Vernon Jordan introduces Govenor Clinton to world leaders at 1991 German Bilderberg gathering
First Friend Vernon Jordan Is a Man Comfortable With Power. And With Himself. The Washington Post, January 27, 1998
He is a presidential adviser without title or salary.
He is a lawyer who rarely steps into a courtroom, who seldom writes a brief or motion.
He is a lobbyist who does not lobby, at least not in the official sense of the term.
He is a civil rights leader who some say has forsaken his early ideals in a successful quest for a place at the seat of national power. He is a black man who has achieved an unprecedented, unparalleled stature as a Washington power broker, reaching the pinnacle of one of the most obstinately white workplaces in the nation, the K Street megafirm. He is an apparently devoted husband whose reputation as a ladies’ man crosses generational, racial and social boundaries.
Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr., grandson of a sharecropper, is a multimillionaire who lives in a Washington mansion and hobnobs with Cabinet members, CEOs of the world’s largest corporations, and TV anchors.
Once, he risked shouts of wrath and even bodily harm to help make a revolution against racism. Then, following a decade running the National Urban League, he joined one of Washington’s most powerful law firms. Now, he sits on the boards of 11 major companies and spurns an opportunity to become the first black attorney general of the United States because he says he’d rather not open his accounts to public view and because being the first black is “no reason for me to take a job.”
But Jordan, 62, needs no title to wield the same kind of influence in the public sector that he has in corporate America. Jordan is, by all accounts, not only a master fixer, but President Clinton’s closest confidant, a man with whom the leader of the Free World spends time on the links, on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, in workaday conversation, at Christmas Eve dinners with just the two men and their wives, and most of all, at moments of crisis. While Clinton is, as president, the visible leader in the relationship, the two men’s friendship is as close to equal as can be in a bond involving the chief executive, friends of both men say. After all, it was Jordan who first introduced then-Gov. Clinton to world leaders at their annual Bilderberg gathering in Germany in 1991. Plenty of governors try to make that scene; only Clinton got taken seriously at that meeting, because Vernon Jordan said he was okay.
Now, the two friends face the gravest crisis they have met together. Yet just when Clinton would seem to need Jordan most, they are in touch, aides say, only by phone, and it is not even clear whether that much contact has happened. Appearing together in public would only aggravate the popular suspicion that Clinton and Jordan have done something untoward to hide the president’s alleged relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
And so both men must appear to be conducting business as usual. The president, largely staying out of public view until tonight’s State of the Union address, has made only brief, if forceful, statements about the storm raging around him. And but for a clipped statement to the press last week in which he denied any wrongdoing, Jordan has been seen only as a smiling, carefree pedestrian, entering or leaving work as if nothing had happened. That is Jordan’s strength. His cool, his command of himself and his surroundings even under the most relentless pressure, is one of the primary sources of his authority.
Even in a fateful hour, Jordan need not speak out. He has people who will do that for him — or who will remain silent, whatever he wishes. More than 20 of Jordan’s closest friends and associates declined to speak for this story. “Vernon would not want me to add to the noise on this,” says one of the city’s most prominent lawyers. Even Dick Morris — once a presidential confidant, now a radio commentator willing to discuss virtually anything — offers only apologies this time.
What Jordan possesses most of all, as he has often said, is his connections. His job, more than anything else, is to know people, and to know just what it takes to motivate them, whether to do a favor, complete a task or simply be there for a client or friend.
“Vernon attracts clients and he handles their business with integrity and effectiveness,” says Robert Strauss, the longtime Washington power broker who brought Jordan to Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in 1982. “He offers judgment and integrity and confidence in himself. He has a manner about him that is warm and attentive.”
“Vernon might ask a friend to see someone, and if that person says no, so be it,” says Carolyn Peachey, a Washington event planner who frequently socializes with Vernon and Ann Jordan. “There’s no pressure, just a warm friendliness.”
When Jordan explained his attempt to find a job for Lewinsky at two New York corporations by saying that “I believe to whom much is given, much is required,” the remark was ridiculed as a smoke screen for a coverup. Whatever the facts in the Lewinsky mess, the remark is a perfect statement of what it is Jordan does.
“I have seen Vernon — too many times to count — help not just young people, but any people,” Strauss says. “There are individuals in this country leading corporations and financial institutions, and laboring in the vineyards because Vernon has been there to help and to make a few phone calls for them.
That’s why people respect him.” Executives at companies Jordan serves as a director say he routinely calls looking for work for recent graduates of Howard University, where Jordan attended law school, or for young interns he’s come across at the firm, in the government or elsewhere around town.
“It would not surprise me at all that a young intern would be referred to Vernon for some help in a very innocent way, and that that may have resulted in him making some calls for that person,” Peachey says. “I’ve heard about that hundreds of times.”
Boardrooms and Back Rooms Jordan’s playing field is extraordinarily broad — from the NFL, which once considered him for commissioner; to IBM, which turned to him for advice on picking a new CEO; to the president, who used Jordan to probe whether Colin Powell would accept an appointment as secretary of state. Jordan ran Clinton’s 1992 transition team, just as he had handled then-D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s entrance into office two years earlier (even if Jordan hadn’t voted in several District elections). Jordan plays a role nearly every president has found necessary in one form or another. Some presidents turned to party sages for a blueprint to the capital; others just want a pal who will keep confidences and keep them sane.
For decades, Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss served Democratic presidents, just as Eisenhower adviser Bryce Harlow and Nixon playmate Bebe Rebozo have helped Republicans. “Presidents need to have somebody they can relax with,” says former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler. “He is a good, loyal friend.”
Presidents also need friends with whom they can escape from the formalities of office and just be themselves. Jordan, friends say, fulfills that role. Like the president, Jordan is given to eyebrow-raising remarks on the looks of pretty women. At a 1995 state dinner, Clinton joked to Jordan that he ought to keep his hands off the comely blonde seated next to the president. “I saw her first, Vernon,” the president said, according to an account in Washington Monthly.
“Nothing wrong with a little locker room talk,” Jordan once told a reporter.
One woman in a mid-level federal position describes Jordan as the man who made her career. He picked her, enticed her into standing for the position, and paved her path through confirmation, the woman has told friends. It all happened as smoothly as cognac slipping into a glass, she says — but for one thing.
“When you’re a woman, an attractive woman, and Vernon Jordan does something for you, there is an expectation that there will be some extracurricular activities,” the woman says, adding that those activities could be as simple as attending a party with him.
“He’s flirtatious; that’s just his style,” says a Washington woman who has known him for years. “I don’t remember anybody hostilely saying, `Vernon hit on me.’ I just can’t think of a time people were angry about it. People roll their eyes and say, `Oh, that’s Vernon.’ “
Jordan’s eye for women is a regular topic of conversation among reporters, lawyers and others who have been on the receiving end of his comments. Over the years, Jordan has declined to address the subject, saying only that “I like people.”
His second wife, Ann — first wife Shirley died in 1985 after a battle with multiple sclerosis — told The Post in 1992 that “I’m sure women find him attractive. I do.” (Ann Jordan, an active partner in the couple’s busy social and political life, was co-chairman of the 1996 Clinton inauguration.) In 1980, Vernon Jordan was shot in the back by a white supremacist who said he was out to kill “race-mixers.” The Jordan shooting occurred at 2 a.m. as he was returning to his motel with a white woman. The shooter was acquitted at trial but later admitted the act.
Although Jordan is not talking these days, his response to criticisms of his personal or professional behavior — whether his attitude toward women, his work on behalf of black America, or questions about how hard he works on behalf of companies he serves as a director — has always been direct and concise: “I am the custodian of my morality and ethics,” he told The Post a few years ago.
If such tactics might seem arrogant in another man, Jordan easily gets away with them, in good measure, friends and critics agree, because of his charm. The components of that charm are supremely simple, friends say: A huge handshake that stays with you just long enough to show that you are something beyond the ordinary acquaintance, yet not too long to make you suspect artifice. A startling and immediate informality of the kind that might cause you to hang up on a telemarketer, but gives even powerful lawyers a sense of being in a circle so inside, most folks don’t even know it exists. There’s his height (6 feet 4), his glowing smile, his smooth voice and the way he can make it soar, particularly when he is citing Scripture, or the way he can lower it to a confidential stage-whisper, particularly when he is passing comment on the physical assets of a young woman.
Friends — and especially his longtime black friends — say Jordan has another asset as well: his race. They say Jordan’s business acumen and negotiating skills propelled him up the ladder and over the hurdles of race, but they add that Jordan has proven masterly at using his race to add a certain mystique to his work.
Some say Jordan’s chocolaty skin, and particularly its juxtaposition with his white Turnbull & Asser shirts, gives white executives a feeling of achievement, an unspoken sense that they, too, have overcome the nation’s racial hangups to become friends with an accomplished black man. And friends say Jordan judiciously uses tools his white colleagues lack — a comfort with quoting the Bible in business discussions, a rich oratory, and an easy back-and-forth between boardroom formality and back-room back-slapping. Jordan is the ultimate symbol of black privilege, says Randall Robinson, president of TransAfrica, an advocacy group for African issues and a veteran of the civil rights era. In a new book, Robinson calls the pinnacle of Washington power a place he names “Privilege.” He says successful blacks in the capital “fear Vernon Jordan disease, a degenerative condition among blacks in Privilege that results in a loss of any memory of what they came to Privilege to accomplish. . . . It afflicts only those blacks who both wish feverishly and after careful screening are allowed to be close to the president socially.”
Jordan refuses to discuss such criticism. His friends say he toils constantly on behalf of young black job-seekers. And Jordan has his own way of making statements on race: The first time he dined at the formerly all-white Century Club in New York City, Jordan made a point of ordering watermelon. No Silver Spoons
Jordan, who has rebuffed all interview requests since the Lewinsky matter became public last week, has often cited his mother as his primary influence. In a 1993 interview with Vanity Fair magazine, Jordan’s brother, Windsor, quoted his mother, Mary, saying that color was never the driving force in her world. “It was about money,” the brother said. “It was about business and money. She’d say, `If you got some money, you can do most anything you want.’ “
Jordan’s early career was not about money, but about the ability of blacks to gain access to it and every other good thing in American society. After attending segregated schools in Atlanta, he spent the 1960s at the NAACP and other civil rights groups, working to open the electoral process to blacks, and build bridges between the black and white institutions of a segregated nation. If some blacks who spent that decade getting themselves thrown in jail later resented Jordan’s quieter approach, others say the street revolts would have been futile without the legal and political work of the likes of Jordan.
And his role was not without danger: In 1961, as a 25-year-old law clerk, he launched his civil rights work by leading a young black student named Charlayne Hunter through a screaming white mob that was out to halt her from integrating the University of Georgia.
It was his mother’s work as a caterer — his father was a mail clerk for the Army — that gave the young Jordan a peek into the world of wealthy white power. He was smitten with the notion that he, too, could travel in such circles, and he honed the personal skills that would take him there. Peering in at the lawyers dining at an all-white Atlanta club, Jordan once said, “I admired their bearing, the way they articulated the issues, if not the substance of their positions.”
“There’s very little I’ve ever seen that would make Vernon Jordan ill at ease,” says Peachey. “He knows who he is, and what he set out a long time ago to make into his role in life. This is someone who is supremely comfortable with himself.”
That comfort — and the ease powerful people feel around Jordan — is an important factor in his appointment to more corporate boards than all but a handful of Americans.
But his posts as director of companies such as American Express, Xerox, J.C. Penney, Dow Jones and Sara Lee have led to criticism from the Teamsters and other large institutional investors that Jordan misses too many meetings and faces a potential conflict because his law firm also represents six companies on whose boards he sits.
Corporations want Jordan on their boards because he is the ultimate Washington insider, because he is wise, because “having an African American on your board may also prove helpful,” and because “Jordan is so busy that having him on your board suggests that at least one director will not be in a position to cause you any trouble,” says Graef Crystal, a business school professor and frequent critic of overpaid corporate executives and directors.
Crystal has written that Jordan “cannot dodge at least some of the blame” for the poor performance of some CEOs who run companies he serves as a director.
But Jordan has said attendance records at board meetings do not fairly reflect a director’s contribution to a company.
Between Jordan and his wife, 17 directorships give the couple an annual income of more than $800,000, in addition to the reported $1 million he makes at his law firm.
Money, he knows, is a double-edged sword for a successful veteran of the civil rights movement. It is a sign of success that can also be thrown back at him as a symbol of selling out.
The late Ron Brown, who felt the brunt of similar accusations, once said that successful black businessmen are “expected to limit our horizons, to be pigeonholed . . . and not break out and accept responsibility and leadership beyond the traditional civil rights movement.” Brown defended his friend Jordan as “an incredible achiever.”
Jordan’s approach is simpler: “I know who I am,” he has said in speeches.
Others may criticize, but Vernon Jordan is, he says, “answerable to myself.” And he says it with such charm.
Staff writer Ann Gerhart contributed to this report.