A Bad Case Of Clintonitis At Commerce

Political savvy and a fat Rolodex can get you a long way in Washington. But sometimes, it's just not enough. Ask Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown.

The successful lawyer-lobbyist and Democratic Party chairman took the job in January with high promise. He wasn't going to be just another pol handed the Commerce job as a reward. President Clinton told him to make the sleepy department the lead agency in coordinating trade and industrial policy and to launch a splashy export-promotion push.

Brown got off to a strong start, allying himself with Administration trade hawks, including U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Laura D'Andrea Tyson. It looked as if Commerce might at last take its rightful place at the head of the trade table.

But Brown seems to have been struck with a case of Clintonitis. The symptoms: frenetic activity, but an inability to concentrate on the main task. "His initial focus was perfect," says a longtime friend, "then it seemed to get away from him."

FULL AGENDA. Brown has been a whirlwind. He has surprised chief executives, such as TRW's Joseph T. Gorman, with pop-in visits and has barnstormed the country in support of Clinton's economic program while promoting "bottom-up government" and a "new partnership" with business. He is trying to fulfill a White House mandate to act as civilian technology czar, launching an unprecedented government-industry partnership to design a new generation of pollution-free supercars. And Brown has been an effective lobbyist for Commerce, winning approval from the Office of Management & Budget for an additional $1 billion for the National Institute of Standards & Technology, which promotes private-sector development of new technology. In his spare time, Brown has been looking for ways for Washington to help revive the shell-shocked economy of California.

But none of this is helping Brown build Commerce's trade franchise. His ambition to boost the department's role suffered a serious blow on May 19 when his choice for the No.2 job, former Cray Research Inc. Chairman John A. Rollwagen, abruptly withdrew his name. Rollwagen's nomination had been under the cloud of a Securities & Exchange Commission insider-trading investigation.

The failed appointment leaves a gaping hole at Commerce. Rollwagen, an experienced exporter and tough critic of Japanese market restrictions, was to take charge of Commerce's trade effort. "This is a disaster," says an executive being considered for an Administration post.

BEST BRAINS. Brown would like to find a first-tier CEO to replace Rollwagen, but is having trouble hiring one. In the meantime, Brown has stepped up pressure on the White House to nominate investment banker Jeffrey Garten of Blackstone Group as Under Secretary for International Trade. He is courting Tokyo-based American Telephone & Telegraph Co. executive Glen Fukushima for a top trade post. And AlliedSignal Inc. executive Mary L. Good was just nominated as Under Secretary for Technology.

Brown, a very successful party chairman, gets credit for having one of the best political brains in Washington. "He has the capacity to be an extraordinary influence over policy," says Bush Administration Commerce official Wayne L. Berman. "He understands the need to be flexible."

Aides say Brown is revising his agenda. "What you will see in the next couple of months is a guy focused on trade promotion with the overarching vision being expansion of jobs," says Commerce Chief of Staff Robert J. Stein. But unless he acts quickly, Ron Brown may never become a candidate for a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.