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Remembering Ron Brown

April 3, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: By late this afternoon, official Washington still had only sketchy details about the crash and the fate of the passengers and crew. At a Pentagon briefing, an officer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave this accounting of what happened to the military equipped Boeing 737.

LT. GEN. HOWELL ESTES, Joint Chiefs of Staff: Initial reports that we received and that we received in Europe were that there was wreckage sighted in the water, waters of the Adriatic. A search and rescue mission was launched initially from the U.S., involving U.S. special forces, which the closest place we had people that could respond to this were Italy, with the kinds of equipment necessary. No wreckage was found at sea by any of the search and rescue assets.

About three hours into the search–and you got to remember now, the weather is bad, reasonably bad, requiring an instrument approach, as I will show you in a minute, there are, in fact, some hills in the area around the airport, to the North side of the runway, a reasonable amount of distance, but, nevertheless, there, and the fact is that we had some reports from the Croatians that they had found a crash site up on the side of the hill covered by the clouds.

So it was obviously not easy to see, not easy to determine that there was, in fact, a crash site there, but they initially reported the crash site of an aircraft about three kilometers to the North of the Western end of the runway. The crash site has been reached by Croatian police, and I’ve, I’ve just received word that there is also a Croatian doctor on the scene. U.S. forces are striving to get to the scene, in fact, at this minute may be at the scene. There are helicopters on the ground at Dubrovnik’s airport, U.S. helicopters that held about 50 U.S. personnel.

Initially, they made an attempt to land at the crash site but because of the weather were unable to do that. And so they are as rapidly as possible working their way up to where the crash site is. I think it’s important to point out at this point there is–at this point there is no evidence of, of any possible fire in the area, there is no evidence of any kind of an explosion aboard the aircraft, and, uh, I think at this point because of the location, we would rule anything out of that type.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ron Brown spent the early part of today in the former Yugoslavia, where he shared some special chow with U.S. troops headquartered in Tuzla, hamburgers from McDonald’s. A former Army captain, Brown told the soldiers he understood their homesickness.

RON BROWN, Commerce Secretary: Being a former Army man, myself, I know what being away from home is like, so we thought we would bring a little bit of home to you. And there’s no better reminder of home than McDonald’s.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brown and the delegation of U.S. executives were on a trade mission to put in place investment and reconstruction programs aimed at securing the new-found peace in war-ravaged Bosnia. The Commerce Secretary has undertaken more than a dozen such trips with groups of business leaders to promote access to new markets for U.S. companies.

The trips have helped transform a usually invisible agency into a major instrument of domestic and foreign policy. Brown, the highest ranking African-American in the Clinton administration, has taken delegations to Ireland, to China, to the Gaza Strip after the Israeli- Palestinian peace accord, and two years ago to the new democracy of South Africa. After that trade visit, Brown spoke about his feelings on the NewsHour.

RON BROWN: (December 2, 1993) And it did have a great personal impact on me to be sitting there opposite President DeKlerk as an African-American, as the first African- American Secretary of Commerce. And when you look at the ancestry of African-Americans in the United States, brought here in chains as a part of the international slave trade, and here I am talking about international trade policy in the United States of America.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ronald Harmon Brown was born and raised in New York City. He spent several years with the National Urban League before taking a job as a top aide to Senator Edward Kennedy. Brown rose to national prominence as convention chairman for the 1988 Jesse Jackson Presidential campaign that won nearly 7 million primary votes and mounted a serious challenge to Michael Dukakis. A year later, Brown made history as the first black person to head a major national political party. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Brown took over a financially troubled and fractious party.

But Brown turned the party around on both scores, raising millions of dollars and soothing old party wounds. He’s widely credited with setting the stage for the election of his friend, Bill Clinton, who rewarded Brown with an appointment to head the Department of Commerce.

BILL CLINTON: (September 1, 1992) Come on up here, Ron. Now, Ron Brown is the best-dressed man in our party. He dresses like a Republican, but he’s got a Democratic heart through and through.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brown’s career has not been without its rough spots. In February, 1994, the Department of Justice found no substance to allegations Brown accepted $700,000 from a Vietnamese businessman for Brown’s help in lifting the United States trade embargo against Vietnam.

Attorney General Janet Reno also appointed a special counsel to conduct a broader investigation into Brown’s various business dealings before he became Commerce Secretary. While that investigation still is pending, Reno has asked the special counsel to determine whether or not Brown illegally accepted close to $500,000 from a former business partner and whether or not he deliberately filed inaccurate financial disclosure statements.

And on Capitol Hill, Republicans have targeted the Commerce Department for elimination and criticized Brown for spending exorbitantly on trade missions like the one he was on today. Throughout Ron Brown’s troubles, President Clinton has stood by his Commerce Secretary and close friend. Today at the Commerce Department, the President spoke with emotion about that friendship.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I’ve known Ron Brown a long time. I was always amazed at the way he was continually reaching out trying to bridge the differences between people, always trying to get the best out of people, always believing that we could do more than we have done. In a way, this job was sort of ready-made for him at this moment in history, and he loved it very much. Most of the time, Ron Brown spent using the power of the Commerce Department to find ways to give opportunity to ordinary Americans, to generate jobs for the American economy, and build better futures for American citizens.

But when we met earlier this week, right before he left for the Balkans, he was so excited because he thought that along with these business leaders and the other very able people from the Commerce Department on this mission that they would be able to use the power of the American economy to help the peace take hold in the Balkans, to help people in that troubled place have the kind of decent, honorable, and wonderfully ordinary lives that we Americans so often take for granted. And I just want to say on a very personal note that I hope all Americans today will be grateful for what all the people who were on that plane did, for the military personnel, for the business leaders, who didn’t have to go on that mission, who did it not out of a sense of their own profit but out of a sense of what they could do to help America bring peace.

All the wonderful people in the Commerce Department that were on that plane, some of them very young, one of them who came to our campaign in 1992 thinking the most important thing he could do was to ride a bicycle across the country asking people to vote for the Vice President and me and wound up a trusted employee at the Commerce Department, and to all of their loved ones and their families and their friends, I want to say I am very grateful for their lives and their service.

I also want to say just one last thing about Ron Brown. He was one of the, the best advisers and ablest people I ever knew. And he was very, very good at everything he ever did. Whether he was the Commerce Secretary or a civil rights leader, or something else, he was always out there just giving it his all.

And he always believed that his mission in life was to put people’s dreams within their reach if they were willing to work for it and believe in themselves.

His favorite scripture verse was a wonderful verse from Isaiah:

“They who wait upon the Lord shall have their strength renewed. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and faint not.”