The Washington Post

Why Clinton thought GOP wanted to abolish Commerce Department

Then-President-elect Bill Clinton puts his arm around  Ron Brown after announcing Brown’s appointment as commerce secretary at a Little Rock, Ark., news conference in December  1992 (Danny Johnston/AP)

During a 1996 State of the Union prep meeting that included President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, senior adviser George Stephanopoulos and other Clinton aides, the president was blunt in his disdain for Republicans, and offered his team his candid take on why the GOP wanted to eliminate the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In Clinton’s estimation, it was because they couldn’t handle an African American successfully leading the agency.

“I mean, the reason they want to get rid of the Department of Commerce is, they are foaming at the mouth that Ron Brown is better than all of those Republican corporate executives who got those cheeky jobs because they gave big money to Republican presidential candidates,” Clinton said. “And here is this black guy who is a better Secretary of Commerce than anybody since Herbert Hoover, which he was a success at.”

“I mean, that’s true, they just can’t stand it,” Clinton continued. “They just go crazy, it just drives them nuts. So will get rid — they’re like a kid that’s mad in a room, you know, a 2-year -old — they will get rid of the Department of Commerce so they’ll never have to remember that Ron Brown, a black Democrat, was better than all their big, corporate muckety-mucks that make American jobs. I mean, it’s crazy, it’s unbelievable.”

Someone in the room joked, “Are we putting this in the speech?”

“No,” Clinton said, “but I mean, they need a rabies shot.”

The transcript of the conversation between Clinton and his staff was made public Friday by the National Archives as part of the periodic release this year of thousands of previously unseen documents from the Clinton White House.

Brown was the first African American to run the Commerce Department. He was killed in a plane crash in May 1996 during a trade mission in former Yugoslavia. Clinton, who some called the nation’s “first black president” because of his support from the African American community, once wrote, “I could not have become president without Ron Brown.”

Colby Itkowitz is the lead anchor of the Inspired Life blog. She previously covered the quirks of national politics and the federal government.



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