Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Vernon Jordan at the 40th Anniversary Gala for 'A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste' campaign in New York, on March 3, 2011.

Andy Kropa/Getty Images

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama laughs alongside Mr. Jordan, left, during the commencement ceremony for Howard University in Washington, on May 7, 2016.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Mr. Jordan talks to reporters during a press conference in Washington on July 27, 1977.

The Associated Press

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.”

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies