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Death Of A Salesman

In Ron Brown's death, US business hardsell abroad may suffer

Death Of A Salesman
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

THE death of US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in a plane crash in Croatia on April 3 has cast a dark shadow over Washington. Brown was in the Balkans in his self-assigned role as the nation's chief salesman, seeking profitable opportunities for American businesses abroad and making the case that economic power should be one of the key cornerstones of US foreign policy. His three-day mission was aimed at promoting US exports, investment, and business participation in the reconstruction of the former Yugoslavia.

Executives of about a dozen companies across the country, who were travelling with Brown, are also among the victims. Most of the business leaders were senior managers at engineering and construction companies, including ABB Inc. of Norwalk, Connecticut; Parsons Corporation of Pasadena, California; the Foster Wheeler Corporation of Clinton, New Jersey; the Air and Water Technologies Corporation of Branchburg, New Jersey; AT&T Submarine Systems of Morristown, New Jersey; Bechtel Group Inc., San Francisco; Riggs Bank of Washington; Ensearch International of Dallas; the Guardian Industries Corporation of Auburn Hills, Michigan; Hazara Companies, Chicago, and Barrington Group, Miami. The names of the executives have not been made public.

Investigators of the crash may be lacking one basic tool—the voice recorder. Brown was travelling in a US Air Force plane that was a modified version of the Boeing 737, a widely used aircraft with one of the best safety records. The Air Force Public Affairs spokesman told Outlook on April 4 that the plane, like many of the Air Force aircraft, did not carry a cockpit voice recorder or a flight data recorder, which are commonly known as black boxes. However, a spokesman for the US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, has reportedly said that such equipment was aboard. There is no suspicion of sabotage.

Brown's death is a crushing blow to President Bill Clinton and to US commerce. He played several key roles for the President—serving as his emissary to the US business community, to black voters and to politicians and businesses in California, which was Brown's second home.

Brown drew praise not only for developing a unified national export strategy and bringing together various government arms in a coordinated export promotion effort, but also for undertaking the kind of "personal diplomacy" US business often needs to clinch big foreign sales. In little more than three years as commerce secretary, Brown reorganised and expanded his department's export promotion activities to focus especially on China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and other huge emerging markets. He advanced, as no other commerce secretary has done, the notion of promoting world peace through trade and investment, as seen by his trips to West Asia, Northern Ireland, subSaharan Africa and his ill-fated journey to Bosnia and Croatia.

Under his impetus, the Commerce Department undertook the broadest revision in decades of the US export control system, assuring American companies faster processing of their license requests. Controls on telecommunications and computer exports were also reduced. His top goal was to boost sales of US goods and services by the year 2000 to well past $1 trillion annually, compared to $783 billion last year.

While Brown was considered successful, he was also something of a potential liability for Clinton because of allegations that he acted unethically before and after joining the government. A controversy over his finances—stemming from his lobbying work prior to government service—made him a target for Congressional critics. While serving as Democratic National Committee chairman, Brown made over $1 million a year as a Washington lobbyist. It was this private sector work that made him the subject of scrutiny and led to the appointment of a special prosecutor to examine the full range of his personal business.

Brown was also forced to spend much of his time simply keeping his department intact. Congressional Republicans last year pushed hard to dismantle the Commerce Department, moving to abolish some of its functions and transfer or privatise others. But with support from the White House and by using his own savvy, Brown ultimately managed to defuse the effort and announced a few weeks ago that the Commerce Department had prevailed. 

"Ron Brown was one of the most aggressive advocates for business in a long, long time," said Willard Workman, the US Chamber of Commerce's vice president-international. "He ranks among the most effective secretaries of commerce we ever had. He was not shy about saying, 'Buy from us.' No other commerce secretary has been that explicit in promoting US exports." 

Frank Kittredge, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, remembers Brown for being unusually accessible to the business community. "He was the first cabinet officer to meet with most of our companies. He showed a level of interest we hadn't seen before. He brought the weight of the US Government to offset the aggressive export promotion efforts of other governments.... I believe he was especially effective in India and China." 

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