Barbara Jordan, who retires from the constituent pressures and committee decisions of the Congress this month to become a full-time spokeswoman for human rights, has been more than a public figure in her 12 years of elective office: she has become a folk-hero. A legend in the minds of the thousands who write her daily, offering support and suggestions for her future, she has transcended the early years of being the first black and first woman to break new ground to become a representation of success against most of culture's negative odds. She has come to be the very symbol of "making it." She draws the kind of clamoring crowds that surround rock stars, and, if you haven't seen them, it is difficult to imagine the fervor and adoration of the mobs who hound her, follow her and tear at her clothes.
Her fans cut across all lines. Some of the most vociferous include white northern blue-collar workers, and reactionary racist southern poor.She communicates to the anger and helplessness of all who feel they work harder than they are being rewarded for, both economically and socially. She not only offers hope that things can change, but she says: I'll tell them for you how it is.
That she, a black woman who grew up in the segregated South, not only can rise to a position of influence and power but also can maintain an apparently unshakable faith in our system of government, seems to reaffirm a basic faith Americans have in themselves and their country. That is why the 1976 Democratic National Convention erupted in pandemonium when her voice was heard at the beginning of the filmed introduction that preceded her keynote speech, saying, "If there is such a thing as a patriot in this country, then I am one." That is why, when she delivered her statement as a member of the House Judiciary Committee considering the impeachment of Richard Nixon ("My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete. It is total"), so many Americans wept.
Like most of those she speaks to, things were fine at home before she ran headlong into the world's proscriptions and expectations of limitation. Her early days had an ample supply of both trust and autonomy. On Sundays she helped her favorite grandfather with his junk business, riding out in his muledrawn wagon to pick up scrap, coming back to his house to bundle the rags, stack the papers, sort and pile the metals, and put the manure in baskets to sell as fertilizer. At home, she had free run of the neighborhood.
Then, in Phillis Wheatley High School in Fifth Ward, Houston, Tex., she hit reality. That was back in the early '50s when her biggest interests were those of any teen-ager: learning to blow smoke rings, giving slumber parties, singing at mixed socials at the Hester House canteen on Friday nights, and being the first to drive her older sisters and friends around in her daddy's dark blue '49 Olds. But those recreations did not mitigate what she began to see as she grew up. "I was learning," she says, "that the world had decided that we were all Negro, but that some of us were more Negro than others. The whole system at that time was saying to us that you achieved more, you went further, you had a better chance, you got the awards, if you were not black-black with kinky hair. Black was bad and you didn't want to be black, and so the message we were getting was that you were really in tough shape and it was too bad that you were so unfortunate that your skin was totally black and there was no light there anywhere.Some of the kids started using bleaching cream, Black and White Bleaching Cream. It would have been desirable to pass for white if you could have, but few had enough features of a white person to do that.
"I did not think it right for blacks to be in one place and whites in another place, and never shall they meet. There was just something about that that didn't feel right to me. And I wanted that to change. But I also knew that I had those feelings that it was going to be this way for a long, long time and that nobody was going to be able to do anything to change it. It was a fatalistic kind of acceptance of what was, and we had that at that time.
"It was massive and I felt that no one would be able to change it because it was something bigger than anyone I knew; it wasn't only in the school system, it was everywhere."
Later, after the Brown decision had desegregated if not integrated the public schools, Jordan left Houston to attend Boston University law school, "going father away than anybody in my family had ever been." There, the full realities of the outside white world crashed in on her, opening her eyes to all that she -- and those reared without the influence and affluence bestowed by education -- had been excluded from. She tells of that fight to figure out how to compete when you enter a race which is half over: "I felt that I was finally getting educated, whatever that was. I became familiar with the process of thinking. I learned to think things out and reach conclusions and defend what I had said.
"In the past I had got along by spouting off. Whether you talked about debates or oratory, you dealt with speechifying. Even in debating it was pretty much canned because you had on your little 3-by-5 file cards a response for whatever issue might be raised by the opposition. The format was structured so that there was no opportunity for independent thinking. But I could no longer orate and let that pass for reasoning. Because there was not any demand for an orator in Boston University low school. You had to think and read and understand and reason. I had learned at 21 that you couldn't just say a thing is so because it might not be so, and somebody brighter, smarter, and move thoughtful would come out and tell you it wasn't so. Then if you still thought it was, you had to prove it. Well, that was a new thing for me. I cannot, I really cannot describe what that did to my insides and to my head.
"I realized that my deprivation had been stark. It occurred to me at the time that I should have had experiences earlier than that where I had to think through things and reason and defend my positions, and yet I had not had those experiences, even though I had had four years of undergraduate training. I realized that the best training available in an all-black instant university was not equal to the best training one developed as a white university student. Separate was not equal; it just wasn't. No matter what kind of face you put on it or how many frills you attached to it, separate was not equal. I was doing 16 years of remedial work in thinking."
Her movement from the narrow world of her childhood into the larger ones of state and national politics has not been the trite Horatio Alger rise implied in one biographer's recapitulation of awards called From Ghetto to Capitol. For Barbara Jordan, as for most of us, change has been a slow and gradual process of development. It takes a lot of steps, and none of them are easy; some are impossible, but some you can reach. Jordan gives the country someone with whom to identify, one singular and separate person who has taken a lot of steps.
In the image of the rock star: her metaphors of survival have become tunes we all can sing.
The following is an account from Barbara Jordan: A Self-Por-trait of the impact of the first time she reached the country face-to-face. By Shelby Hearon
There were so many members of Congress. And I was coming from a 31-member state senate into that 435-member House of Representatives. It became obvious to me that it was going to be difficult to make any impact on anybody with all of these people also trying to make an impact, in order to create the impression back home among their constitutents that they were outstanding.
The first thing was, I would have to get in good with may colleagues from Texas. I would be the unique new kid on the block to them, and I wanted to work comfortably with them. For instance, I knew that women had never been allowed to attend the Texas Democratic Delegation luncheon that had been meeting at 12:30 on Wednesdays since the early tenure of Sam Rayburn, and I intended to change that. Which I did.
Then we were officially sworn in. Before that session, one of my fellow Texans said that all the Texas delegation would stand around me for the swearing-in. And another said: "Well, now, but that might take away from Barbara Jordan. People might not be able to tell which one she is." I laughed and told him: "I think they'll be able to figure that out."
When that was over, I gave some thought to where I should sit on the floor of the House of Representatives. My conclusion was: You can hear better on the center aisle, and you can catch the eye of the presiding officer better on the center aisle, as you are in his direct line of vision. So I decided that is where I would always sit, leaving one seat next to me on the aisle vacant for those people who might want to stop and visit from time to time.
I was accused of not wanting to sit with the liberals and the Congressional Black Caucus people, who sat to the far left, but that place near center aisle seemed the most advantageous location to me.
The evening of the swearing-in, Bob Eckhardt gave a reception for me, because he was so glad that we were both up there. The Texans in Washington gave a reception.And the Texas Southern University exes gave a reception. So we were thoroughly received.
Then almost immediately we got word that Lyndon Johnson had died. He had had a heart attack at the ranch. I was very saddened. I gave a statement on the floor of the House and I said: "The death of Lyndon Johnson diminishes the life of every American involved with mankind. The depth of his concern for people cannot be quantified -- it was big and all-encompassing." I said: "Old men straightened their stooped backs because Lyndon Johnson lived; little children dared look forward to intellectual achievement because he lived; black Americans becam excited about a future of opportunity, hope, justice, and dignity." I said: "Lyndon Johnson was my political mentor and my friend.I loved him and I shall miss him."
I meant all of that. And at the bottom of my grief was the feeling that I was sitting up there all alone on that center aisle. Other people were always talking about what they had done for me. But Lyndon Johson wasn't like that. He just did it and he didn't take credit for it.
It was 1974 and the press and the people were rumbling about Watergate. Talk was heavy. But I was discounting all that, thinking: "Nothing like that is going to happen. You're talking about the presidency. You're not going to impeach the president."
Well, resolutions were introduced, and pressure was being placed on the speaker, and on the Judiciary Committee, and on Peter Rodino, the chairman, to do something. The pressure built up in the Congress and among the people until we could not ignore it. We had to take some action. Which I think rather reluctantly, we did.
Or, rather, Jaworski did. We were empowered to act, but we were never going to. We wouldn't have except that Jaworski got the matter into court, so that we had the United States of America versus Richard Nixon the President of the United States. And them we had the tapes. When the court ordered the revelation of the tapes, when it told the president that he could no longer keep those sequestered, that made the impeachment of Richard Nixon possible. Without the tapes we would have just been spinning our wheels. Without Jaworski, we would never have got to the matter, not even to the beginnings of impeachment.
Rodino called the Judiciary Committee together and said: "We are going to go into the matter of the impeachment of Richard Nixon."
The first order of business then was to hire competent counsel, which took a while. The Democrats hired John Doar; the Republicans hired a lawyer from Chicago, Albert Jenner. And Doar and Jenner and the staff hired by them engaged in a lengthy indepth investigation about what had been said and what had been done in terms of specific acts and whether they constituted a violation of the law. They compiled all of this into big black notebooks of reading material for us. And I gave credit for most of that to John Doar, who was an organizational genius.
So for weeks we met behind closed doors, going through these black notebooks. And the closed doors were legitimate, as the rules of the House said you did not have to have a public session if someone's character was to be discussed.
The big, major issue the committee had to deal with was how to define the charge. The Constitution said that the president shall be removed from office on impeachment for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. So our job was to define "high crimes and misdemeanors," as that was the only reason that this president could be impeached. Meanwhile, I was studying all that, and also reading everything I could find, from any source, which had ever been written, said, or uttered about impeachment.
It was a funny time. Every day when we would leave those closed-door sessions the media people would chase us down the hall asking: "Have you found the smoking gun?"
After we finished going through all of the black notebooks in the closed sessions, we went public with our information. We opened the doors and let the sunshine in. We invited the format. Before we go into anything charge-wise, offense-wise, each person on the committee will have 15 minutes to make an opening statement on television."
Now, there were 35 of us. And I recall that when Rodino said that, I thought: "I don't think that's necessary." I said: "Let's deal with the issue and make a decision on the basis of the facts we have accumulated to this point. We don't need speechmaking." But I did not have much support for that position. The reaction from the other committee members was: "You must be out of your head." It seemed they all wanted that 15 minutes on television.
The day we went public there were members who had been working on their opening statements for weeks, and I didn't have a word. I was still just reading my sources and trying to be sure that I understood the charge and the offenses. I was not going to vote to impeach Richard Nixon because I didn't like him. The knee-jerk thing. Because I figured that the easiest thing in the world would be for me to do just that, to say: "Yes, you ought to get out." So I was being extremely careful to review it all.
We arrived at the day for statements to begin, and the other people had prepared theirs, but I didn't have mine. I didn't intend to have an opening statement because I still didn't think that it was a good idea. All that speechmaking was a waste of the country's time, and the committee's time, and my time, was the way I felt about it then.
But of course it went right along as planned, with the committee members speaking all day and all night. It became apparent at some point that by the next evening they would get around to me, as we were proceeding by seniority. I was going to have to make a statement. Colleagues had come up to me all day to tell me: "I just can't wait to hear your opening statement. I want to hear what you have to say. I know you're going to let Nixon have it." I got this anticipation all day. One woman called up to say: "I have everything figured out. You're going to be on at nine o'clock and I'm having half a dozen people come over to my house so we can sit there and listen to you..."
So it was about 5:30 in the evening, and the Judiciary Committee was to reconvene at about 8:30. I went to my office and said to my assistant, Bud: "Would you believe the people who have come up to me today about my statement?" I was saying it in puzzlement; I knew there was nothing Bud could do about it. He asked; "Well, what are you going to say?" Now, Bud wanted to be perfectly clear that I really was coming out for impeachment. I told him: "Yes, I'm going to come out for impeachment. I have decided I am going to do that, and I am going to say why."
I had all kinds of little disjointed notes that I'd written from all of my reading on impeachment. But I didn't have a statement. I had listened to statements for two days from other members. One thing that had struck me was how they had all started out by quoting the Preamble to the Constitution. Intoning about "We the People of the United States."
It occurred to me that not one of them had mentioned that back then the Preamble was not talking about all the people. So I said: "Well, I'll just start with that." I jotted down from this note and from that note and from this other note, and sent each page out to my secretary, Marian Ricks, when it was finished. I had already had my legislative assistant Bob Alcock parallel statements on impeachment -- historical documents, constitutions of the Confederacy, whenever impeachment had been talked about -- againt some of the offenses by Richard Nixon that we had talked about. So I also had that chart, that comparison about what had been said and what it was that Richard Nixon had done.
When I got in there, the Judiciary Committee was all seated and the camera was right there on us. We said what we had to say within our time span, and then we were through. The security was tight and no one applauded after you made a speech, so you didn't know how you had done.
On July 25, 1974, Barbara Jordan came before the television camera to present her position on the impeachment of the president of the United States. Solemn, tired, she hunched over four annotated, amended pages of her own notes and four pages of historical impeachment criteria set against Nixon's actions.
Her black-rimmed glasses reflected the glare of the lights as she studied her notes. Then, improvising, she spoke to the unseen and unknown audience in living rooms across the country:
"'We the people' -- it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that 'We the people.' I felt for many years that somehow George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision, I have finally been included in 'We the people.'
"Today I am an inquisitor. I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete. It is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
"... It is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an article of impeachment means that the member must be convinced that the president should be removed from office... The powers relating to impeachment are an essential check in the hands of this body, the legislature, against and upon the encroachment of the executive. In establishing the division between the two branches of the legislature, the House and the Senate, assigning to one the right to accuse and the other the right to judge, the framers of this Constitution were very astute. They did not make the accusers and the judges the same persons.
"We know the nature of impeachment... The nature of impeachment is a narrowly channeled exception to the separation of powers maxim; the Federal Convention of 1787... limited impeachment to 'high crimes and misdemeanors'... It is to be used only for great misdemeanors...
"Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do: appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big because the talk we have before us is a big one..."
After her own eloquent beginning, Jordan went on to summarize evidence concerning what President Nixon knew on June 23, 1972: that money from President had been found in the possession of one of the Watergate burglars, and that E. Howard Hunt had been involved in the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, the Dita Beard-ITT affair, and the fabrication of cables designed to discredit the Kennedy administration. She also dismissed the suggestion that the committee proceedings ought to be delayed because new evidence would be forthcoming from the White House, saying sharply: "The committee subpoena is outstanding, and if the president wants to supply that material, the committee sits here."
Calmly and logically, the previously unknown congress woman from Texas proceeded with her powerful argument, juxtaposing the impeachment criteria with the president's actions: James Madison's assertion that a president could be impeached for being "connected in any suspicious manner with any person" whom there were grounds to believe the president would shelter against evidence indicating that Nixon knew of the payment of money to the Watergate defendants and that he was relaying to them information received from Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen; the South Carolina Ratification Convention's criterion that those are impeachable "who behave amiss or betray their public trust" against Nixon's "public statements and actions designed to thwart the lawful investigation by government prosecutors" and other statements "which he knew to be false."
[And then the denouement:] "The Constitution charges [the] president with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the president has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregarded the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice...
"If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-centruy paper shredder. Has the president committed offenses and planned and directed and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That is the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason and not passion which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision."
Her audience sat stunned. It was the first time she had reached them with no one in between. The first time they had seen and heard her with their own eyes and ears. The first time she was a primary source to them.
Before that, she had long since been stereotyped by a press used to summing up secondary sources, such as the feature in the liberal Austin newspaper The Texas Observer (November 1972):
"Aside from the vicarious kick a withite lib can get from watching Jordan speak to a new audience -- they tend to snigger and assume that anyone who looks that much like a mammy is going to be pretty funny to hear -- she's not much use as a token... Even the people who have broken through her fierce sense of privacy are not sure of the friendship."
The night of the impeachment hearings, Barbara broke through her interpreters. Thereafter, to her audience, she would be a myth of their own creating, an institution, a legend accountable to their prejudgment. Thereafter she would be public property. But on that single evening she reached America one to one.
A man in Houston the next day went out and put up 25 billboards that said: "Thank you, Barbara Jordan, for explaining the Constitution to us."
And the letters poured in, some of them criticizing her "arrogance" or her "attempt to destroy a great man," but a majority wrote in praise: "You know why you are such a forceful speaker, because you are honest. I have wished I was colored so I could be honest. Sometimes I feel I may have been a person in another time who belonged to the oppressed..."
"I am 9 years old. I am all for impeachment. I think President Nixon will be impeached. I think you should run for President."
"All of us who love all the Mosaic of this precious land that is our own bless you for your Forceful, Scholarly, Eloquent and Epic statement of the case. Now you belong to the ages. 'Free at last.'"
"Eloquence, forthrightness, incisive rationality, and dignity are rare qualities. Yet you, as a black woman from the South, vivdly displayed these qualities. That a black woman from the South should have these qualities is no surprise; that the American political process should have progressed far enough to allow you to display these qualities to the entire country is a surprise..."
"You have changed the minds of myself, my wife, our relatives, and all our friends, for the good of our country, as before we watched you on TV we thought only a man should be the President but all of us will vote for you or any lady or black man or lady."
When the Judiciary Committee adjourned that night, and we had all made our speeches, Bud came and said: "Come on, your car's outside." And just as we approached the front door of the Rayburn Building, there was this big crowd of people standing over there and it looked like they were just all around my car. And I said: "Uh-oh, what is that?" I said to Bud: "The only thing we can do is walk over to my car, get in, and drive away, and not say anything to anybody and not look right and not look left." Well, when I walked out the front door, they broke into this big cheer -- screaming, "Right on!" and waving fists in the air. And someone said: "I knew that when you talked you were going to base whatever you were going to say on the law, if you had to go back to Moses." And that was the first reaction I had to my speech.
I think they liked it that I didn't present a harangue, but that I was very serious about what I was doing. I felt that was what I was communicating. That here was a person who had really thought this through and had reached a decision, a considered, sincere and sensible decision.
But I didn't like the idea of working to impeach a president. I wished that it had not been necessary to do that. I really did. We had great difficulty trying to frame articles of impeachment, and the first vote on the first article of impeachment in committee was very painful for me. When the roll was called and I was asked, "How do you vote?" I could barely get my "yes" out. And after that vote, about three or four of us on the committee went back into one of the council rooms and there were tears. We had to let out our feelings.
But when our articles of impeachment were voted ultimately by the Judiciary Committee and we were to present this indictment to the Senate, I wanted to be one of the managers on the part of the House who did that.
But of course I never got a chance. Nobody did. Because Nixon resigned. Which was a mixture of relief that we didn't have to go forward with it, and did not take place. And it should have.
Mostly I felt it unfair that Mr. Nixon and his counsel had lied to the Judiciary Committee for so long. Nixon's counsel had been there for rebuttal after we completed our deliberations, and we kept asking about various things and they denied them. Then, after Nixon resigned and everything caved in, he admitted to them. The members of the Judiciary Committee who had been supportive of him all went on television and said they were sorry that they had made a mistake. So he had lied to us; and I regretted that.
Before this, Agnew had resigned, and we had gone through the confirmation of Gerald Ford for vice president. During the time Ford was questioned for his confirmation I had decided that I could not vote for him because I did not feel he had the capacity to become the president.
After Nixon had resigned and Ford had become president, I got this call from someone saying that the president would like for me to go to China with a group. I said: "To China?" He said: "Peking, the People's Republic of China. You know Nixon made the approach," he said. "He went to Peking, and the Shanghai Communique was signed at that point, and now Nixon is out and we are trying to show continuity of policy by showing that, even though we have put Richard Nixon out of office, that does not change anything about what was developed as policy toward the People's Republic."
I asked him: "Who else is going?" He said: "Well, Sen. Fulbright, Sen. Humphrey." He named the whole crew. So I said: "Let me think about this. That's quite a distance to travel. I will have to think about it.But it's a good crowd to be traveling with." And I thought about it for a couple of days, and I said: "Yes."
So I went. And then there we were in China in some little province just at the foot of a mountain and sleeping on these slatted cots with straw mats, when I got a knock at my door and they said: "We have a telephone call for you." I said: "Well, one moment." And I put on a robe and some slippers and went down to this little funny-looking telephone and said into it: "Hello." Then there was this voice from Channel 13 in Houston wanting to know: "What do you think about Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon?"
I said: "What the hell are you talking about? What?" I said: "Now wait a minute, just repeat what you have said. Slowly." And he repeated it to me, and I said: "Well, did Nixon plead guilty or something?" I couldn't get it all together. Couldn't understand that the president had sent all of us as far out of the country as possible to this little province so this could happen. And that's where I heard about it for the first time.
Well, when we got back to the States, of course, that was all that was in the news, and although it was obvious that Ford could do that -- there was no constitutional prohibition -- well, I felt cheated. I said: "Something at least could have been resolved with the finality of a court decision but now everything is wiped out."
The country definitely got shortchanged. I don't know whether it would have been the long, agonizing nightmare which Gerald Ford said it would be for the country if we had gone through the trial. But I do know that it would have been done with finality.
So that was the end of impeachment.