American Odyssey

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 McDonald's 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 had 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 fife 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. When he was rushed by Sigma Phi Epsilon, the national fraternity promptly booted the chapter for crossing the color line. The experience could have been a searing one, but Brown was coolly analytical when he described it years later. It was a matter, he said, of "going through kind of a messy situation and negotiating our way through it."

Brown's parents wanted him to be a doctor, but "organic chemistry turned me into a political-science major," he joked. After the army and night law school at St. John's University back in New York (where he first met a mercurial professor named Mario Cuomo), he gravitated to the civil rights movement in the late '60s. He cultivated a series of mentors like Whitney Young and Vernon Jordan who could speak in white boardrooms and in black churches with equal fluency. While he was working for the Urban League in Washington in the 1970s, the Kennedys took notice. Brown was swept up in Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign, where he demonstrated his ability to hustle. Broke by the California primary, the sinking campaign had just enough cash to produce a couple of last ditch ads, but not enough to buy the air time. Brown got around that by hopscotching major media markets and previewing the spots at press conferences, picking up local coverage that got the ad played free. "He was the happiest political warrior I ever met," said former Kennedy aide Bob Shrum.

After Republicans took the Senate in 1981, Brown lost his sinecure as counsel for Kennedy's Judiciary Committee and hooked up with Tommy Boggs, one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists. Brown was completely at ease in the capital's money culture, representing clients ranging from Sony to Haitian dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier. In his starched white collar and gold cuff links, he never looked less than perfect. Some of it was finesse. Brown bought his suits off the rack but had his shirts and ties custom made. On the road, if he had a business or political breakfast at 7 a.m., he would rise before 6 to give his shirts a second ironing by hand. Appearances, his father taught him, were everything--a sign of respect.

He was, however, sometimes seemingly indifferent to ethical appearances. Up to the time of his death, an independent counsel was poking into his somewhat tangled finances. Brown faced a widening inquiry into a $300,000 payment he received from a former business partner, Texas businesswoman Nolanda Hill. Had he lived, his career might have been at risk. At a dinner party with friends 18 months ago, some urged him to quit before he lost his reputation and his fortune. But Brown was adamant: he had come too far, he said, to give up now. The investigations were just politics. With his usual confidence, Brown may have thought he could cajole, bluff or negotiate out of any situation. He had done it before. In 1988, as Jesse Jackson's convention manager in Atlanta, his cool consensus-building patched a potentially ruinous rift with presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Brown himself emerged as chairman of the Democratic Party. When the Democrats seemed to be collapsing in 1991 as President Bush soared after the gulf war, Brown was unfazed. He and the late strategist Paul Tully hit the road with an upbeat slide show, cheering gloomy state chairmen, squeezing donations out of wary CEOs and patching together the Democrats' frayed coalition.

Though a skilled go-between, Brown had an enormous ego. After helping save the Democrats in 1992, he expected to be rewarded with a suitable job. Secretary of state sounded about right. He had to be persuaded to settle for Commerce, but he typically made the most of the opportunity. By squiring businessmen all over the world, he became a kind of commercial secretary of state. in the post-cold-war era, he argued that trade counted as much as or more than human rights or military alliances. He was a player in cabinet meetings, usually taking the side of practicality. When Labor Secretary Robert Reich urged the president to confront CEOs on the issue of "corporate responsibility," Brown urged quiet persuasion instead. "That's the Ron Brown way," he said, with his vaguely cherubic smile.

Bill Clinton had a particular fondness for Brown. Clinton has always fancied himself something of a blue-eyed soul brother, and he admired Brown's ability to shrug off nosy reporters and zealous investigators. He also valued his political advice: in February, Brown began sitting in on the weekly re-election strategy meetings Clinton held in the White House residence. Watching all the testimonials, an old friend said last week that Brown would have loved the tributes, though he would have been irritated at the Unabomer for stepping on his story. Not that Brown would have shown any anger, or stayed mad for long. For Brown, life was full of possibilities, right up to the moment his own ended.

Approaching Dubrovnik in a downpour, the air force T-43A veered off course and struck a hilltop. High winds and old navigational beacons may be at fault in the crash.

The pilot last contacts Cilipi Airport when he reports his position over Kolocep Island.

As the plane begins to go off course, villagers in and Srebreno hear the unusually low overhead.

Missing the second beacon, the plane apparently makes a last minute turn to the left and crashes into a Mountainside.