By Ruth Marcus and Thomas B. Edsall
During nearly every crisis of the Clinton presidency, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. has been a constant, though largely invisible, presence. Yesterday, the 62-year-old lawyer again came to the aid of President Clinton, this time standing front and center with a public statement that may be the best news the beleaguered president has had in two dreadful days.
At 3:30 p.m., Jordan walked into a crowded meeting room at the Park Hyatt hotel here to make his first comment on the allegations that a 24-year-old former White House intern had an affair with Clinton and was then advised by the president and Jordan to lie about it.
The gaggle of reporters and camera crews fell silent. The 6-foot-4 Jordan, impeccably tailored as usual in a gray suit, maroon tie, and gold tie bar anchoring his white-collared shirt, smiled ever so slightly, as if assessing the crowd and deciding he could take them on.
"May I have your attention? My name is Vernon Jordan," he said, knowing full well that every person in the room was acutely aware of who was at the lectern. Jordan then launched into his account of his dealings with Monica Lewinsky. He took no questions, and looked more bemused than flustered as the frustrated press corps kept trying for more.
In crisp, declarative sentences, Jordan in many ways did a better job for Clinton than the president had done for himself the day before with his halting and incomplete account of his dealings with Lewinsky.
Punching out each word for emphasis, Jordan provided help to Clinton on two critical points. "I want to say absolutely and unequivocally that Ms. Lewinsky told me in no uncertain terms that she did not have a sexual relationship with the president," he said. "At no time did I ever say, suggest or intimate to her that she should lie."
Putting himself in the line of fire in a way few lawyers would advise, Jordan promised to testify "directly, completely and truthfully" about the matter before the grand jury convened by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whom Jordan said had subpoenaed him to appear.
Some Washington lawyers said yesterday that Jordan was being foolhardy in agreeing to testify before knowing what other evidence prosecutors have in hand, even if he has nothing to hide. But the alternative scenario Jordan stalling Starr's efforts to question him or even invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination would have been politically and possibly legally devastating for Clinton, making it look like one of his closest advisers had something to hide.
Instead, Jordan tried to portray his dealings with Lewinsky as business as usual for him.
Yes, he said, he had tried to help Lewinsky find a job, referring her to two companies where he serves on the boards of directors. Yes, when Lewinsky was subpoenaed in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, he found a lawyer for her, and even personally escorted Lewinsky to the lawyer's office to introduce them.
It was a remarkable description of one of the most powerful of Washington power brokers going far out of his way for a lowly and until this week largely unknown administration underling. Jordan said he interceded for Lewinsky, who was then working at the Pentagon, at the request of Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie. But he didn't explain why Currie was helping a woman who had left the White House 20 months earlier or whether he had talked to Clinton himself about Lewinsky.
To put his intercession into perspective, Jordan described himself as a believer in the biblical admonition, "To whom much is given, much is required." A former civil rights leader who now serves on 11 corporate boards and earns an estimated $1 million a year as a partner in one of Washington's leading law firms, he portrayed the help he gave Lewinsky as merely the latest example of how he uses his power to do good.
"I was pleased to be helpful to Ms. Lewinsky, whose drive, ambition and personality were impressive," Jordan said.
Indeed, Jordan friends said he has quietly helped a number of people, both big players and "little cheeses," as one put it, obtain jobs in the administration and land comfortably on leaving public service.
Since his brief stint as co-chairman of Clinton's transition team, the public glimpses of Jordan have been of the golfing partner, happily driving his friend around the course on Martha's Vineyard, or the Christmas Eve reveler continuing the tradition of dinner with the president and first lady.
But he has also been a quiet presence at the White House. "Whenever there's a problem, Vernon's around to help," one senior official said in 1994, describing the bond between Clinton and Jordan as the two played round after round of golf on the Vineyard vacation.
When former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell, for example, was forced to resign amid allegations that he embezzled from his former law firm, Jordan stepped in to get him a $100,000 consulting contract. When White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster committed suicide, Jordan joined Clinton and the first lady at the Foster home and stayed up with the grieving president until 2 a.m.
"The last thing he'd ever do is betray a friendship," Clinton told the New York Times in 1996. "It's good to have a friend like that."
Yesterday, Jordan was a particularly good friend.
Criminal defense lawyer James M. Cole contrasted Jordan's appearance with Clinton's performance Wednesday, when the president equivocated about whether he had ever discussed testifying in the Jones lawsuit with Lewinsky and was for some time unclear about whether he was denying having a relationship with her in the past, as opposed to an ongoing affair.
"The president got up to make a denial and never made a full denial and he had to kind of evolve his denial," Cole said. "Vernon Jordan got up and made a denial flat-out, straight ahead, here it is. If you're going to say something, make it count. Otherwise, don't say anything."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company