P> Early in the Clinton administration, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown traveled the San Francisco Bay area to participate in the Technology Summit, a conference convened by former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO John Young.
The government-industry conference was scheduled to last three days, and Brown was a keynote speaker. But the surprising thing about the secretary's appearance in Burlingame was that he actually stayed for the entire conference.
"That really impressed people," recalled Robert L. Stern, a member of the board of the R&D Policy Committee of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "It contrasted with our expectations of a speech by the Commerce secretary. Everyone thought he would give a speech, shake some hands and leave. But he stayed and had private meetings with technology CEOs. He was completely available. He had a desire to do something useful."
Brown's commitment to the technology industry didn't waver. Ties made during that meeting and others made him an even more passionate defender of federal funding for technology. Whether one agreed with him or not, it is certain that were it not for Brown, federal programs such as the Advanced Technology Program and industry grants at the National Institute of Standards and Technology would have suffered more dramatic cuts last year, observers said.
Brown brought his strategic skills, honed during numerous presidential campaigns, in the policy debates with the GOP Congress. "Brown had a command focus," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry. Now, his absence raises fundamental concerns for U.S. industry.
An April 10 White House-Commerce Department meeting on corporate responsibility, conceived by Brown and others, was postponed indefinitely. Advocates of federal funding of technology are unnerved.
Early on, White House economist Laura Tyson appeared to be the administration's tech advocate, but Brown surprised many by emerging in that role. Insiders said the administration thought about giving in to GOP demands for the elimination of ATP and other programs to preserve export subsidies and other forms of state capitalism.
But Brown resisted. Instead, he demanded that all Commerce programs be defended.
This reporter recalls meeting and interviewing Brown several times. The first time was in his initial press briefing as Secretary of Commerce. He outlined the agency's budget, and I asked him if he was going to be the government's "technology czar," as some had suggested. He laughed, saying he relished advancing federal technology programs.
Last summer, we met again at the National Association of Manufacturers Show in Chicago. Brown was late for a luncheon, but stayed beyond his scheduled departure to chat with executives and brief the press.
I chatted again with Brown at that event and asked him if U.S. industry would collapse because ATP and other programs were diminished. He said the competitive posture of the manufacturing industry would be severely damaged if the GOP succeeded.
It is doubtful that Clinton can find some-one of his caliber in the coming months to fill the post. "They certainly will not get someone with that level of force," said Stern. "This man had a vision about the importance of business in spreading democracy."
I recently requested another interview with Brown, and Carol Hamilton, his aide who died on the plane with him, was moving to schedule something. Had we met again, I'm sure he would have defended tech programs with the ideological intensity and fervor that he had shown before.
Brown was to this White House what Lee Atwater was to President Bush. Though he expanded his role beyond pure politics to technology policy, one must also wonder whether Brown's demise will have the same effect on his boss as Atwater's death did on Bush.