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Clinton, Jordan Fit to a Tee

By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 1994; Page D01

EDGARTOWN, MASS. – A friend – "I won't tell you who," Vernon Jordan says in a tone that conveys the unmistakable impression that you would recognize the name if he did – sent him the front-page clipping.

The photograph, taken on the first day of President Clinton's vacation here, shows the president and his lawyer-friend on the course at Farm Neck: Clinton lounging with his feet propped on the dashboard of the golf cart, a beaming Jordan at the wheel.

"It's better than driving Miss Daisy," Jordan's friend scrawled on the photograph.

Sure is.

For some African Americans, the chauffeur imagery – the black man driving the white – was unsettling. "Driving Mr. President," one black lawyer vacationing here called the photograph, and he wasn't smiling. Whether by design or by happenstance, the roles were reversed on the next outing, when Clinton drove Jordan.

But Jordan, a former civil rights leader turned high-powered Washington lawyer, scoffs at that reaction. "That's bull," he says. "Anybody that would make some notion about some symbolic meaning does not understand our relationship. I'm his friend, not his servant."

Indeed, telling the story, Jordan, 59, laughs with evident delight. His amusement no doubt derives in part from the distance he has traveled from his childhood in the "Driving Miss Daisy" South, where his mother catered fancy parties for white folks, to Washington, where he sits on the bluest-chip corporate boards and makes rain for one of the city's most prominent law firms.

But it also connotes something more: the sense that Vernon Eulion Jordan has become such a significant figure that no one seeing him side by side with the president could interpret that as anything other than a picture of full equals, no matter who may be in the driver's seat on that particular day. Vernon Jordan – or so he seems to subtly suggest -- has transcended any racial baggage.

In no place, and at no time of the year, is Jordan's stature as evident as on Martha's Vineyard in late summer, when the president visits and Jordan – a 25-year island vacationer – serves as Clinton's semi-official host.

The two men see each other back home in Washington, and talk even more frequently on the telephone; Jordan, who chaired Clinton's transition team, turned down the near shoo-in prospect of a Cabinet appointment but still calls, and is called on, for advice.

Jordan has weighed in on administration problems – for example, delivering Clinton a tough message in the spring of '93 about how he had to stop serving as his own chief of staff, or sitting in on the Oval Office meeting about whether to withdraw the nomination of Lani Guinier to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Hillary Rodham Clinton also sought his advice on how to handle her problems on Whitewater, administration sources said. "Whenever there's a problem, Vernon's around to help," one senior official said.

"It's an unusual 10 days that goes by without the two of them talking," one senior official said of the president and Jordan – an estimate that Jordan says is reasonably accurate. "Vernon has a way of calling and offering his thoughts and counsel without that being intrusive or your feeling put upon," says presidential counselor Mack McLarty. "I think the president regards him as someone that's Washington-wise, and someone that he also enjoys and trusts."

But it is on the Vineyard in the summer – last year, on Clinton's first presidential trip to the island, and again this year – that the two men have a kind of public summer fling. "Our relationship is more than a Martha's Vineyard romance," Jordan says, noting that he has known Clinton since 1973, when Clinton was governor and Jordan head of the Urban League. He has known Mrs. Clinton even longer, since 1969, when they met at a League of Women Voters meeting.

The Clintons, Jordan notes, are just one couple among the prominent people who are his year-round friends but whom he sees a lot each summer. "I also play tennis every day with my good friend Frank Thomas," Jordan says, referring to the head of the Ford Foundation. "I've got other friends who I don't see until I get here."

Jordan is clearly First Vineyard Friend to the First Family. When Air Force One touched down at the Martha's Vineyard airport last Friday night, Jordan was first in line to greet the Clintons, and then he accompanied them to the house that his wife, Ann, had inspected to ensure that it met presidential specifications.

He has played golf with Clinton three times, and the Jordans have dined with the Clintons twice, once at the home Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee of The Washington Post Co., and a few nights later at the home of author William Styron. Hillary Clinton and Ann Jordan, who does volunteer work for the White House social office, played tennis earlier this week. Last night, the Clintons dined chez Jordan.

Last year, Jordan – who had suggested the Vineyard as a vacation venue – was even more ubiquitous. At the White House party for the press, he went table to table to introduce himself as if he were hosting the affair. "You had to peel him away from Clinton with a crowbar," one administration aide jokes.

His relationship with Clinton has given Jordan, who rents a house each summer in Chilmark, extra cachet here. When he arrived at a fund-raiser for California gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown after the president's arrival last week, "you could feel the room start to buzz, 'Vernon's here,' " said one person present. And, of course, being seen on the network news with your arm draped chummily around your friend the president can't be bad for business.

"I did not start practicing law January 20, 1993," Jordan says when asked about whether his relationship with the president has been good for his law firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. "I have not seen any huge increase as a result of my chairmanship of the transition -- nor has there been any huge decrease."

One person who knows both men well suggests that Jordan's association with the president gives him an edge in what people describe as an undercurrent of rivalry with fellow Akin, Gump super-lawyer Robert Strauss. One administration official suggests there is a side benefit for Clinton as well. "I don't think it escapes him that it helps him to be seen with Vernon," who is both a bona fide member of the Washington Establishment and a prominent African American.

Watch Clinton and Jordan together, palling around on the golf course, and the chemistry between the two is instantly obvious. Jordan knows Clinton better than to bring up Cuban refugees on the 14th hole. "Vernon makes him laugh," says one aide. (Jordan somewhat bristles at that analysis. "I hope I do more than that," he says. "I'm not in the comedian business.")

The bond between the two men, as much as anything, seems to be their similarity: Both are Southerners (Jordan is from Georgia), physically large men of large appetites, raised in lower-middle-class families by mothers who pushed them to excel. They are both men with an appreciation for fine cigars and pretty women, men who love to tell stories and who share a remarkable ability to charm whoever is in their orbit.

"Vernon just relaxes him," says one observer. "I was in his office one Saturday, and Vernon came prancing in with his big golf hat on and the president just springs up, delighted as he could be."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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