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Lillian Brown, Makeup Artist to Nine Presidents, Dies at 106

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On Aug. 8, 1974, Lillian Brown, a longtime makeup artist for presidents, was urgently summoned to the White House, where she saw President Richard M. Nixon sobbing. Engulfed by the Watergate scandal, he was about to go on national television and announce that he was resigning. If he didn’t stop crying, she knew, his makeup would streak down his face.

“He was in bad shape,” Ms. Brown recalled years later. “We had six minutes to air, and I thought, What can I do for this man?”

She tried humor. She reminded him of the time one Christmas when his Irish setter, King Timahoe, kept bumping into the tree and destroying the ornaments. To get the dog away from the tree, Ms. Brown took him into a bathroom, and somehow, as if scripted by the Marx Brothers, she, the dog and Nixon all ended up locked in the loo by the Secret Service.

Nixon burst into laughter. With no time to spare, Ms. Brown made him presentable, and he went before the cameras.

Long before there were high-priced media consultants coaching the political elite, there was Lillian Brown, a common-sense farm girl from Ohio. She applied makeup for nine presidents, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton. But she did much more than powder noses. She advised on diction, apparel and camera angles.

And long before there was Room Rater, the Twitter account that has been commenting on the backgrounds of Zoom calls since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Ms. Brown moved flower vases to strategic positions within a TV frame, underlined important words on teleprompter copy and helped calm nerves before big moments.

She was not a cosmetologist, but she understood presentation.

“I didn’t know anything about makeup,” Ms. Brown said in a 2010 interview at the National Press Club in Washington. “But I could look at the monitor and look at the person and know what had to be done. I just went to the drugstore and bought anything I needed.”

Ms. Brown, who had a lifetime of glimpses behind the scenes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, died on Sept. 13 at her home in McLean, Va. She was 106. Her daughter the Rev. Carla Brown Gorrell said the cause was a stroke.

Ms. Brown came by her role as all-around adviser and image consultant by accident. She happened to attend the same church as Eisenhower in the 1950s, and this started her thinking about presidents and their churches. She created a television series on the subject.

ImageMs. Brown in 1968 on a set for CBS News, where she worked for 40 years in the Washington bureau.
Credit…via Brown family

That led to her becoming the host of a local public-service television show, which shared a studio with the CBS News program “Face the Nation.” One day a CBS producer, who noticed that Ms. Brown was putting makeup on her guests, even the men, came over to her and said, “Your people look wonderful and mine look terrible.” He hired her to make up his guests at $19 per session.

Her first customer for “Face the Nation” was the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. He thought makeup was for sissies, but the producers worried that his bald head would shine under the lights. They told Ms. Brown that she had to persuade him to let her work her magic.

She thought about it for a while, she recalled in a 2009 speech in Washington, then said to him, “Mr. Sam, if you let me powder your nose, I will not relieve you of your manhood.” Rayburn guffawed.

“Once he recovered,” she added, “he said, ‘Well, you just go ahead, honey.’”

She worked in makeup for 40 years in CBS News’s Washington bureau, where she met many movers and shakers appearing on “Face the Nation.” Her clients included the television journalists Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid as well as Eleanor Roosevelt in her post-White House years and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Those who became president would often call her over to the White House in advance of television appearances. John F. Kennedy may have looked like a natural on TV, but he worked at it, Ms. Brown said. “He drove us crazy,” she said, with constant questions like whether he should cross his legs (“whatever makes you comfortable”) and whether he should take voice lessons (“yes”). He followed her suggestion and attended a workshop in New York City on television technique.

“He wanted to understand what cameras and lights and lenses did to him,” she told The New York Times in 1994. “He would walk behind the cameras and ask the technical people: ‘How do you mix the audio? Why do you have this light there?’”

She said he was the first president who understood the phrase “camera ready.”

And she understood, far more than the public did at the time, how much physical pain he was in. When she would adjust his suit jacket, she said, she could feel the braces on his back.

She also made up several first ladies. Jacqueline Kennedy, who could have drawn on the most sophisticated makeup artists in the world, chose Ms. Brown to prepare her for her famous televised tour of the redecorated White House in 1962.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, coming from Hollywood, knew all about makeup and liked a lot of it, she said. But television producers often thought that the president arrived on set wearing too much rouge, and they would instruct Ms. Brown, just before airtime, to remove it. “And so I would,” she said.

Credit…via Brown family

When on call to the White House, Ms. Brown would arrive with a small kit of powder, concealer, liquid foundation and Kleenex. Her satchel also included a dark tie (in case the president was wearing one that might shimmer on TV) and a pair of high black socks (in case he was wearing shorter ones; she didn’t want him crossing his legs and exposing his bare skin).

Her basic rules for the color of attire still apply today: Avoid wearing red, because it bleeds onscreen. Avoid white, because it bloats the wearer. Avoid prints and stripes. She preferred solid blues, grays and jewel tones. She did not want the clothes to distract from the person, and she wanted the person to appear natural.

“Unlike high-fashion makeup artists who want to make a person look as glamorous as possible,” Ms. Brown told The Times, “my goal is to make people look exactly like themselves.”

Mary Lillian Josephine Brooks came from humble beginnings. Born on Aug. 8, 1914, on her family’s farm in McArthur Township, near the small Ohio town of Huntsville, she grew up without electricity or running water. She was the sixth of seven children. Her father, James Irwin Kerr Brooks, was a farmer and later an insurance agent. Her mother, Nellie (Haynes) Brooks, was a schoolteacher at a one-room schoolhouse.

Credit…White House photo

Lillian and her siblings went to school in a pony cart. She earned her teaching certificate in 1933 after a two-year program at what is now Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She then went back to Huntsville and taught first, second and third grades at that same one-room schoolhouse, alongside her mother, who was teaching fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

She did graduate work at the Ohio State University campus in Cleveland and worked at a department store. On the bus to work one day, she met George Brown, a Navy pilot. They married in 1941, then lived on various military bases until settling in the Washington area in 1952. The marriage ended in divorce in 1961, and he died in 1992.

In addition to Ms. Gorrell, she is survived by another daughter, Kristi Brown; three grandsons; and two great-granddaughters. Her daughter Kimi Brown died of leukemia in 1975.

While working at CBS, Ms. Brown was also employed in the public relations office at George Washington University, as director of radio and television. She worked there from 1956 to 1966, then assumed the same role at American University from 1966 to 1976.

Credit…via Brown family

In 1976, Georgetown University’s public relations office hired her as its television coordinator. She hosted a university radio program, “Forum,” and in 1983 began teaching a course on public speaking. She also taught a summer course at Yale for female political candidates.

Her books included “Your Public Best” (1989), “Speaking to Be Understood” (2003) and “The Polished Politician” (1994), which is still used as a textbook. She won several local Emmy Awards.

When Ms. Brown retired from Georgetown in 2009, the registrar told her that she couldn’t leave; the waiting list of students who wanted to take her course was too long. She left anyway — at that point she was 95.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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