On April 3, though, Brown's run of success came to a sudden and terrible end. While on a four-day trade mission to Bosnia and Croatia, his Air Force T-43A—the same aircraft that had been used to ferry First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea across Turkey the week before (see page 52)—crashed into a mountainside two miles from the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. As rescue teams began to reach the wreckage several hours later, it became clear that there were no survivors. Among those on the flight were Nathaniel Nash, 44, the Frankfurt bureau chief for The New York Times, and ranking executives from a dozen U.S. firms.
It was through the force of his personality—he had no formal business training—that he was able to transform Commerce in his three years there. "He was absolutely brilliant and charismatic," says longtime friend Tavis Smiley, a radio and TV commentator in Los Angeles. All told, Brown had led dozens of missions to promote American goods abroad. No mere junketeer, Brown made it a point to close actual deals on his trips, among them a $1.4 billion contract in 1994 for Raytheon to build a satellite system for Brazil. In doing so, the liberal Democrat found himself the unlikely darling of the business world. As Edgar S. Woolard Jr., chairman of the Du Pont Co., raved to one reporter, "He is the star of the Administration."
Unfortunately, Brown's aptitude for wheeling and dealing also proved to be something of a liability. Last May an independent counsel was appointed to investigate his business dealings with Nolanda Hill, a broadcasting entrepreneur from Texas who had given him a $400,000 stake in a company called First International Communications Corp. What made their relationship troubling was the fact that another company that Hill controlled had defaulted on more than $25 million in loans to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. All along, Brown tried to shrug off the matter, and his lawyer insisted the Secretary would be fully exonerated. But that was not his only brush with scandal. In recent weeks federal investigators had subpoenaed 20 witnesses to appear before a grand jury in Washington investigating allegations that an Oklahoma gas company enriched his son Michael Brown, 30, a lawyer and lobbyist, in exchange for influence with the Commerce Department.
Brown's rise to wealth and power probably would not have surprised anyone who knew him growing up in New York City. His father, William, was manager of Harlem's storied Hotel Theresa, which catered to many black celebrities of the era, including Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, who presented young Ronnie with a pair of boxing gloves during one visit. Brown's parents had high hopes for their son, who was sent off to overwhelmingly white Middlebury College in Vermont. From there he headed back to New York, where he worked for the Urban League and attended St. John's University Law School. Though no civil-rights firebrand, Brown decided politics would be his calling. "It just became clear to me that that is where you were going to make a real difference," he told PEOPLE in 1993. "That was the place you had to be."
In 1980, Brown worked on Sen. Edward Kennedy's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. When that fizzled, Brown decided he needed more money to support his family: wife Alma, now 55, daughter Tracey, 28, now a prosecutor in Los Angeles, and Michael. He soon made a splash as a lobbyist for the high-powered Washington firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, and in 1989 filled out his résumé further by landing the top job at the DNC, where he performed the notable feat of keeping the party unified as Bill Clinton tugged it closer to the center.
Last, week a distraught President and Mrs. Clinton were among those who went to the Brown residence in northwest Washington to comfort the family. To Brown's friends and colleagues, it was almost inconceivable that someone so dynamic could simply be gone. "He had an incurable optimism about the possibilities of life," says Timothy May, managing partner of Brown's old law firm. "He made people believe that the things they imagined could be done."
JANE SIMS PODESTA and ALICIA BROOKS in Washington