Let Us Now Praise Power Brokers

Vernon Jordan, left, wrapping up his tenure as head of the Economic Club of Washington, and James A. Johnson, who had spearheaded Sen. Barack Obama's vice presidential search, epitomize the political power broker elite.
Vernon Jordan, left, wrapping up his tenure as head of the Economic Club of Washington, and James A. Johnson, who had spearheaded Sen. Barack Obama's vice presidential search, epitomize the political power broker elite. (Kevin Clark - Twp)
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By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, June 13, 2008

It was a quintessentially Washington moment:

There, in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom Monday, stood Vernon Jordan -- the political insider, corporate networker and financial rainmaker, tall and impeccably turned out -- presiding over his last meeting as head of the Economic Club of Washington.

During his four-year tenure, Jordan had used his incomparable connections to bring the heads of J.P. Morgan Chase, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, American Express, Pfizer and General Electric, along with the secretary of the Treasury, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the president of the United States, to speak to 400 of the city's top business executives.

Now, for his final act, Jordan had reached beyond the Old Economy establishment and snared the chief executive of Google, the hottest company on the planet. Jordan had met Eric Schmidt the year before at Bilderberg, the super-secret gathering that falls between Davos and Bohemian Grove on the calendars of the global elite. By the end of that three-day meeting in Istanbul, Jordan had snared his final speaker.

Depending on your point of view, Jordan represents everything that is right or wrong with Washington.

To the cynical and conspiratorial, Jordan epitomizes the clubby and back-scratching Washington power broker, an amoral fixer who uses his web of connections to enrich himself and his clients while corrupting the political process.

But to those who know him, Jordan is a good friend and generous colleague who does well only by doing good. He follows in a long line of super-lawyers -- Harry McPherson, Clark Clifford, Bob Strauss and Lloyd Cutler -- who moved as gracefully in the government as they did in the corporate boardroom, serving as counselors valued for their wisdom and discretion.

So, which is it: Are Washington power brokers good or bad for the system? Apparently, we can't decide.

We never could in the case of Jordan, whose friendship with Bill Clinton was the source of never-ending controversy, starting with his chairmanship of the Clinton transition effort in 1992 and ending with a special prosecutor's investigation into his job-placement activities on behalf of White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Nothing unethical was ever uncovered.

And now it's happening again in a presidential campaign in which both candidates are competing to distance themselves from the permanent Washington establishment.

Republican John McCain has already fired a number of his top campaign aides because at some point they made money as Washington lobbyists. So far, the hatchet hasn't fallen on volunteers and unpaid advisers, but given the overheated rhetoric and mindless media coverage, it's only a matter of time.

On the Democratic side, Jim Johnson, the former Fannie Mae chairman and former chief of staff to Walter Mondale, was forced to resign this week as head of the vice presidential vetting committee for Democrat Barack Obama in response to a variety of allegations about corporate missteps. Meanwhile, Obama's new economic adviser, Jason Furman, came under fire from labor unions that complained he consorted with known free-traders such as former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin.


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