he grew up with one foot in Harlem but also his parents had the ability to send him to private schools and to go to a college like Middlebury, and so–

JIM LEHRER: That’s in Vermont, yeah.

MR. GRAY: Yeah. He also–

JIM LEHRER: A small, private college.

MR. GRAY: At a very early age he understood how to manage in the white world, and so it was very natural for a talented guy who wanted to be about change to go from that to the Urban League, working for Vernon, and then into the political arena, as he did when he started out with Kennedy in Kennedy’s first political campaign for President.

JIM LEHRER: But why did he never run for office, Vernon?

MR. JORDAN: Well, he thought about it.

JIM LEHRER: Did he really?

MR. JORDAN: He thought about running for mayor of Washington one time, and he was actually working for the Urban League at the time. And I had the unfortunate duty to explain to him that he couldn’t serve God and them and he’d have to make a choice. And I think he made the right choice, and in 1980, he decided to go work for Sen. Kennedy, and, uh, it was a logical step in his career to go from running the Washington office, dealing with legislation, and policy, to actually working for a senator and the Judiciary Committee, and, uh, it was a natural progression.

JIM LEHRER: Mickey Kantor, he was criticized, as Kwame said in his piece, for these trips he made, praised by some, criticized by others. Did those trips accomplish what they set out to do? Did they actually bring more business to American industry like the one he was on today?

AMB. KANTOR: He brought tremendous amounts of business. More importantly, he grew high wage, high skill jobs through these trips. He identified the so-called big emerging markets for the first time. He knew how to put technology and trade together. He understood what it took to open up these markets for U.S. exports, which means jobs for ordinary Americans, as, again, he could connect these things together in the most extraordinary way.

JIM LEHRER: Was that his deal, or was that something he inherited, or was this something he really believed in himself and started?

AMB. KANTOR: Oh, he started, he believed in it. You know, we worked together in serving the President, and I was always blessed by, frankly, his leadership and his ability to identify these areas and his creativity in going after them.

JIM LEHRER: You were–did Ron Brown enjoy being Secretary of Commerce, Mr. Jordan?

MR. JORDAN: He loved it.


MR. JORDAN: Looked forward to every trip. Ron was tireless in every job that I’ve known him to be in, he, he was a real worker, with enthusiasm. He was a very quick study, very smart, very alert, and when he was staffing you, he gave you talking points, but he also knew how to get staff to give him talking points, and he knew what to do with him.

JIM LEHRER: Does that jibe with your recollection? Did he really enjoy this work he was doing?

MR. GRAY: Oh, he loved it. I mean, I think when you think about Ron Brown, at least I do, and especially someone who served in another branch of politics, two things stand out: one, his amazing ability to take various elements of a political party and make them cohesive, as he did from 1989 to 1992, when people said you can’t get the conservatives, the moderates, the aggressives, and the liberals in the Democratic tent to all sit down and support anything, and secondly, to take the Commerce Department really over the last two or thirty years has become sort of a secondary post, and make it into a major player in the administration and begin to connect jobs, exports, and take a party that was seen as anti-business and begin to state that there can be a relationship with business.

JIM LEHRER: How about the, the move from running Jesse Jackson’s campaign, then becoming head of the Democratic Party to being Commerce Secretary, some people would say that is a huge move.

MR. GRAY: No. If you look at his background, if you look at his training, if you look at the fact that he went to Middlebury, went to a private school, he grew up in Harlem, he worked for Vernon Jordan at the Urban League, he worked for Ted Kennedy, this is a man who had unbelievable credentials and qualifications that could allow him to work for Jesse Jackson, as well as for Bill Clinton, and be extremely successful because he had a good foot in both areas of American life.

JIM LEHRER: Was he ideological, Mr. Jordan, in a, in a political sense?

MR. JORDAN: Yes, he was ideological. He had very fundamental beliefs, especially about equal opportunity, and about the great policy issues of the day. Ron also was a very pragmatic man, and he understood that, and oftentimes, that in politics compromise is what you have to do, not on principle. I don’t think you can ever find him having compromised principle. I do think you can find him as you saw him at the Democratic Convention in 1988, working things out, and you have to work things out to make other things happen.

JIM LEHRER: Did he work things out as a member of the cabinet, Mr. Kantor?

AMB. KANTOR: Always, always understood how to move the ball forward, how to make progress, how to achieve what we’re about in terms of righting this economy, growing jobs–

JIM LEHRER: What about the bureaucracy, how did he handle the bureaucracy and all those things that people always complain about in jobs like his?

AMB. KANTOR: You know, it’s fascinating. Ron Brown had this infectious personality, the ability to inspire those at the Department of Commerce and frankly, those of his colleagues in the cabinet to do more, to do better, to really reach out beyond ourselves and accomplish more than we ever could. It was because of this incredible passion he had for what he was doing and his understanding of what he was about. I think Vernon and Bill would agree to that. It’s really something we’re all going to miss. We’re going to miss the friend, we’re going to miss the, the wonderful grace and charm, and his ability to articulate issues, but most of all, we’re going to miss his ability to provide the leadership that he did for so many years.

JIM LEHRER: Did he participate in a, in a very strong way in cabinet meetings and things that even–and areas that didn’t even affect the Commerce Department? Was he a presence, in other words?

AMB. KANTOR: Ron Brown was always a presence in any room he was in. He filled a room, and I can remember during the times when the majority in the Congress shut down the government and Ron Brown articulated so clearly how the President could go out and connect that to the–what the American people were feeling and did it, and the President did it, and it was done well, and helped to turn that situation around.

JIM LEHRER: Vernon Jordan, when you first met him in 1970, did you say, hey, this is a kid we’re going to hear something of?

MR. JORDAN: No question about it.

JIM LEHRER: Why? What was there about him then? He would have been in his–

MR. JORDAN: Keep in mind when I met him, he was working full-time at the Urban League, had a wife and two kids, and was going to law school at night. Cuomo, Gov. Cuomo was one of his professors. He can tell you about that drive and that ambition and this tenacity and this perseverance and an extraordinarily good and quick mind.

JIM LEHRER: Did you know it early too?

MR. GRAY: Yes. He came from a family where all of the things and qualities that Vernon just talked about and values were paramount. Ron had to be tenacious; he had to be persistent; he had to be a pioneer, achieve excellence, because that’s what he was taught by his parents, and he was taught to overcome any barrier and to make a contribution.

JIM LEHRER: And he did. Thank you all three very much.