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Remarks at the Funeral of Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown

April 10, 1996

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Americans, citizens of the world who have come here; to Alma and Tracey and Michael and Tammy; to Chip and to Ron's mother and to the other members of the family who are here: This has been a long week for all of us who loved Ron Brown, cared for his work, cherished the brilliant young people who worked with him, honored the business executives who took the mission of peace to Bosnia, and the members of our United States military who were taking them on that mission.

But this has been the longest week for the Brown family. You have grieved and wept. You have comforted others whose loved ones were lost. You have remembered and smiled, and last evening you got to celebrate and laugh at the life that you shared, each in your own way, with Ron.

I begin by saying to all of you, on behalf of all of us, we thank you for the strength you have given to others even as you have borne your own grief, for we can see Ron in your eyes and hear him in your voices and feel his strength in yours. Indeed, I was confident, as I heard Michael speak, that from heaven Ron had written the words. So today and in all of our tomorrows, as we remember and love him, we will remember and love you. We hope on this day amidst all the grief you will also feel gratitude for his magnificent life, determination to carry on his legacy and keep it alive, and the peace of God which takes us to a place beyond all our understanding.

The Bible tells us, "though we weep through the night, joy will come in the morning." Ron Brown's incredible life force brought us all joy in the morning. No dark night could ever defeat him. And as we remember him, may we always be able to recover his joy. For this man loved life and all the things in it. He loved the big things: his family, his friends, his country, his work, his African-American heritage. He loved the difference he was making in the world, this new and exciting world after the cold war.

And he loved life's little things: the Redskins and basketball and golf, even when it was bad, and McDonald's and clothes. And I'm telling you, folks, he would have loved this deal today. 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. [Laughter]

But let us remember also that he loved success, but not so much he wanted to succeed at the wrong things or in the wrong way. And he always remembered that worldly success doesn't take us too very far from all the rest of our fellow human beings who don't enjoy as much of it. That accounts for why he was always so kind to people without regard to their station in life.

Ron Brown enjoyed a lot of success. He proved you could do well and do good. He also proved you could do good and have a good time. And he also proved that you could do all that and, at the same time, still take time to help other people.

With his passion and determination, his loves and his joys, his going beyond the stereotypes of his time, he lived a truly American life. He lived his life for America, and when the time came, he was found laying down his life for America.

What a life it was, with his remarkable enthusiasm that infected everything he did. As long as I live I will remember the time Ron Brown and I were walking the streets of the neighborhood in Los Angeles, and we went to this sporting goods store that had been owned by some people who were trying to help young folks stay out of gangs. And in the back of the sporting goods store, there was a basketball court. And all these little kids had gathered around, and they asked Ron and they asked me if we would like to play basketball. So we divided up sides. He took a few kids. I took a few kids. All of a sudden he forgot who was President and how he got his day job. [Laughter] He was totally caught up in the drama of the game. This was an important trip we took, but afterward, whenever anyone asked him about that trip, all he could remember to say was, "The President was in my face from 20 feet out, but when I shot, nothing but net." [Laughter]

Ron Brown was very clever. Even as a young boy at the Hotel Teresa, "Little Brown," as Joe Louis called him, was always trying to think of what else could be done. He met all kinds of celebrities, as has been widely chronicled, men like Louis Armstrong and Sugar Ray Robinson and women like Lena Horne and Dinah Washington. And he did what most kids do, even today, he got their autographs. But unlike most kids, he sold them to his friends. [Laughter] According to Michael, he sold two to a page, five bucks a pop, until Joe Louis found out and shut down his act. [Laughter] But it was too late. He was well on his way to becoming the Secretary of Commerce. [Laughter]

He was daring. We all know that. He was daring when he announced he wanted to be the chairman of the Democratic Party, after we had lost three Presidential elections. And no one thought he had a chance to win. Then when he won, he announced that in 1992 the world's oldest political party would win the White House again. And nobody thought he was right, including the Governor of a small Southern State. [Laughter] But as with so many other things, he was right, and the rest of us were wrong.

On a personal note, I want to say to my friend just one last time: Thank you; if it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here.

Ron Brown was a true leader, and he knew that in his mind that meant you could never show doubt, even if you had to kind of make it up as you went along. I later learned this story about his acceptance of the job I offered him. I sent for Ron. He came to see me, and I said, "You know, this is a big, new world out there, and you ought to be Secretary of Commerce. You could change the future of America and millions of other people around the world. You could make a real difference." And he said, "That sounds good. I want to think about it." I later learned that he walked out and went to see our mutual friend Harold Ickes and said, "Harold, what does the Secretary of Commerce do?" [Laughter]

By the time he arrived, he knew. He knew better than anyone else. He came on like a force of nature. Yesterday I received a letter from one of the many business executives that Ron Brown helped to open new markets around the world. He's on our Export Council, and he said in this letter, "You know, Mr. President, Ron Brown really is the finest Secretary of Commerce the United States ever had."

He also remembered what it was he was leaning toward. Ron Brown made his staff memorize a one-sentence mission statement about their job at Commerce. Here it is: The mission of the Department of Commerce is to ensure economic opportunity for every American.

That was Ron. He wanted to give other people a chance to live a good life and live the American dream. He wanted to do it in a way that helped people around the world to lift their aspirations. He went after it with everything he had. He used to say to me, "If what we have to do means getting the government out of the way, let's lead the charge. And if what we have to do means working together to find some new solution, let's lead the charge. But let's get it done. Let's fulfill the mission."

He also never forgot that there are always some people who are left behind. I want to tell you this story because to me it captures so much the essence of what made him very special. When we first came into office we only had about a month to put our first budget together. And we knew we had to do some pretty tough things to get the deficit way down. Day after day, the Cabinet would gather in the Roosevelt Room; Ron was always there. And on one of those days, we talked about the need not only to cut the budget but to do some really symbolic things that would show the American people we were different and we stood for the right things. And we were all, frankly, being just a little sanctimonious in looking for symbolic gestures.

And so we were talking about the need to cut the perks that had previously been provided to top officials, things like chefs in the Secretary's dining room and chauffeurs for a lot of higher ranking officials. And we talked about them, frankly, all of us, nonchalantly and fairly sanctimoniously until Ron turned to me and said, "You know, these cuts are the right thing to do, Mr. President. It is the right thing to do. But I'd just like to remind people that there are real human beings in those jobs as chefs and chauffeurs. A lot of those folks are my age. Many are black men. Most of them never had the opportunities you and I did. So let's go on and do the right things and make the cuts. But let's not forget about those people, and let's try to help them go on with their lives in dignity."

No one else said that but Ron Brown. He could see where we had to go. He knew it was the right thing to do. But he had enough peripheral vision to know how other people were being affected.

That last thing I'd like to say about his remarkable public life is that while he was often determined to be first, he was equally determined that he would never be the last. And so he exerted more extraordinary effort than virtually anybody I've ever known to develop the talents of other people, to reach out to the young, to give them a chance to serve. How much of the weeping we have done this last week because there were so many brilliant young people on that plane with him from different backgrounds and different racial groups. Why? Because Ron Brown could see in them the promise of a new tomorrow, and he knew they needed someone to reach down and give them the opportunity to serve.

And I hope that is something that none of us will ever forget. For his legacy burns brightly not only in the lives of his wife and children and other family members but also all of those brilliant young men and women, many of whom are with us today, who walked through the doors that he opened and crossed over the bridges that he built.

I received a lot of letters and calls, like many of you have, since Ron died. I got this letter from Michael Armstrong, the chairman of Hughes Electronics, who was one of the people Ron worked with. And I wanted to read this to you, because so often we think Government operates in a vacuum. Listen to this:

"While the demands of business, the pressures of the Commerce Department, and the politics of Washington can often mask the spirit and character of the dedicated people who try so hard to make a difference for America, the business at hand, the pressures on the Department, and the politics of the moment never dimmed the smile, the energy, the commitment, and the leadership of the man who made such a big difference in the direction and destiny of our country. He led his party to the Presidency. He led the Commerce Department with imagination and distinction. He led American business to new global opportunity. He led his race as an unassuming but forceful role model. He led us all in being what he believed in. He was truly a leader."

Ron Brown: a trailblazer, a builder, a patriot; a husband, a father, a wonderful friend, and a great American.

Let us remember these things about Ron. Let us always have our joy in the morning. Let us be determined to carry on his legacy. Let us always be vigilant, as he was, in fighting against any shred of racism and prejudice. Let us always be vigilant, as he was, in remembering that we cannot lift ourselves up by tearing other people down, that we have to go forward together. Let us always remember, as he did, that Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he said so many years ago, America is great because America is good. He knew we had to keep working and striving to be better.

In his last sermon from the pulpit, Martin Luther King asked God to grant us all a chance to be participants in the newness and magnificent development of America. That is the cause for which Ron Brown gave his life and the cause for which he gave up his life.

In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul said, "Let us not grow weary in doing good. For in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart." Our friend never grew weary; he never lost heart. He did so much good, and he is now reaping his reward. He left us sooner than we wanted him to leave, but what a legacy of love and life he left behind.

Now he's in a place where he doesn't even have to worry about how good he looks. He always will look good. He's in a place where there's always joy in the morning. He's in a place where every good quality he ever had has been rendered perfect. He's in a place he deserves to be because of the way he lived and what he left to those of us who loved him.

Let there always be joy in the morning for Ron Brown. Amen.

NOTE: The President spoke at 1:43 p.m. in the sanctuary at the National Cathedral.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Funeral of Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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