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WALTER MEARS: Honoring Brown, with Washington Rituals

April 11, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In rites of mourning as in passages of power, emblems and ceremonies of the past are Washington’s way of reconciling loss and renewal. So it was in the farewell honors to Ron Brown.

The funeral salutes to the commerce secretary were on a ceremonial scale unprecedented for a Cabinet secretary. His bier was the catafalque built for the coffin of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, used since for those of other presidents, Supreme Court justices and generals of the highest rank.

Brown made it to Army captain. He also made it to the highest reaches of politics and government, to stations never before held by a black American.

And it was no understatement when President Clinton eulogized him as the architect of Democratic victory in 1992. ``I want to say to my friend just one last time, thank you,″ Clinton said before the 4,700 people who mourned Brown at Washington National Cathedral. ``If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here today.″

Clinton’s tributes and his central role in a week of mourning for a fallen black leader could echo into this fall’s campaign as well.

Brown had enough friends that it took a card of admittance to go to the funeral, an assembly of current and former government officials, diplomats, politicians, civil rights leaders, people who had worked for and with him in out of office. Democratic friends; the most recognizable Republican was Colin Powell, and he joined the GOP only after declaring he would not run for president in 1996.

Many of the names were on the telephone roster that made Brown, 54, one of the best-connected political figures in the capital, dating from his years as an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy, later as a lobbyist, then as the Democratic Party’s national chairman, the first black man to lead either national party. Brown knew whom to call and when.

When he took over the party, it had suffered three presidential defeats and was in polling doldrums. But he said Democrats would win the White House. ``And nobody thought he was right, including the governor of a small Southern state,″ said Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas then.

Brown, along with a delegation of business executives and a cadre of his youthful aides, was killed April 3 in an airplane crash in Croatia, making him the first Cabinet member to die while on official business in more than 150 years. He had been on another of the U.S. trade missions that were his specialty.

``He lived his life for America, and when the time came, he was found laying down his life for America,″ Clinton said at Wednesday’s funeral.

While Brown was so often determined to be first, ``he was equally determined he would never be the last,″ Clinton said, and so worked to develop the talents of those who would serve after him. ``How much of the weeping we have done this last week was because there were so many brilliant, young people on that plane with him,″ the president said.

The funeral cortege from the cathedral to Arlington National Cemetery took a route that symbolized the worlds Brown bridged, down elegant Embassy Row to a black neighborhood near downtown Washington, to the Commerce Department, and across the Potomac River to the muffled drums, the riflemen’s salute and the grave.

Already, the speculation has begun on a successor, although Clinton’s spokesman called it inappropriate. But names make politics, and that was Brown’s game too. So was lobbying; he was battling an effort by House Republicans to eliminate the Commerce Department. Sponsors claim it would cut costs by about $6 billion over the next seven years. They’d planned a vote at the end of this month, but it may be delayed.

For all the tributes to Brown’s dedicated public service, he liked the good life, and his personal financial dealings brought trouble, an investigation by a special prosecutor, now halted by his death.

Brown was nothing if not stylish.

Clinton mentioned that in a lighter moment of his eulogy.

``He would have loved this deal today,″ Clinton said.

``I mean, here we are for Ron Brown in the National Cathedral with full military honors, filled with the distinguished citizenry of this country and leaders from around the world, in a tribute to him.

``And as I look around, I see that all of us are dressed almost as well as he would be today.″


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Walter R. Mears, vice president and columnist for The Associated Press, has reported on Washington and national politics for more than 30 years.

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