Life and Times of Ron Brown: A Memoir by His Daughter


In The Life and Times of Ron Brown, his daughter, Tracey L. Brown, shares a touching account of the person and the politician, and a candid look at one of this century's most compelling figures. From his earliest days growing up in Harlem's Hotel Theresa, the legendary mecca for dignitaries and celebrities like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fidel Castro, and Joe Louis, Ron Brown displayed a precocious intellect and an ability to make friends readily. Educated at Vermont's Middlebury College, he became the first ...
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In The Life and Times of Ron Brown, his daughter, Tracey L. Brown, shares a touching account of the person and the politician, and a candid look at one of this century's most compelling figures. From his earliest days growing up in Harlem's Hotel Theresa, the legendary mecca for dignitaries and celebrities like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fidel Castro, and Joe Louis, Ron Brown displayed a precocious intellect and an ability to make friends readily. Educated at Vermont's Middlebury College, he became the first black member of the school's Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, one of the several "firsts" in his life. The Life and Times of Ron Brown reveals his accomplishments - as the first black officer to serve in his army unit, the first black leader of a national political party, and the first black commerce secretary - and sensitively examines what it meant for Ron Brown to be a minority achiever in a predominantly white world.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At various times perfunctory and highly personal, this memoir by the daughter of President Clinton's first secretary of commerce, who died in a plane crash in Croatia in 1996, combines elements of formal biography with intimate family memories. The author, a deputy D.A. in Los Angeles, begins with a detailed description of the tragic accident that killed her father and 34 others. She then covers his rise from a comfortable childhood in Harlem through his years of good work with the Urban League. Brown turned to politics and managed Senator Edward Kennedy's failed 1979 run for the Democratic presidential nomination. With time out in the 1980s to work as a Washington lobbyist, Brown managed Jesse Jackson's presidential bid at the 1988 convention then went on to head the Democratic National Committee from 1989 to 1992. Clinton is quoted as saying he would not have been elected without Brown, whom he rewarded with a cabinet post. The author's personal touches are often rather teasing, alighting on such everyday matters as her father's inept driving and mania for neatness, while some of the long stretches of his professional lifealways described here as personal triumphsseem a bit labored. The final chapters lose much of the focus trying to explore the cause of the plane crash, detailing the many memorials to Brown and recording the author's personal anguish. The memoir is clearly a labor of love. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Ron Brown lost his life in a 1996 air crash just as his star had begun to rise within the Democratic Party. After a dozen years with the National Urban League, he had joined the Washington, D.C., law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow as its first African American partner. Enjoying politics more than law practice, he became the first black to head the Democratic National Committee, then was appointed the first African American Secretary of Commerce. His only daughter, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, recounts his life based upon oral interviews with family and friends. She tells a moving story. Brown never ran for elected office, but he had aspirations of becoming the first African American president. Interestingly both Brown and Bill Clinton came from broken homes and exhibited an eagerness to please, both had a special love for their offspring, and both could get along with all kinds of people. (Each also underwent investigation by independent counsels.) This should interest political buffs in general and African Americans particularly. Recommended.William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport
The daughter of the late secretary of commerce, who died in a plane crash over Croatia in 1996, shares a touching account of the person and the politician, focusing on the many firsts he accomplished as a minority achiever in a predominantly white world. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
Heart-warming rather than hard-hitting, this loving biography is by a self-proclaimed "daddy's girl." Writing in the first person, the author refers to the late secretary of commerce as "Dad" throughout, and the volume is more family history than chronicle of a public servant's career. Ron's shared experience with his son Michael on the scene as the Berlin Wall came down, for example, is briefly mentioned to introduce the truly significant event of the trip to Germany: visiting the house where Michael's parents lived when he was born. The close-knit life of the Brown family comes across as nothing short of idyllic, and there is no doubt that Tracey utterly adored her father. Even when faults are recognized—Ron's tendency to fall asleep at odd moments or his ineptitude as a driver—they are portrayed as endearing traits; the allegations of corruption that plagued his years in the Clinton administration are dismissed as groundless and politically motivated (the president, by the way, contributes an introduction to the book). Bracketed by accounts of the terrible day a plane crash took Ron's life and the grieving that followed is a survey of major life events: family background, school days, early career in the army, the Urban League, rainmaker at a Washington legal/lobbying firm, and political activities leading to the chairmanship of the Democratic Party and appointment as secretary of commerce. In perhaps the most objective passage of the book, the author recognizes the source of her father's success: "Dad's ability to schmooze was unequalled." There is no pretense that the agenda here is anything other than paying tribute, and given this candor, the book has aninnocent quality that is charmingly sweet as well as irritatingly naive. (b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688153205
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/1/1998
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Read an Excerpt

I laugh every time I remember my twenty-seventh birthday. It was November 8, 1994, and I was in a courtroom, about to make my opening statement as prosecutor on an assault and battery case. The presiding judge had just ordered the jury to be seated when the bailiff whispered to me that I had a telephone call. Hoping the call was not a cancellation by an important witness, I walked over and picked up the phone on the bailiffs desk. In my most professional voice, I said, "This is Tracey Brown." Then I heard Dad, in that baby-talk voice he sometimes used with me: "Twenty-six years ago today, I was in the waiting room at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, when Dr. Josephine En-glish comes in grinning from ear to ear. Of course, we had a female obstetrician, since Mom and I have always been feminists."

I interrupted. "Hurry up, Daddy, the jury is in the box."

But he continued at his normal pace, retelling the story of my birth as he did on my birthday every year: "Dr. English says, 'It's a girl!' and I say, 'It's a girl!' I'm so happy and I run in to see you. Wrapped in a tiny blanket in Mom's arms is this pale baby. You were so white that you were translucent, so I say to Mom, 'That's not my baby. She's too white."

The judge was staring at me. "Miss Brown?" he queried, reminding me that the court was waiting.

"If I can have a moment, Your Honor," I responded. Then into the receiver, I whispered, "Daddy, the judge is getting mad."

But Dad was in the midst of our annual birthday ritual and refused to be hurried: "Then I picked you up and looked at your beautiful face and your little mouth and your almond eyes and I knew you were my baby girl. Happy birthday,baby. I love you so much."

"I love you too, Daddy," I whispered, "but I have to go."

"Are you gonna kick some booty in court?"

"Yes, Daddy, but I really have to go."

"Say, 'I'm gonna kick butt."

"No, Dad. Have a great day. Gotta go."

"Say it," he teased.

"I'm gonna kick butt," I whispered, trying not to laugh.

"Say it louder."

"Dad, I don't want you to have to fly out here and bail my butt out of jail for being held in contempt of court."

"Okay, okay. Good luck with your trial. Happy birthday, Boli." Boli, short for Tracinda Bolinda, his nickname for me.

"Bye, Daddy. I'll call you all tonight. I love you.

"I love you more." We hung up. Then, warmed by his love, with a smile on my face, I turned to the jury. "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Tracey Brown and I represent the people of the state of California."

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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, March 30th, welcomed Tracey Brown to discuss THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RON BROWN.

Moderator: Welcome to the author Auditorium. We are excited to welcome Tracey Brown, who is here to discuss her new book, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RON BROWN. Welcome to, Tracey Brown. We are pleased you could join us today to discuss THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RON BROWN.

Tracey L Brown: Thank you. I'm very glad you invited me.

Samuel from Philadelphia, PA: How was President Clinton approached to do this book? Do you have contact with him? Was it through your publisher? Or better yet, did he approach you?

Tracey L Brown: I knew I was going to be asking to interview him while I was doing the research for the book, and since he's maintained pretty close contact with my family, it was pretty easy to ask him, and he was gracious enough to agree to write the introduction.

Justine from Kalamazoo, MI: Hello, Tracey. Your father was an inspiration to so many people. I'm just wondering who his role models were? Thanks.

Tracey L Brown: No question, his biggest role models was his father. And if any of you all could have met my grandfather, William Harmon Brown, you'd be equally impressed. He was a true optimist who never believed there was anything he couldn't accomplish. And my father inherited that trait.

Bethany from Portland: What role did Ron Brown play in the 1992 presidential election? I know Clinton and he were close -- did they stay close once he was appointed secretary of commerce?

Tracey L Brown: The role my father played in the '92 election I talk about a great deal in the book. He really started to build and reunite the Democratic Party when he was first elected chair of the party in 1989. And throughout those four years of the presidential campaign, from '89 to '92, my dad spent much of it as a one-note pep squad for the Democratic Party, because as many of you may remember, George Bush was very high in all the polls, particularly after the Gulf War, and not a soul alive believed the Democrats could win the White House. One of the most interesting parts of the research of the book centered around the '92 presidential campaign, because while there was a lot I knew, both from my dad and my own participation, interviewing all the other people involved behind the scenes makes that time really come alive in the book. My father remained personally close as well as professionally close with the president while secretary of commerce, and the President's current trip to Africa is really a culmination of three years of work my father did in building new trade relations there.

Gareth from Boston: Your father accomplished so much in his life.Were there ever moments when he was discriminated against because of the color of his skin? Do you recount those moments in the book?

Tracey L Brown: Yes, I recount those moments in the book, but what is most interesting is how fortunate he was to avoid a lot of direct discrimination in his early years. It wasn't until he ventured outside of his nurturing cocoon in Harlem that he was slapped in the face with racism. In the book I tell a story about when my parents were driving to Virginia for my dad's first Army assignment and the restaurant they went to refused to serve them. It affected him a great deal, but one of the most important lessons of his life was to never let anything hold you back and never allow yourself to be victimized. My father always realized that race still matters in today's society, and that's why he fought so hard to provide opportunities for those frequently left out.I think the issues of race that affected him most deeply were entirely personal in that his mother, during many of his years, passed for white due to her light skin coloring. And I talk in the book about how he was ashamed of that.

Chambers from home: What are your feelings about the current allegations against President Clinton? What would your father have said?

Tracey L Brown: It's really depressing, the climate that we live in, in which any allegation by anybody is given credence just by the mere fact that it's reported. If my father were alive today, I'm sure you'd see him on every news program defending the President against these allegations.

Alfred Farkus from Columbus, OH: I love reading about the relationship between your mother and your father. How is your mother doing now? How about your brother, Michael? I'm sorry for your loss, Ms. Brown.

Tracey L Brown: I appreciate your comments, Alfred. We're all doing well. We spend a lot of time together, which we always have. My mother was the most valuable resource to me in writing THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RON BROWN, because since they were together for almost 35 years and they were a true team, she played an integral part in his entire adult life.

X from X: Do you fault Janet Reno for having authorized an independent counsel to investigate allegations of fiscal impropriety on the part of your father?

Tracey L Brown: I do. I believe that the bar was lowered to a ridiculously low level during President Clinton's first administration, where Janet Reno appointed independent counsels on three Cabinet secretaries, the President, and the First Lady. In my opinion, which I document in the book, in referring to all the records involving the investigation, Janet Reno had plenty of information that indicated my father had done nothing wrong, but she appointed an independent counsel anyway.

Georgia from Ardmore, PA: I love the picture of you and your father on the back of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RON BROWN. When and where was it taken?

Tracey L Brown: I'm looking at that photograph right this second. It was taken in his office at the Commerce Department one afternoon in '95 when I was home in Washington from a visit in L.A., and we had just come back from a hearty lunch. The picture has been on my end table in my bedroom ever since it was taken. I can't sleep without it by my side. I refer to in the book, when I talk about the interminable plane ride on the day of the crash, when I was flying home from L.A. to Washington.

Leighton from New York: Your father advocated "collective engagement," the official commercial policy of the Clinton White House vis-à-vis China and other nations with poor human rights records. Would he have supported the same approach to human rights abusers with less of a commercial interest to the U.S., such as Cuba, North Korea, and Iran? Do you see a double standard at work here on the part of the departments of Commerce and State?

Tracey L Brown: As Commerce Secretary, my father firmly believed that only through commercial engagement rather than simple sanctions and alienation can the United States have a positive effect on human rights all over the globe. That's why he focused his trade missions and implemented his policy of commercial diplomacy on so many nations that had previously been ignored. It's interesting to see now how the world is slowly changing its views on Cuba, Vietnam, and Iran.

Bethann P. Westcott from Richmond, VA: Could you tell us about your extensive research for this book? I read that you turned to archives, personal correspondence, etc. What was the most surprising thing you learned about your father from the perspective of a researcher/historian? Has seeing your father from this new perspective transformed your image of him?

Tracey L Brown: What most surprised me in my research for this book was realizing how many lives my father touched. Even people that never knew him or worked with him were inspired by him. And as a child, as any child feels, you see your parents as your parents, and it often takes a while to appreciate the contributions they make outside the family. In terms of the research I did for the book, I interviewed 200 people that he grew up with, worked with, served in the Army with, and I was very fortunate that my grandmother had kept a lot of his old papers and documents from school during his early years. Also, my father was a total pack rat, and we have endless file cabinets at my parents' home with documents dating back to his early Urban League days. I was also surprised and touched by learning about his early history in Harlem and the Hotel Teresa and what an incredible era that was. I'm actually now thinking of writing a book about Harlem and the hotel during the 1940s and '50s.

Thomas H. Higgins from St. Louis, MO: How have your father's close friends reacted to the book?

Tracey L Brown: Thank God, they all love it. It was very gratifying to hear so many different people tell me that I really captured him.

Emily from Brooklyn: What were the major differences between Ron Brown as a public figure and Ron Brown as a family man? What were the similarities?

Tracey L Brown: The similarities were that in dealing with both personnel and staff as well as my brother Michael and I as teenagers, my father tended to be a pushover. In THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RON BROWN, I recount many stories of how difficult he found it to fire or punish people. He always wanted people to like him and never wanted to be the bad guy.

Barrie from Westchester: Are there any plans for any scholarships to be set in your father's name? What is the Ronald H. Brown Foundation? How can someone get involved in this foundation? Thank you for taking my question.

Tracey L Brown: The Ronald H. Brown foundation can be reached at 202-835-0700. The main focus of the foundation has been to start the Ronald H. Brown Center for Politics and Commercial Diplomacy, which is a school in Washington open to college juniors and seniors all over the world who want to spend a semester at the Brown Center, taking courses in everything from speechwriting and polling to international business. As for scholarships, this past weekend we selected 20 Ron Brown scholars out of 4,000 applicants. These African American high school seniors will receive $40,000 each toward their college education. They are his real lasting legacy. The Ronald H. Brown Foundation can be reached on the Internet at

Daria from Minneapolis: Greetings, Tracey Brown! Last week Clinton was criticized during his trip to Africa for apologizing for slavery. As an African American, were you offended? Do you think Clinton has succeeded in bringing race to the forefront of the American conscience, or do you think it's all rhetoric? Also, did your father run any trade missions in Africa, and what was that experience like?

Tracey L Brown: I was not offended by the President's comments in which he admitted that America was wrong to participate in the slave trade. America was wrong. I think the President's heart is in the right place in terms of creating a dialogue about race. Unfortunately there are no simple solutions, and without a simple solution, all dialogue seems like rhetoric. As to trade missions to Africa, in the book I talk about my father's commitment to Africa, which had virtually been ignored by previous commerce secretaries and administrations. His very first trade mission was to South Africa, and it resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for U.S. businesses as well as thousands of jobs for American workers.

Arianna from Rockville, MD: What shape do you see your father's legacy taking in the future? Did you write this book to clear your father's name in any way?

Tracey L Brown: I wrote this book to tell my father's story, which is an inspirational one to people across color lines and political lines. If the effect is to "clear his name," I'm certainly pleased. His legacy, which is exemplified by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Ronald H. Brown Foundation, is to provide opportunities to those who have been left out and disenfranchised.

Pam Loughton from Carolina: Do you lend any credence to the conspiracy theories that surround your father's death?

Tracey L Brown: I personally don't believe them, particularly the allegation that he was shot in the head. But I can assure you that if I did believe it, I wouldn't rest until I found out who was responsible.

Joseph from Bradenton, FL: When did your father meet President Clinton? How did it happen that he became involved in the presidential campaign? I know that he was a great Commerce Secretary, but I don't know how he got there! I look forward to reading THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RON BROWN.

Tracey L Brown: As I recount in the book, my father was elected chairman of the Democratic party in 1989, well before then-governor Clinton became a candidate. My father wanted the Democratic party to be unified and ready for the general election against George Bush, regardless of who the democratic nominee became. He met Clinton when Clinton was the governor of Arkansas in 1988, when my father was running for chair of the party.

Conrad Lawrence from Chicago: How has your family reacted to the book? Any sensitive areas? How do you deal with them, if there were any?

Tracey L Brown: I interviewed my family extensively to get their memories and impressions for the book. However, I didn't let my mother or my brother see the manuscript until I was well into my second draft. I was terrified that they might not like it or approve of something that I felt strongly about. Luckily any disagreements were minor, and my family is fully supportive of the book. As an African American, I felt a bit sensitive and defensive about my grandmother's history in passing for white. But I also learned that it was fairly common during that era. Thankfully my grandmother reacted positively to the book as well.

John from Bakersfield, CA: Hello. Do you think it's true that -- if he had lived -- Ron Brown would have put in a bid for President?

Tracey L Brown: That's a great question. My mother was adamantly opposed. She felt and continues to feel that public service and the scrutiny and unfair attacks that go along with it simply isn't worth it. My father taught my brother and me that there are many ways to participate in and have an impact on a political system without being a candidate. In other words, it would have been a tense time around the Brown house if my father really pushed to run for President.

X from X: Vernon Jordan is a frequent object of scorn within the African American activist community due to the perception that he occupies a position of overwhelming prestige and authority that he does little to leverage in support of the cause of African American advancement. Do you have any idea what your father's opinion was of these criticisms against Mr. Jordan?

Tracey L Brown: People tend to forget that Vernon Jordan spent a large part of his career as a civil rights activist at the National Urban League. So without question, he has paid some dues. My father, like many people who believe strongly in civil rights, believed that there's always more to do.

Paul from Poughkeepsie: What will you be working on next, Ms. Brown. Will you be writing any more books?

Tracey L Brown: I'm working on a book about the Hotel Teresa and Harlem during the 1940s and '50s. I haven't yet decided if or when I'll go back to practicing law, which I really miss. Hopefully I'll find a happy medium.

Tit from Tat: Would you chalk the accusations of corruption against your father up to the climate of distrust (dare I say, "witch-hunt") which still seems to prevail in the Clinton White House? How much of the impetus behind those allegations was purely political?

Tracey L Brown: I talk about this in the book with regard to the climate that is so pervasive in politics now. Whoever the loser is tries to get even in any way they can, including personal attacks, however unsubstantiated. In the end we are all losers, as we've let political discourse disintegrate to such an ugly level, which makes the important issues that most of us really care about go unaddressed.

Greg from Stanton: What is the true story behind your father, Ron Brown's, death? Is there any way this fatal disaster could have been averted?Is there anything the public didn't learn about the disaster which you can share now?

Tracey L Brown: Yes. In the book I recount the details of the crash investigation as well as pending litigation and legislation by all of the families that lost someone in the crash. What disappointed and concerned most of us was the way the Air Force handled the investigation of the crash, which was wrapped up in a mere six weeks, while most crash investigations take over a year. None of us would tolerate ValuJet investigating and punishing itself. Why should we tolerate that from the Air Force?

Evers from Charlotte, NC: Was it ever difficult to write this book? What for you was the hardest point?

Tracey L Brown: Both the hardest part of the book as well as the best part was that it was therapy for me. I think anyone who has lost someone will appreciate how my family dealt with our grief. We are all different people and dealt with it in many different ways. One of the most valuable lessons I've learned from this horrible tragedy is that there is not a right or wrong way to grieve. Writing about my father enabled me to remember him and all of the wonderful memories that we had together as well as work through the utter loss and despair that I continue to feel every day.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us this evening to discuss THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RON BROWN.Do you have any final comments for our online audience?

Tracey L Brown: I hope the lesson that people take from my father's life is that regardless of any obstacles that you face, be it discrimination, lack of education, or an independent counsel, you can triumph and make a difference. I want to thank everyone for your insightful questions, and I hope you are as inspired by the book as I was by having Ron Brown as my father.

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