History books will remember him, rightly, as a civil rights leader, a confidant to presidents, a power broker at the highest levels. But he carried another title: the most charming man in Washington.
It would be a mistake to dismiss that as somehow superficial. In a town full of very smart, deeply ambitious but ultimately self-absorbed people, Jordan had a unique ability to make anyone he met feel seen, understood and valued — and they adored him for it. “He was a magnet,” says grande dame Buffy Cafritz, one of his closest friends. “You were drawn to him.”
He was an imposing figure: tall, handsome, elegant and self-possessed. He was formal, in the best sense of the term. After news of his death Monday, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted this encounter: “Several years ago, Vernon Jordan walked up to me on the way to catching a plane in DCA, shook my hand and said, ‘Son, when you’re on TV, show some respect to those watching you and wear a tie.’ I said ‘Yessir.’ He smiled and walked off. I started wearing a tie the next day.”
But there was something more: Call it charisma, call it charm, call it curiosity. “He made everyone feel that they were the most important person to him — and it was genuine,” says Ann Walker Marchant, niece to Jordan’s wife, Ann Dibble Jordan. “He was laser-focused on how they were doing and what they were doing.”
That laser focus is key. If charm is an art form, Jordan was a virtuoso. Most people, given the slightest encouragement, love to talk about themselves. It takes discipline to resist that impulse and turn the spotlight onto others, a talent so rare that people have a hard time putting their finger on it. But it is the foundation of what we call charm, a timeless quality in winning friends and influencing people.
Some of it can be traced to old-fashioned Southern hospitality and the exquisite manners he learned from his mother, a caterer to Atlanta’s elite families. She encouraged her son to leave the South to attend DePauw University in Indiana, where he was one of only a handful of Black students. He went on to Howard University for law school, then launched a legal and business career that took him all the way to the White House as Bill and Hillary Clinton’s dearest friend and adviser — before, during and after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together,” the former president tweeted Tuesday. “We loved him very much and always will.”
Some of it was his circumspection, an invaluable quality to the rich and powerful. Jordan was, by all accounts, a loyal friend through thick and thin. “You knew you had a friend who would never break a confidence, and that’s important in Washington,” says Cafritz. “He always made you feel a lot better.”
He was a master at the compliment: He flattered, not in the awkward style of the socially anxious, but with a sophisticated playfulness. He found something about everyone to praise: He made men feel smart and funny; he made women feel smart, funny and attractive.
“I really like people, and it begins there,” he told me in 2000 for a story on the art of flirting. “I’m a very social being. I like conversation. I find people fun and exciting. And I like women, but I like them all: I flirt with the pretty ladies and I flirt with the not-so-pretty ladies. I’m an equal-opportunity flirt: the old, the young, the fat, the skinny, Black, White — all of them.” (That, of course, was two decades ago and the wisdom of powerful men flirting — even in social situations — is viewed differently now.)
He was not only a very social being but a very organized one: He had legions of friends and somehow found the time for all of them. “Hardly a week would go by without a call from Vernon just checking in no matter where he was in the world,” says philanthropist Roger Sant.
Jordan listened more than he talked, asking questions and then follow-up questions. He preferred small dinners — eight people max — where the conversation could go deep and he could get caught up on everyone’s lives, says Sant. When he could be persuaded to talk about himself, he was “a consummate and entertaining storyteller, and the stories generally had a moral — like when George Wallace sent him an extremely thoughtful and kind letter after [Jordan] was shot in Indiana. There were so many stories that we seldom heard the same ones.” (While recovering from that 1980 attack, Jordan, then president of the National Urban League, was visited by President Jimmy Carter, candidate Ronald Reagan and other luminaries.)
Jordan’s discretion could be maddening if you were a reporter. He knew everyone and presumably everything, but in three decades of covering Washington’s elite, he always returned my phone calls but never once spilled the tea on any of them. “I consider conversations with my friends private,” he explained, and after a few niceties, that was that.
To wit: Jordan hosted an annual lunch before the Alfalfa Club dinner, an off-the-record gathering of America’s most powerful political and business leaders. Even those skipping the dinner would make an appearance at the lunch, including President Barack Obama. But nothing — not the guest list, not a funny story, not even the menu — leaked to the press, because that’s how Jordan wanted it.
As a result, the Jordans were a fixture on Washington’s A-list, sought after as guests or co-chairs at the city’s most prestigious events. Jordan was often asked to give a speech, a toast, a eulogy — and never disappointed. He worked hard on his remarks, and then made them look effortless.
Jordan’s delivery “was unparalleled,” says Kevin Chaffee, senior editor at Washington Life. “He gave just as much of himself to a tiny group of listeners as he would have done if his audience had been jam-packed.”
His lived experience — a Black man at the top of America’s power structure — made him an invaluable mentor and adviser across racial, economic and social lines. He met Obama when the future president was a mere state senator; Obama sought Jordan’s counsel when he was mulling a 2008 run for president. Jordan famously told him he would support his old friend Hillary Clinton but pledged his wholehearted endorsement should Obama win the primary.
The two men shared the stage at Howard University in 2016, when Jordan formally introduced Obama as the commencement speaker. Howard President Wayne Frederick sent Jordan a framed picture of the two, which hung in a cherished place in his home.
“It was a full-circle moment,” says Frederick, who became a close friend over the past decade. “I know he was extremely proud.”
At the heart of Vernon’s appeal, says Frederick, was hope. “He had an optimism and an openness about life’s challenges and opportunities that let him engage anyone and anything he encountered.” That optimism left “no space for bitterness or anger” and propelled him forward — mentoring young Black students, diversifying America’s boardrooms.
“Yes, he had charisma,” says Frederick. “But I also think a part of it was pure goodness. He truly approached people from a place of good and respect for people’s humanity.”
Call it charisma, call it attention, call it respect — but it left an indelible mark on a town hungry for a little charm.