Ron Brown's House of Cards
Former congressman Barney Frank does not much like the wickedly cynical series on Netflix, House of Cards. He has particular trouble believing that a charming Southern Democrat and his ice-queen wife could cheat and lie and murder their way to the White House.
“Preposterous” is how Frank describes the series’ lead character, Frank Underwood. “He has no political principles, either substantive or procedural,” whines Frank. “There is no issue about which he cares; no tactic he will not employ, no matter how unfair it is to others; and he is thoroughly dishonest.”
Frank would seem to have forgotten about Bill and Hillary Clinton, their 1995-1996 re-election campaign, and its ultimate victim, Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died on a Croatian hillside eighteen years ago this Thursday.
In the way of recap, the Democrats lost both the House and the Senate in the 1994 midterms, the blame for which fell heavily on the Clintons. “I can tell you,” current Virginia governor and then Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe admitted, “the political mood at the time clearly was that [Bill Clinton] had no chance of winning again.”
Like the Russians at Stalingrad, the Clintons had few options but to fight on. In early December 1994, in the White House treaty room, Bill and Hillary Clinton held a secret meeting with the one man who could possibly turn the tide of battle, political consultant Dick Morris.
The rules of the game, which had been only loosely followed to this point, were about to be scrapped altogether. In a more disciplined fashion than they had done anything else since coming to town, the Clintons were preparing to launch what Senator Fred Thompson would call “the most corrupt political campaign in modern history.”
Like the campaign in season two of House of Cards, “Millions of dollars were raised in illegal contributions, much of it from foreign sources.” The Thompson Committee report revealed this and much worse.
Ron Brown played a role in all of this that he would rather not have. Targeted by an independent counsel along with his son Michael and his confidante (and my source) Nolanda Butler Hill on unrelated charges, Brown desperately needed the Clintons’ help to keep himself, Hill, and especially Michael out of prison. In true Underwood fashion, the Clintons exploited Brown’s vulnerability by making him their international bagman.
As Hill tells it, Brown arranged a meeting with Clinton at the White House family quarters. It did not go well. When Clinton said there was nothing he could do for Michael, Brown resorted to his ultimate bargaining chip. If he had to, he told Clinton, he was prepared to reveal the president’s treasonous dealings with China, news of which had yet to break.
Next thing you know, Ron was on his final seat-selling trade mission, this one to Croatia to cut a deal between the neo-fascists who ran the country and the Enron Corporation. Yes, that Enron. He never got there. The Air Force plane that carried Brown, the military version of a Boeing 737, crashed into a hillside outside Dubrovnik. Brown and 34 others were killed.
The Enron executives landed safely in their own jet just a few minutes earlier despite what the Clinton administration called “the worst storm in a decade.” As I learned in reading the 22-volume USAF report on the crash, it was not even raining at the time, and the sun was peeking through the clouds. I requested that report eight years after the crash. As far as I know, I was the first person in the media to request it, and the New York Times had a reporter on the plane.
At a June 1996 press conference, chief of staff of the Air Force, Ronald R. Fogleman, made a rather remarkable response to an unremarkable question. Asked whether a cockpit voice recorder -- there was said to be none on board -- would have clarified the cause of the crash, Fogleman replied, “It would help explain these apparently inexplicable actions such as flying the wrong course.”
“Inexplicable”? Yes, finally, inexplicable. For no firm reason that any official has been able to proffer, the plane veered nine degrees off course in the last four minutes of the flight and made a perfectly controlled descent into a mountainside nearly two miles northeast of the airport. According to the veteran airline pilots who reviewed the technical data from the USAF report, it seems altogether possible that a rogue beacon lured the plane to its demise.
Kathleen Janoski was the chief of the forensic photography team detailed to photograph the bodies of the deceased when they arrived back in Dover, Delaware. When ready, Janoski mounted a stepladder and began to photograph Brown’s body starting at the head.
She had scarcely begun when she saw something that took her breath away. “Look at the hole in Brown’s head,” she exclaimed. “It looks like a bullet hole.” Going public with that that observation would cost Janoski and three military pathologists their careers. Brown’s family was never informed of the hole. By order of the White House, there was no autopsy.
Janoski fared better than Niko Jerkuic, the man responsible for the airport’s aviation systems. Three days after the crash, a day he just happened to be off work, he was found with a bullet hole through his chest. The painfully incuriousTimes reported that a “failed romance” had left the forty-six-year-old bachelor despondent. The USAF had been scheduled to interview Jerkuic the next day.
In reviewing the USAF report, I came across one detail too rich even for House of Cards. When questioned, U.S. ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith observed that a Croatian-American woman named Zdenka Gast had arrived with the executives from Enron shortly before Brown’s scheduled arrival. At the time she was serving as liaison between Enron and the Croatian government
Intriguingly, Gast had been scheduled to fly with Brown but thought better of it. Said Galbraith, “There were problems in -- in -- in this -- in concluding this deal where they wanted to sign a letter of intent, and so, rather than -- than go on the Brown trip, she stayed with the Inron [sic] people to do the final negotiations.”
“We’ve been looking for her,” volunteered Air Force Captain John Cairney. The Air Force obviously did not look too hard. Investigators conducted 148 witness interviews, but Gast was not among them. I found her in five minutes of searching. When I reached her contact person, I was told, “Don’t be surprised if she gets back to you in just a few minutes.” I am still waiting.
Inquiring into Gast’s background, I came across the Croatian-language magazine Gloria. The photo that graced this article leapt off the page at me. In the center of three smiling women, all linked arm in arm, was Gast, an attractive, full-figured redhead. On her left was the then Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman. On her right was none other than Hillary Clinton. Gast was one of only forty guests at a 2000 White House wedding reception for Herman, the woman who dispatched Brown on his fatal trip. Most of the other guests the reader would recognize by name.
Without an autopsy, the prudent reader will accuse Bill or Hillary Clinton of nothing more sinister than dreading the unknown. For fear of what they might have found -- in this, the most desperate political season of their lives -- the Clintons chose not to look. The media have no such excuse. I discovered the Enron link when Enron was very much in the news. No one in the media wanted to know even about that, let alone the myriad other anomalies.
The Air Force was -- and is -- more willing to confront the facts. When I initially balked at the four-figure price tag for the full report and the months-long delay in receiving it, a colonel intervened, waived the fee and sent it immediately from Germany. The Air Force has, after all, an abiding interest in the truth. An “inexplicable” plane crash needlessly ruined sixteen Air Force careers and ended six worthy Air Force lives.
Joining those six in death were 29 civilians, the most celebrated among them the uniquely vital Ron Brown. If his story is ever told in full, Mr. Frank, it will make House of Cards seem as innocent as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.