The last “man to see” has seen his last day.
In a long line of Washington wise men – from Harry Hopkins to Edward Bennett Williams to Clark Clifford, all with the ear of presidents and the political grease to make things happen – there was no wise man quite like Vernon Jordan, the civil-rights leader who died Monday.
For those seeking fame and favours, counsel and consolation, Mr. Jordan was the man to see in America’s capital. He was flamboyant. He was boisterous. He survived an assassination attempt – and managed to wear a matching Halston robe and pajamas in the hospital. He was a giant in corporate boardrooms where often all the others around the table were white.
Facing taunts and threats, he escorted the first two Black students onto the all-white campus of the University of Georgia. His résumé doubled as a list of the principal civil-rights organizations: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Georgia field director); Voter Education Board of the Southern Regional Council (director); United Negro College Fund (executive director); National Urban League (president). He earned his law degree from the historically Black Howard University and was later on the board of trustees.
He helped presidential nominees choose their running mates and then helped them dig their way out of political distress.
Mr. Jordan possessed a joie de vivre that was one part Atlanta, one part Manhattan – and one part smoke-filled room.
A Financial Times profile of Mr. Jordan that described him as “whisperer to the powerful, the man who can make the introduction,” understated the way Mr. Jordan, who had helped move the United States from segregation to integration, moved through Washington.
Albert Hunt, the former Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal and a close Jordan friend, called him “one of the genuinely towering figures of the last half century,” adding, “It is hard to think of any one who wasn’t a president who was more influential than Vernon.”
He was, moreover, influential with those who actually were presidents. Lyndon Johnson selected him for the White House Council on Civil Rights, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush invited him to the executive mansion to discuss civil rights, and Jimmy Carter, who shared Georgia roots with Mr. Jordan, tried but failed twice to put him in his cabinet. The Clintons and Obamas joined Mr. Jordan for his 80th birthday celebration on Martha’s Vineyard five years ago.
Mr. Carter left Camp David to visit Mr. Jordan in the hospital shortly after the 1980 assassination attempt in Fort Wayne, Ind. That occurred a week before Mr. Jordan castigated the 39th president for his prevarications, saying of Mr. Carter, “I think it’s time he made up his damned mind.” Senator Edward Kennedy, Mr. Carter’s Democratic presidential nomination challenger, also visited Mr. Jordan. So did Ronald Reagan.
Nearly two decades later, Mr. Jordan raced to the rescue of Bill Clinton, with whom he regularly spent Christmas Eve and boon-companion afternoon golf outings. Embroiled in scandal growing out of his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Clinton leaned on Mr. Jordan to find a job outside Washington for the onetime White House intern.
In 1992, my Wall Street Journal colleague James Perry and I had a day-ahead scoop on Mr. Clinton’s selection of Al Gore as his running mate. Now it can be told: Mr. Jordan, who chaired the search, was the source.
With 60 honorary degrees and board memberships in the flagship corporations of America, he was a principal in the influential Washington law firm of Akin Gump (home to former Democratic national chairman Robert Strauss) and the New York investment firm Lazard Frères (home to New York power broker Felix Rohatyn).
Though in the last third of his life Mr. Jordan lived in the glitter of America’s gilded class, his early years were in a segregated housing project. He was the only Black member of the Class of 1957 at DePauw University, in rural Greencastle, Ind., where he later became a trustee and three times was the commencement speaker.
Turned away from a job at an Atlanta insurance company because he was Black, he instead became chauffeur for former Atlanta Mayor Robert Maddox, who was astonished to find him reading a book. Mr. Maddox, in his underwear and carrying a bottle of Southern Comfort, expressed shock that a Black man could read and assumed Mr. Jordan was planning to become a preacher.
That story was related in his memoir, Vernon Can Read, written with Harvard Law professor Annette Gordon-Reed. “He was like a father to me, a friend and mentor,’' Ms. Reed said in an interview. “The time we spent working on his book transformed my life.”
Mr. Jordan had a gift for friendship. Several years ago, my wife and I ran a University of Pittsburgh retrospective on the civil-rights era. Mr. Jordan agreed as a special favour to join the panel but rebuffed efforts to arrange air transport. I did not know until he arrived that evening that he chartered a jet to land in Pittsburgh an hour before the forum and to leave shortly afterward.
On his last evening Monday, he asked his care provider for some cookies. She provided them, he ate them, said thank you, went to sleep, and died. He was 85.
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