By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
On the golf course, back in the days when they did not fear subpoenas, they would talk about women, maybe tell some off-color jokes -- locker-room stuff, as one described it. At a recent basketball game, they shared a sky box, where the conversation was said to be more stilted.
But the full measure of how much the relationship between President Clinton and his close friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. has changed in the last six weeks will be taken today in the closed confines of Trustee Hearing Room No. 4 at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in downtown Washington.
For the first time since Monica S. Lewinsky became a household name, one of the main protagonists in the drama that has rocked the presidency will tell his story under oath to a grand jury. And the big question that has much of Washington on edge, to say nothing about the White House, is what exactly will Jordan say? After weeks of seeming to distance himself carefully from the president, will Jordan offer testimony that helps or hurts Clinton? He is a loyal friend, Jordan has been quoted as saying recently, but not a fool.
"Vernon's a shrewd man," said James Carville, another friend of the president's who knows both men well. "He'll be loyal to the president and he'll be loyal to himself."
Among the two dozen witnesses independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has brought to the grand jury so far, none has been as central to the allegations that Clinton and Jordan urged Lewinsky to lie about having a sexual relationship with the president in sworn statements in the Paula Jones case. And unlike other Clinton confidants who have passed through the courthouse, refusing to answer questions on the grounds of executive privilege is not an option for Jordan, whose presidential friendship carries no official title.
Jordan is the one who set up job interviews for Lewinsky at the request of Clinton's personal secretary and he is the one who found her a lawyer when she was subpoenaed by Jones's lawyers. Whether there was a linkage between the two, as Lewinsky reportedly suggested in secretly tape-recorded conversations with onetime friend Linda R. Tripp, may determine whether the prominent Washington attorney faces obstruction of justice charges.
Within days of the launch of the investigation, Jordan publicly vowed to testify "directly, completely and truthfully," a statement that would seem to preclude invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, even though he presumably remains a possible target of Starr's probe.
But Clinton advisers maintained yesterday that they were confident that Jordan's testimony will help the president and insisted that the quarter-century-long friendship has not broken down through the legal trouble.
"Estrangement? No," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "They are very good friends, remain very good friends. I think they look forward to the day when they can be less circumspect with each other."
Jordan and Clinton first met in the early 1970s, as they were building careers that would take them to the political pinnacle less than two decades later. They remained in close touch over the years as Jordan headed the National Urban League and Clinton became governor of Arkansas. By the time Clinton was elected president in 1992, Jordan was such a trusted friend that he was asked to co-chair the transition committee and since then has been a powerful outside adviser on personnel and other matters within the administration.
The defense Jordan appears to be establishing for himself, though, hinges on the idea that even if there was a sexual relationship between the president and Lewinsky, he was an unwitting participant in any cover-up. Jordan has told people privately that he was not informed Lewinsky might be a witness in the Jones case when he was first asked to arrange job interviews for her and that once he did learn about her subpoena, he was assured by both the president and his former aide that they had not been involved sexually.
According to Jordan's version, as transmitted through intermediaries, he was contacted by Clinton's secretary Betty Currie on Dec. 8 -- days after the president's lawyers first learned that Jones planned to call Lewinsky as a witness. Currie asked Jordan to help find Lewinsky a job in New York and a source familiar with his account said he inferred that the request was actually coming from the president. Three days later Jordan and Lewinsky had lunch at his office at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, the first of four meetings between the two as Jordan mounted a vigorous effort to help Lewinsky land a public relations job.
Jordan kept the president apprised of his efforts on Lewinsky's behalf, according to the source. The source said Jordan asked both Lewinsky and Clinton whether they had had a sexual relationship when he learned Lewinsky had received a subpoena Dec. 19 to testify as a witness in Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit and both assured him they had not.
Jordan told Clinton he lined up a lawyer for Lewinsky, the source said. On the job front, he ultimately placed a call to Ronald O. Perelman, chairman of Revlon, on whose board he serves. Revlon extended a job offer but rescinded it when the scandal broke.
Clinton's unusual interest in Lewinsky's career and Jordan's extraordinary efforts to further it remain unexplained. The grand jury will be asked to assess whether their actions constituted an effort to buy Lewinsky's silence in the Jones case.
Jordan's role was initially an element in Starr's decision to seek permission from the Justice Department to investigate the Lewinsky matter. Starr was already looking into whether Jordan and other friends of the Clintons lined up more than $500,000 in consulting fees for former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell as part of an effort to ensure his secrecy on Whitewater matters.
Jordan got Hubbell a consulting job at Revlon in spring 1994, as Hubbell was leaving the Justice Department amid charges he had defrauded his former law partners and his clients. Jordan took Hubbell to New York and introduced him to Revlon executives, including Perelman. Revlon put Hubbell on a $100,000-a-year "on call" retainer and canceled the arrangement after paying out $60,000 later that year when Hubbell pleaded guilty to billing fraud in a case brought by Starr.
Jordan told congressional investigators in a deposition last summer that he had kept Clinton informed about his effort to help Hubbell line up work. "I told the president in an informal setting that I'm doing what I can to help Webb Hubbell," Jordan said. "The president said, 'Thanks.' End of conversation."
Lewinsky's lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, has offered a somewhat different version of her contacts with Jordan. Lewinsky and Jordan first discussed her job search on Nov. 5, a full month before the Jones legal team sent Clinton's lawyer a witness list with her name on it, Ginsburg has said. As a result, Ginsburg has said, that showed there was no quid pro quo for a job.
In a television interview Sunday evening, Ginsburg also said flatly that "there was never a sexual relationship," the firmest such statement he has issued since the story broke on Jan. 21. In the interview on CNBC's "Rivera Live," Ginsburg said he believes Clinton and Lewinsky were alone in the Oval Office "a few times," but added, "I don't believe she was ever locked in a room with the president in such a manner that a salacious event could have gone on."
That would appear to contradict the written proffer he gave Starr's office describing what her testimony would be if granted immunity. According to sources familiar with its contents, she acknowledged a sexual relationship but offered muddled accounts of whether she was urged to lie about it.
In a separate matter, Clinton's legal efforts to hold Starr responsible for numerous "leaks" of secret grand jury testimony became public yesterday. Last Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson granted a request by attorneys for Time magazine to make public a motion filed by Clinton's lawyers against Starr.
Attorney David E. Kendall filed the motion on Feb. 9, asking Johnson to hold Starr in contempt of court for allegedly violating federal grand jury secrecy rules as well as Department of Justice and bar association guidelines and canons of ethics for prosecutors.
Staff writer Toni Locy contributed to this report.
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