President-elect Clinton, who ran as a Washington outsider seeking change, tapped a consummate Washington insider and power lawyer when he chose Vernon E. Jordan Jr., yesterday to chair his transition team.
Jordan, once the president of the National Urban League who was severely wounded by a sniper while sitting in a car with a female acquaintance in Fort Wayne, Ind., 12 years ago, is a senior partner in the Washington office of Akin, Gump, Hauer & Feld, a large Texas-based law firm that used to be home to Robert S. Strauss, a Democratic Party stalwart and now U.S. ambassador to Russia. Jordan also sits on the boards of some of the nation's largest corporations.
"Vernon Jordan is an old hand," said Mary Frances Berry of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who has known Jordan for several years. "He knows the issues. He knows what the political problems are. He knows the people who have experience and he should be able to help Clinton get a good fit between those important things. He knows where the bodies are buried. He knows all that."
Jordan, 56, who also ran the transition of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly in 1990, has moved easily between worlds, partisan and racial, and is celebrated for his charm and savoir faire. Though on opposing sides on civil rights issues, Jordan lunched regularly with President Bush, especially during negotiations over the Civil Rights Act of 1990, said William T. Coleman, a senior partner at the O'Melveny & Myers law firm who was involved in the negotiations.
Bush vetoed one version of the bill, calling it a "quota bill," despite the protests by Jordan, Coleman and others. The bill, in modified form, was signed into the law the following year.
Coleman said Jordan also had attended meetings of the Bilderberg Group, which sponsors annual policy discussions among leaders and top policy analysts in Europe and North America.
At Akin, Gump, Jordan is known as a skilled prospector of clients among the nation's large corporations and a confidant of chief executive officers from coast to coast, especially skillful at boardroom politics.
"The last thing you'd want is to have Vernon spending time on routine matters of law. He's more like a senior partner in New York law firms. He advises lawyers on board matters," said David Hardee, a former senior partner at Akin, Gump who worked closely with Jordan until he moved to Los Angeles in July to set up an investment partnership. Strauss, a former partner in the firm, brought Jordan aboard in 1982.
"He's on more boards than you can shake a stick at. He spends a lot of time at board meetings, and he gets a lot of business for the firm," Hardee said.
Among the companies on whose boards Jordan serves are American Express Co., Bankers Trust Corp., RJR Nabisco Corp., Revlon Corp., Sara Lee Corp., Xerox Corp. and Union Carbide.
A measure of Jordan's powers of survival is that after three takeover coups at RJR, he is still a member of the board.
Earlier this year, Jordan launched an effort to better integrate the upper echelons of Washington's legal profession, where 2 percent of the partners in the city's largest law firms are black.
Jordan, who grew up in Atlanta public housing, took over the helm of the Urban League, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, from Whitney Young in 1972 and instituted the league's most well-known annual endeavor, the State of Black America Reports.
Among Jordan's subordinates at the league during that time was Ronald H. Brown Jr., now Democratic National Committee chairman, who worked in the league's Washington office until 1979.
Jordan, who was married at the time, found himself snared in controversy in 1980 when he was shot by a sniper while sitting in a car with a female companion who was white. Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed racist who already was serving four life sentences for the sniper slayings of two black men at the time of his 1982 trial in the Jordan shooting, was acquitted of U.S. civil rights violations in the case. The Justice Department did not reopen its investigation of the shooting.