Mr. Jordan was the consummate Washington power broker, reaching the peak of his quiet authority during the 1990s, when he was, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, President Bill Clinton’s closest adviser. He had Clinton’s ear through two terms as president, including the most challenging moments, when Clinton faced an investigation and impeachment for a relationship with a White House intern.
“The last thing he’d ever do is betray a friendship,” Clinton said in 1996. “It’s good to have a friend like that.”
Mr. Jordan died March 1 at his home in Washington. He was 85. The death was confirmed by his daughter, Vickee Jordan. She declined to state the cause.
Mr. Jordan brought a smooth manner and elegant style to Beltway dealmaking, anchored in his youth in a housing project in the segregated South. He had the moral authority of a veteran of the civil rights movement — he nearly died in a 1980 shooting by a racially motivated would-be assassin — and was adept at navigating corporate boardrooms and golf course fairways, as well as gospel-filled churches.
Earlier generations of Washington insiders had given advice from the sidelines, including Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran, Bryce Harlow, Clark Clifford, Lloyd Cutler and Robert Strauss — Mr. Jordan’s mentor at the Akin Gump law firm. But one significant way in which Mr. Jordan differed from his predecessors was he was among the few African Americans at the top of Washington’s power structure.
It was a role he had cultivated for decades. As early as 1971, when he became executive director of the National Urban League, Mr. Jordan outlined an approach to bring the civil rights struggle to the highest levels of government and business.
“Black power will remain just a shout and a cry,” he said then, “unless it is channeled into a constructive effort to bring about Black political power and to influence the established institutions of American politics.”
Instead of marching in the streets, Mr. Jordan marched toward the executive suite. He persuaded corporate leaders to hire Black workers and support institutions — most notably the Urban League — that benefited African Americans. By the time Mr. Jordan came to Washington in 1981, his influence could be felt from Wall Street to Congress to the grass roots of the civil rights movement.
“I’m not a creature of the boardrooms,” he told People magazine that year. “I’ve got relatives on welfare. I’m a creature of the first public housing project for Blacks ever built in America,” in his native Atlanta.
Mr. Jordan was once under consideration to be commissioner of the National Football League and was rumored as a possible attorney general or ambassador to Britain. But he never accepted a nomination for any position that would require Senate confirmation.
He sat on the boards of more than a dozen companies, vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard and wore custom-made shirts from Savile Row. For years, he spent Christmas Eve with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and presidents and billionaires attended his parties.
Yet the ways in which Mr. Jordan wielded his power remained something of a mystery. He had a magnetic quality, which Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) described to Vanity Fair as a “personality that seduces men and women differently, but nevertheless seduces.”
Mr. Jordan seldom left an official paper trail. People asked to discuss his clout in the capital often kept silent or sought his permission before responding.
“He learned what it was to be the quintessential insider. He was sort of a fixer,” Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said in an interview. “I don’t think he was feared as much as he was a custodian of Washington gossip. He had an accumulation of dirt that could be used as a wedge against an opponent.”
Mr. Jordan made his presence felt in phone calls and cloakroom whispers, in casual clubhouse conversations and across the luncheon table. IBM sought Mr. Jordan’s advice when it needed a new chief executive; he set the wheels in motion for James Wolfensohn to be named president of the World Bank; he recommended people for jobs ranging from summer intern to secretary of state.
Mr. Jordan had an affability and charm — and a sometimes intimidating 6-foot-4 physique — that put him at ease in any situation. He was often the only Black person in the room. He was a Democrat, but he counted many Republicans among his friends.
“He has the ability and capacity to pick up the telephone almost any time and call almost any member of Congress, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said in 1992, when Mr. Jordan was co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team.
He cultivated political figures on the rise, long before they acquired a national profile. Mr. Jordan first met Hillary Clinton in 1969, the year she graduated from college, and Bill Clinton in 1973, when he returned to Arkansas from law school at Yale. He met Barack Obama when the future president was a state senator in Illinois.
He and Bill Clinton had a particularly warm rapport, with a shared Southern heritage and an interest in golf. Mr. Jordan was among the first to suggest Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) as Clinton’s running mate in 1992. After Clinton was elected, Mr. Jordan vetted candidates for Cabinet positions and the White House staff. When he later visited those officials, he always brought flowers for their administrative assistants.
“I have seen Vernon — too many times to count — help not just young people but any people,” Strauss told The Washington Post in 1998. “There are individuals in this country leading corporations and financial institutions and laboring in the vineyards because Vernon has been there to help and to make a few phone calls for them. That’s why people respect him.”
One topic often whispered about away from Mr. Jordan’s presence was what a 1992 Post profile called his “reputation as a lady-killer” — which he declined to discuss, except to say, “I like all kinds of people. And I’m not going to stop liking people.”
To Clinton, Mr. Jordan was a sounding board in good times and bad. He consoled the president after the 1993 suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster and after Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash in 1996.
The relationship between the president and his counselor faced its most severe test in 1998, when Clinton was being investigated for an alleged relationship with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. Mr. Jordan reportedly arranged to hire a lawyer for Lewinsky and find her a job with Revlon, one of the companies of which he was a board member. (The job offer was rescinded amid the turmoil.)
Mr. Jordan made five appearances before a grand jury during the independent counsel investigation of Clinton led by Kenneth W. Starr. He answered questions during a House inquiry that led to Clinton’s impeachment.
As Republican opponents accused Mr. Jordan of conspiring with Clinton to obstruct justice, he did not lose his composure. He never discussed the scandal in public, even after Clinton was acquitted by the Senate.
Mr. Jordan was so closely identified with Clinton that, as he later told the Los Angeles Times, “People look at me and believe that I was born January 20, 1993,” the day Clinton took office as president. “That is not true. My life was defined long before that.”
'Vernon can read'
Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. was born Aug. 15, 1935, in Atlanta. His father was a postal worker on a military base.
Mr. Jordan attended segregated schools, but he also was exposed to Atlanta’s elite White society while working for his mother’s successful catering business. At her urging, he left the South for college, attending DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. He organized voter registration drives for Black residents of the region and became prominent in campus government and oratory.
During his summer breaks, he returned to Atlanta, working as a chauffeur and waiter for an aging Robert F. Maddox, who had been the city’s mayor from 1909 to 1911. Mr. Jordan sometimes read the books in Maddox’s voluminous library, prompting a rebuke from his boss.
Even after Mr. Jordan received permission to use the library, the former mayor told his family at dinner that he had an announcement to make: “Vernon can read.” Mr. Jordan never forgot the incident and used the backhanded comment as the title of his 2001 memoir.
After graduating in 1957 from DePauw, where he was the only Black member of his class, Mr. Jordan entered law school at Howard University in Washington. He graduated in 1960, then joined an Atlanta firm led by a prominent African American lawyer, Donald L. Hollowell.
The firm sued the University of Georgia on behalf of Charlayne Hunter, who became one of the college’s first two Black undergraduates in 1961. Mr. Jordan escorted her to class through jeering crowds.
Soon afterward, Mr. Jordan became Georgia’s field secretary for the NAACP and led boycotts of stores that refused to hire Black workers. He moved to Arkansas in 1964 and coordinated voter registration efforts that added 2 million Black voters to rolls across the South.
By 1969, Mr. Jordan was a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and the next year, he became executive director of the United Negro College Fund. When Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, drowned on a visit to Nigeria in 1971, Mr. Jordan was chosen as his successor.
He oversaw a budget of $100 million and traveled extensively to raise money from corporate leaders to support job training, early-childhood education and other programs aimed at improving Black life in the United States. He joined the boards of blue-chip companies including American Express, Xerox, Dow Jones & Co., Union Carbide and RJR Nabisco, and used his access to executives to encourage major companies to hire women and members of minority groups.
Early on the morning of May 29, 1980, after addressing an Urban League gathering, Mr. Jordan was shot in the back with a high-powered rifle after exiting a car in a parking lot in Fort Wayne, Ind. He was rushed to a hospital, where doctors managed to close a wound the size of a fist. Mr. Jordan noted that the surgeon, the internist and the anesthesiologist who treated him in Fort Wayne were African American.
“Now what that suggests,” he said, “is that there has been some progress.”
President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) went to Fort Wayne to see Mr. Jordan. After he was transferred to a hospital in New York, he was visited by Ronald Reagan, then a Republican presidential candidate, and a host of corporate titans as well as religious and civil rights leaders.
Indiana authorities arrested Joseph Paul Franklin in connection with the shooting. Franklin had a history of racial violence, including shooting at mixed-race couples. (Mr. Jordan had stepped out of a car driven by a White woman.)
At trial, Franklin was found not guilty of violating Mr. Jordan’s civil rights.
Years later, Franklin confessed to the attack on Mr. Jordan and to an earlier shooting in 1978 that left Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt paralyzed. After having been convicted of eight and linked to as many as 20 killings nationwide, Franklin was executed in Missouri in 2013.
During his 98-day hospitalization, Mr. Jordan reassessed his life. With the Urban League facing a chilly political climate with the incoming Reagan administration in 1981, Mr. Jordan moved to Washington as a senior partner with Akin Gump.
He was sometimes described as a “superlawyer,” but his role at the law firm and lobbying shop resisted easy definition. He was not a registered lobbyist and did not argue cases in court.
“If you ever see me in the library here, tap me on the shoulder,” he reportedly told a colleague. “For you will know that I am lost.”
As the Clinton presidency was coming to an end in 2000, Mr. Jordan took a senior position at the New York investment banking firm of Lazard Frères, for a reported salary of $5 million a year.
He retained his position at Akin Gump — “I’m there every Friday,” he said — and continued to be a presence in Washington.
Mr. Jordan’s first wife, the former Shirley Yarbrough, died of multiple sclerosis in 1985, after 26 years of marriage. The next year, he married Ann Dibble Cook, a onetime professor of social work at the University of Chicago. In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Vickee Jordan of Washington; three stepchildren, Toni Cook Bush of Washington, Janice Cook Roberts and Mercer Cook, both of New York; and two grandsons.
During the 2008 presidential election, he supported Hillary Clinton over Obama, saying, “I’m too old to trade friendship for race.”
Yet Obama joined Mr. Jordan on the golf course and clearly recognized his eminence. Each year, as business moguls and political luminaries descended on Washington for the annual dinner of the Alfalfa Club, there was one invitation that was even more exclusive: brunch at Mr. Jordan’s house. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder and owner of The Post) and congressional leaders were likely to be there, rubbing elbows and sampling the omelets.
Even when Obama skipped the Alfalfa Club’s white-tie dinner, he made time to show up at Mr. Jordan’s brunch.
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