Former representative Barbara Jordan, 59, the charismatic Texas Democrat who gained national attention and respect for her eloquence during the 1974 Nixon impeachment hearings and as a keynoter at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, died yesterday at a hospital in Austin. She died of pneumonia and complications of leukemia and for several years had suffered from multiple sclerosis.
Jordan's political career was meteoric, as she blazed out of the Lone Star State onto the nation's televisions during the impeachment hearings that grew out of the Watergate break-in and coverup. Although her voice was calm, she was a vibrant orator, whose skills were influenced by preachers from her childhood in the black ghetto of Houston and honed in the Texas legislature. And when she spoke, hers was a message of justice for all.
Jordan's was in many ways an unparalleled career. In 1966, she became the first black woman ever elected to the Texas state Senate, where she won power and the respect of the party establishment. As a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, she worked for the interests of fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson. After leaving the presidency, Johnson supported her election to the House of Representatives in 1972, and he phoned House Speaker Carl Albert to assure her a seat on the Judiciary Committee. That year, Jordan and Andrew Young of Georgia became the first southern blacks to win election to Congress since Reconstruction.
In her first term in Congress, she had to vote on the impeachment of a president of the United States. On the night of July 25, 1974, the second night of the Judiciary Committee's proceedings, her turn came. She leaned forward and called for impeachment.
In that speech she said: " We, the people.' It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that We, the people.' I felt somehow for many years that 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.' "
She went on to say, "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."
In 1976, she gave one of two keynote speeches at the Democratic National Convention. Her presence and speech electrified the convention, as much for what she represented as for the eloquent message she delivered.
She told the convention that night: "There is something different and special about this opening night. I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker, and notwithstanding the past, my presence here before you is one additional bit of evidence that the American dream need not forever be deferred."
She was viewed as a possible vice presidential candidate by Jimmy Carter's campaign team and was reported to have later turned down an offer to serve as ambassador to the United Nations. She also was mentioned as a possible Texas governor or senator, as a potential nominee to the Supreme Court or as a candidate for House speaker. While being black and a woman had once seemed impossible hurdles to political advancement, Jordan's future seemed limitless.
But in 1977, she announced that, for personal reasons, she would retire from the House of Representatives at the end of her third term. By 1979, she had begun the last phase of her life, as a writer, lecturer and professor.
Her health, at that point, already was declining, and it would deteriorate rapidly in the ensuing years. Because of worsening multiple sclerosis, she moved about in a wheelchair or with the aid of a walker.
In 1988, she nearly drowned after blacking out for unknown reasons in the backyard pool of her Austin home, but she fully recovered. At her death, Texas officials said, Jordan had been battling leukemia for some time and had developed viral pneumonia as a result of the disease in late December.
After leaving Congress, Jordan made two more appearances at the Democratic National Convention. Speaking from a wheelchair in 1988 in Atlanta, she seconded the vice presidential nomination of fellow Texan Lloyd Bentsen. Repeating her keynote role in 1992, she issued a challenge to the delegates and the nation:
"We need to change the decaying inner cities from decay to places where hope lives. As we undergo that change, we must be prepared to answer Rodney King's haunting question, Can we all get along?' I say we answer that question with a resounding yes."
Barbara Charline Jordan was born in Houston on Feb. 21, 1936. Her father was a Baptist preacher and a warehouse clerk who taught her a love of family, faith and language. Her parents pushed her to excel, she recalled, and they would criticize her for imprecise diction and any report card that contained a B rather than all A's.
She went to the all-black Texas Southern University in Houston, where she led a championship debate team that defeated Harvard, and she graduated magna cum laude. She graduated from Boston University law school, where she was the only woman in her class, then returned to Houston and began to practice law, using the family kitchen table as her desk.
She began her political career by helping get out the vote for the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson ticket. In 1966, she won a seat in the Texas Senate, after losing in two previous tries.
During her years in the legislature, she helped introduce and pass legislation dealing with welfare reform and for a minimum-wage law for those not affected by federal minimum-wage laws. She also was a leader in the difficult and successful fight to block legislation that would have effectively disenfranchised black and Latino voters by tightening requirements for registration.
Jordan seemed to revel in her ability to achieve impressive legislative ends, both in the legislature and later in Congress, by the most conventional of means.
Texas legislators respected her for learning the parliamentary rules (and tricks) as well as any of them, for her ability to find a middle ground others had not seen and, finally, for being able to beat them on some votes. She eventually became Texas Senate president pro tem, serving as acting governor when the governor and lieutenant governor were both out of the state.
The 1970 Census added seats to the Texas congressional delegation, and Jordan, who helped carve out a black-majority district in Houston, had little trouble winning it in 1972. She had the support not only of African Americans but also of the party establishment. She also had impressive backers among city business interests, including the powerful oil lobby.
A common theme in her career was party and state loyalty. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, she had been instrumental in keeping the state delegation united behind the Johnson administration's "pro-hawk" platform plank on the Vietnam War.
In Congress, she missed meetings of the black caucus, saying she was a member of the Texas caucus. On Capitol Hill, she worked on measures to add anti-discrimination clauses to bills giving block grants to states. She spoke for the poor, for women, for African Americans and Latinos, but she always maintained that she represented the people of her district and Texas before any other group.
Jordan once said, "I'm neither a black politician nor a woman politician. Just a politician."
By her second term, she won a seat on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which makes committee assignments to House Democrats.
After leaving the House, she joined the faculty of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas.
She also served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, an independent panel created by Congress. In a 1994 report, the commission concluded that illegal immigration into the United States had reached a point that required urgent attention and an aggressive crackdown by authorities. A crucial -- and controversial -- element of the commission's plan was a proposal to create a national computer registry of all eligible workers to prevent the employment of illegal immigrants.
"If we are to preserve our immigration tradition and our ability to say yes to so many of those who seek entry, we must also have the strength to say no where we must," the commission warned. But the primary focus of Jordan's professional and personal time and energy were her students at the University of Texas, who called her, affectionately, "BJ." CAPTION: Reps. Barbara Jordan and Charles B. Rangel confer during debate over impeachment of President Nixon.