On April 3, 1996, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 others died following the crash of an Air Force plane into a Croatian hillside.
Ten years later, Brown confidante Nolanda Butler Hill wonders why no one is paying any heed to the 10th anniversary of his death. How often is it, she asks, that a U.S. Cabinet member dies on duty in a foreign country, receives a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery, and then is quickly and decisively forgotten.
Hill speculates that it may have something to do with the fact that Ron was black. That may be part of the equation, but as Hill knows, the issue goes much deeper than race. “The reason Ron Brown died,” says Hill with conviction, “was because he had no choice but to bring the Clinton presidency down.”
A lifelong Democrat, Hill contends that Brown’s memory will remain suppressed as long as Hillary Clinton remains a viable candidate. My experiences with the major media on this issue suggest that she is almost assuredly correct. To a person, black or white, reporters and producers do not want to hear anything about Ron Brown, this despite the fact that his past surely colors the future of his son Michael, now running for mayor in Washington, D.C.
Hill is convinced and always has been that Ron Brown was assassinated. At the time of his death, I had refused to believe such a scenario possible. I was doing talk radio then in Kansas City, and I vigorously rejected all speculation about conspiracy. When I started research for my book, “Ron Brown’s Body,” in 2003, I began with the conviction that the plane crash was accidental and the famed hole in Brown’s head was some sort of anomaly. To say the least, I have lost that conviction.
I lost the conviction even before I found the critical evidence deep in the 22-volume USAF report, before I reviewed the forensic data on Brown’s head wound, or heard the first hand accounts from U.S. Navy forensic photographer, Kathleen Janoski, who discovered it. What caused me to doubt was what I learned about Brown’s state of mind before his death.
After a lifetime of indifference, Ron Brown had begun going to church. This, even his family acknowledges. For anyone looking closely, this sudden turn to the spiritual rightly suggested a soul in turmoil. Prayer came hard for Brown. He had worshipped too long and too devoutly at the altar of Mammon. But when the independent counsel targeted not only him and Hill, but also his son Michael, Brown lost much of his faith in the here and now. For Brown, this was the beginning of wisdom. The shame was it had to come so late.
Brown needed immediate, temporal help as well. And so he sought a private meeting with President Clinton, one-on-one. They had a lot to talk about. Highest on Brown’s list of priorities was the fate of Michael Brown, now just 30 and the father of twins. Brown loved the boy dearly. He could not bear the thought of his going to jail. He knew it would all but kill his wife, Alma. And he knew finally that he was the one responsible. After all, it was he who had involved Michael in that stupid Oklahoma scam, the one that began when Hillary Clinton asked him to bail out Chief of Staff Mack McLarty. How to explain that even to himself?
It was Hill who pushed Brown to seek the meeting with Clinton. After Michael was publicly targeted, the pushing got easier. “I was absolutely convinced that Michael was looking at jail time,” says Hill. In the last months of Brown’s life, as a condition for her not rolling over on him, Hill insisted that Brown advise her of all his legal troubles. This he did.
As Hill tells it – and everything she has ever told me checks out – the meeting at the White House family quarters did not go well. Brown told the president to call off the dogs, to shut down the independent counsel, to do whatever had to be done because he was not about to let Michael do jail time.
After Brown had finished, the president told Brown he doubted that he could do anything for him. The die had been cast. The case was out of his hands. In February 1996, more than a year into his mad scramble to retain the presidency, the president likely calculated the political risk to his re-election chances and ruled against intervention.
When Brown and Hill had role-played before the meeting, Hill had focused Brown on the president’s ultimate Achilles’ heel. This was the president’s arguably treasonous dealing with China that Brown himself had expedited. Revelations about China fund-raising at this stage of the campaign could have killed Clinton’s re-election bid. For years thereafter, Hill lived with the guilt that it was she who set the wheels in motion for Brown’s final trip and ultimate demise.
Hill did not see much of Brown after the meeting. The White House had him on the road almost constantly. Soon afterward, Brown informed Hill of another trip, this time to the Balkans. “This trip makes no sense,” Hill told him more than once. Brown did not disagree.
Brown started his fatal trip in Paris. There he found a small chapel named for Saint Catherine Laboure. One evening, he stayed so long in prayer that he came late to the reception Ambassador Pamela Harriman was holding in his honor. Brown had never done anything like this before.
After the reception on April 2, Brown boarded a military plane at the Villacoublay airport and headed to the Croatia. Brown was originally scheduled to meet Croatian strongman and president Franco Tudjman the next day in Zagreb, but once in Croatia, he was informed that the meeting site had been changed to Dubrovnik. Brown never quite got there. Tudjman never bothered to go.
Today, after much reflection, Hill no longer believes that the meeting with President Clinton triggered the trip to Croatia. She believes that the planning of Brown’s demise had already begun. “They [the president’s advisers] knew he was going to get indicted. They knew that he was gone.” Brown was the classic “man who knew too much.” The knowledge that had protected him when his legal problems could still be fixed left him vulnerable when those problems were beyond fixing.
After Brown’s death, the two major investigations into Brown’s affairs quickly shut down. Michael Brown got off with a wrist slap for a campaign violation and remained politically viable. The Justice Department silenced Nolanda Hill with a gratuitous tax charge and shut her up in a grim Texas halfway house.
And as to Ron Brown and those who died with him – including six worthy Air Force personnel – they lie in their graves, remembered by no one but their loved ones and avenged by no one at all.
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