Vernon Jordan in 1967
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the second century, the ptolemaic view of the universe put the Earth at the center of the action: Ladies and gentlemen of learning believed that the sun, moon, and stars traced endless circles around their steadfast home planet. This theory held sway until 1543, when Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus rocked the educated world by positing that the sun was in fact the center of the universe. Now, with the 21st century fast approaching, it has at last become clear that the true hub of it all is..Vernon Jordan.

OK, so maybe Jordan’s not the epicenter of the universe, but as far as US. business and political developments go, this civil rights leader cum Washington powerbroker possesses an unsettling omnipresent quality. Like Forrest Gump, he is constantly popping up at the center of news events, ranging from the 1960s civil rights movement to the 1993 passage of NAFTA. Who hooked CEO Lou Gerstner up with IBM? Vernon Jordan. Who approached Colin Powell in ’94 about replacing Warren Christopher as Secretary of State? Vernon Jordan. Who was on the short list in ’89 to succeed Pete Rozelle as NFL commissioner? Vernon Jordan. Who gave World Bank President James Wolfensohn a leg up in attaining his current post? You guessed it.

Today, as a senior partner in Washington’s third biggest lobbying firm (in terms of revenues, that is), an unofficial adviser and golfing partner of the President of the United States, and a director on the boards of a dozen domestic and foreign mega-corporations, Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr. wields more power and influence than a passel of politicians. Moreover, in a town run on connections and relationships, this 61-year-old Atlanta native seems to know everyone between the ages of five and 95—and he’s friends with almost all of them. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Jordan’s cachet that he and his wife, Ann, are intimates of Bill and Hillary, spending many a vacation and holiday together. As one prominent Washington attorney remarked to The New York Times last year, Jordan “is as close to the President as anyone I know since Bobby Kennedy was so close to his brother”

Despite all this, Jordan sails along under the radar of both the media and the public. Although he consults frequently with Clinton and other administration officials on issues ranging from international trade to political appointees, Jordan’s access is largely based on informal, nonofficial relationships. As such, he is not bound by the same disclosure laws as lobbyists, appointees, or elected officials. Who Jordan’s clients are and what exactly he does to earn his $500,000-plus in annual board fees and his estimated $1 million income from his law firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld, is anybody’s guess—and Jordan plans to keep it that way. When quizzed about his income or work, he invariably cites attorney-client privilege or ethical constraints.

In general, Jordan has little patience with people who question his business or political dealings, and whether the overlap of those relationships might pose conflicts of interest. Nor does he feel obligated to address rumblings about whether, with his seven-figure income and his summers on Martha’s Vineyard, Jordan has turned his back on the civil rights cause that helped launch him into the ranks of the power elite. When The New York Times‘s Jeff Gerth asked Jordan in an interview last July how the attorney feels about charges that his influence is not “sufficiently open to public view” and that he “has neglected the cause of racial equality,” Jordan responded: “I, and only I, am the keeper of my conscience.” In a 1992 Washington Post article, Jordan rebuffed similar inquiries with the statement: “I am the custodian of my morality and ethics.” When asked in 1993 why he chose to stay with his lucrative private legal practice rather than become the first black U.S. Attorney General, as many had predicted: “I do what I want to do.” (And, although he declined to be interviewed for this article, Jordan did take the time to call and inquire why we had been looking into his financial affairs and to inform us that “I don’t know that it’s any of your business how much money I make.”)

This kind of brush off has long been Jordan’s stock-in-trade when pressed about his position or actions. In 1992, shortly after being named co-chair of Clinton’s transition team, Jordan dismissed a reporter’s questions about his insider, wheeler-dealer status with: “I do not apologize or feel any need to explain that I am participating in a process that is as American as anything I know.” He even got the new President-elect into the spirit: Responding to questions about the appearance of conflict in having Jordan, then a board member of cigarette manufacturer RJR Nabisco, to help fill posts at Health and Human Services or other agencies involved in smoking-related issues, Clinton stated: “I don’t think the American people should be concerned about it.”

Wrong. The American people should without question be concerned about the individuals who shape the economy and politics of this country— even those who do so in an unofficial capacity. No one with Jordan’s influence and connections is qualified to be the sole custodian of his own ethics. If anything, Jordan’s “unofficial” status—and the lack of disclosure it allows—suggests we should be paying more, not less, attention to his business. Vernon Jordan is more than the President’s best buddy: He was brokering multi-million dollar deals for his clients and keeping company with the privileged and powerful long before the Clinton clan rolled onto the national scene. Now, as the person perhaps closest to the President’s ear and farthest from the public eye, Jordan holds a unique (and enviable) position. A look at how he got there tells us something about how power operates in Washington— and reveals a disturbing lack of attention paid to those who wield it.

The Anti-Radical

Like many successful African Americans of his generation, Vernon Jordan rose to prominence on the crest of the civil rights movement. As a result, he has faced criticism over the years for having sold out his activist roots for a key to Corporate America. But Jordan has always been an “establishment” kind of guy. He was never a ’60s radical. He was never into marches or protests or sit-ins or any of the other activities so closely associated with the movement. “Vernon was always very clear on the issues,” says long-time friend and civil rights colleague Edward C. Sylvester, “but when it came down to getting out in the streets, I do not recall Vernon [participating].”

From the start, Jordan chose to work with the Establishment. A 1960 graduate of Howard University law school (and a DePauw University undergrad), he worked as a law clerk for a Georgia civil rights attorney until 1961, when he accepted a position as NAACP field director for the state of Georgia. Even then, he was viewed as a sell-out by some. “Vernon was always snickered at in civil rights circles because of his fancy dress and his involvement in the NAACP, part of the conservative, highly bureaucratic wing of the movement,” notes historian Taylor Branch, who was recruited by Jordan in the late ’60s to work on the Voter Education Project. “Vernon was never a demonstrator, even at the height of the demonstration period.” In fact, while at the NAACP, Jordan’s job often involved working behind the scenes to mobilize “respectable” NAACP members against demonstrations being organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Of course, as far as white southerners were concerned, the NAACP, with its push for voter registration and school integration, was straight out of a nightmare, adds Branch. “It was the scourge of the white South.” Traveling the southern backroads as a representative of the association, it was in Jordan’s best interest not to appear threatening (no small task for the 6’4″ Jordan). “Part of Vernon’s job,” says Branch, “was to look respectable.”

This was perhaps even more true starting in 1964, when Jordan left the NAACP to head the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project (launched by President Kennedy in 1961 to channel the movement’s energies away from the more controversial Freedom Rides). As VEP director, Jordan’s role was twofold: find capable volunteers to organize voter drives throughout the South, and raise money for the project. This second mission required Jordan to travel around the South, convincing wealthy foundations to award the VEP grant money. To this end, Jordan’s charisma, his Harry Belafonte looks, and his impeccable dress served him well. “Being associated with an organization where most of the funding must arise from a broad base, Vernon couldn’t have been identified as some sort of a wild radical,” says Ed Sylvester.

In 1966, Jordan and Sylvester were among a handful of civil rights leaders to participate in President Johnson’s White House conference on civil rights. (The majority of participants were business executives) Coming on the heels of two similar, failed conference attempts (one of which had turned violent), Johnson’s effort was viewed with apprehension. When the conference turned out to be a success, Jordan’s participation gained him national recognition. For the remainder of the ’60s and ’70s, he moved fluidly within both civil rights and business circles, making contacts—and friends— all along the way. The jobs he chose placed him in frequent contact with the politicos and wealthy executives so vital to his fundraising efforts. In 1970, he took over as executive director of the United Negro College Fund. In 1972, he began a decade-long reign as head of the National Urban League, a moderate, pro-business civil rights organization. Here, the non-radical Jordan finally came into his own. Although his early civil rights work had given him a leg up on networking, it was during his tenure at the Urban League that Jordan became a member of the A-list himself. Following the 1980 presidential elections, Jordan was reportedly the only civil rights leader invited to hob-nob with the ruling class at the posh Manhattan and Georgetown pre-inaugural fetes for Reagan. This ease in mixing with the Establishment, combined with Jordan’s considerable people skills, helped him procure generous business and government funding for the Urban League—as well as several lucrative directorships at blue-chip corporations.

As one of the ’70s most prominent civil rights figures, Jordan’s high-powered connections and moderate political stance occasionally drew fire from liberal activists, who charged that he cared more about the black middle class than the poor and that he bent over backwards to avoid offending wealthy donors. One of the most publicized rifts occurred in 1979, when Jordan rebuked Jesse Jackson and other black leaders for jeopardizing US. black-Jewish relations by traveling to meet with Palestinian representatives, including PLO leader Yasir Arafat. Critics accused Jordan of kowtowing to “Jewish, monied constituencies.”

But even as a “safe,” conservative representative of the African-American community, Jordan was still a high-profile object of fear and loathing for angry white racists. This anger caught up with him in the spring of 1980. On May 28, following an Urban League event in Fort Wayne, Ind., Jordan went for dinner and coffee with a local League volunteer. Returning from the woman’s home at around 2:00 a.m., he was shot in the back with a deer rifle as he stepped out of the woman’s car in the parking lot of his hotel. Although Jesse Jackson claimed that the shooting was the work of a white supremacist group with a “hit list” of black leaders, the assailant turned out to be a lone nut trying to rid the world of “race mixers.” (Jordan’s dinner companion was a white woman.) Jordan spent more than three months recuperating in the hospital; the following year, he left his post at the Urban League for a position in the Washington law offices of the Dallas-based Akin Gump.

Although he insisted his resignation had nothing to do with the shooting, Jordan was not to re-enter public life as a civil rights official after 1981. In fact, the post-Urban League Jordan dropped out of public view almost entirely, granting few interviews and accepting only the occasional speaking engagement.

The Ultimate Insider

But being out of the public eye didn’t mean Jordan was out of the action. Without the civil rights spotlight on him, Akin Gump’s newest partner was free to travel the fat-cat circuit full time. While at the Urban League, he had become a regular fixture in the boardrooms of some of the country’s top corporations, including Xerox, Sara Lee, Union Carbide, J.C. Penney, and Bankers Trust, as well as those of non-profits such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the John Hay Whitney Foundation. His position at Akin Gump provided him the perfect opportunity to exploit (and expand) his golden Rolodex—something that Robert Strauss, the senior partner who brought Jordan into the firm, says he’d predicted all along. “Vernon was never going to be a traditional lawyer,” explains Strauss. “But I knew he would fit into the Washington legal community and come to be a dominant figure in it. This is a town built on the use of power and on relationships, and Vernon is about as good a people person as anyone I know.” (Strauss, of course, was the perfect person to advise Jordan on the Washington power structure. A former chair of the Democratic National Committee, Strauss had long been known around town as “Mr. Democrat.”)

“Vernon did not come cheap,” says Strauss. “But I told him: ‘We’ll carry you for a few years until you figure out what it’s all about here, then you will carry us for a long time after that.’”

Of course, no one individual “carries” an organization like Akin Gump: The firm has a formidable list of clients, including American Airlines, AT&T, the Korean International Trade Association, and Archer Daniels Midland. Its lobbying disclosure forms show that Akin’s reportable lobbying income last year topped $6.3 million, making it the third top lobbying firm in D.C., according to a recent review by Legal Times.

Jordan has, however, proven a particularly adept “rainmaker” for the firm. One of three senior partners, he is not among Akin’s registered lobbyists. Rather, his role involves overseeing lobbyists and other attorneys, as well as advising the firm’s clients. “Vernon knows how to solve problems, and that’s what the Washington practice of law is,” says Strauss. “Vernon doesn’t write briefs, draw up wills, or handle divorce cases. He’s a problem solver for major corporate and government problems that arise around the world.”

“Vernon advises clients about how to pursue their interests in this town,” adds long-time friend Richard Moe, a former top aide to Vice President Walter Mondale. “Because Vernon is on so many corporate boards, he understands the business community and the corporate mentality. He also understands things here in Washington, so he can help executives understand how Washington works—and vice-versa.”

Bringing in new clients is an obvious role for someone with Jordan’s connections. And his inclusion over the years at such Establishment schmooze fests as the Bohemian Grove gatherings, the annual men’s-only bonding event for the grandest of grandees, and the equally elite international Bilderberg conferences—to which he introduced presidential aspirant Bill Clinton in 1991—have provided Jordan ample opportunity to expand his circle of high-powered friends. (Of course, some people feel he takes this internetworking too far, particularly where his directorships are concerned. Last year, a labor union survey noted that Jordan provides legal services to seven of the companies on whose boards he sits—a clear conflict-of-interest danger.)

Above It All

With Clinton in the White House, Jordan’s influence is at an all-time high, and everyone is looking for a piece of his access. More and more, one hears Jordan compared to Clark Clifford, who reigned as the capo of Washington powerbrokers for more than 40 years, following his stint as an adviser in the Truman administration. Until a banking scandal brought him crashing back to earth in the early ’90s, Clifford, like Jordan, operated on another plane, where questions about his actions or ethics were considered to be in poor taste (not to mention political suicide). Once, when asked if he found it problematic to argue cases before Supreme Court Justice William 0. Douglas, with whom he was close friends and to whom he had loaned several thousand dollars, Clifford asserted that he was perfectly capable of separating his private affairs from his public ones. (It seems he too was the keeper of his own conscience.)

Like Clifford, Jordan sees his relationship with President Clinton as no cause for public concern and, in fact, none of the public’s business. The two men, who met in 1973 during one of Jordan’s Urban League visits to Arkansas, enjoy a genuine, casual camaraderie free of the stuffiness so prevalent in Washington social circles. At a 1995 state dinner at the White House, Clinton, seated next to an especially attractive blonde, laughingly ordered Jordan to keep his hands off the woman because “I saw her first, Vernon.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jordan and Clinton have become so close, considering their similarities in upbringing, taste, and nature. Both came of age in the South during the civil rights movement and were shaped by strong, influential mothers. (Mary Jordan was a caterer for upscale Atlanta during its segregation days, exposing Jordan to “the finer things” at an early age.) Both men are married to strong, successful women. (Ann Dibble, whom Jordan wed in 1986 after losing his first wife to multiple sclerosis, is a former head of social services for the University of Chicago’s Lying-In Hospital. Now, she boasts her own six-figure income from numerous corporate directorships.) And both have acquired reputations as ladies’ men. Both are known for their charm, charisma, and winning smiles, and both can attribute much of their success to their extraordinary people skills. Perhaps most significantly, as Taylor Branch notes, both men’s careers have been driven by conflicting forces: their conventional ambitions (Clinton for political success, Jordan for financial) and their social idealism. As such, both are viewed as either sell-outs or pragmatic moderates—depending on your perspective.

Although offered a number of administration positions by Clinton (He basically had his pick of cabinet posts, a top transition official confided to The Boston Globe in 1993), Jordan has chosen to aid the President in an unofficial capacity. In addition to dispensing advice on matters great and small, this has involved his performing a variety of ceremonial duties, such as leading a U.S. delegation to the inauguration of Taiwan’s first democratically elected president and attending the funeral of former First Lady Pat Nixon in 1993. More significantly, Jordan has served as Clinton’s top headhunter over the years, approaching everyone from retired Gen. Colin Powell, who turned down the offer to be Clinton’s running mate in 1992, to superlawyer Lloyd Cutler, who accepted the post of White House counsel in 1994. He has also been there for the First Family in times of personal tragedy, such as the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster and the death of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Through it all, Jordan’s trademark discretion and loyalty have surely come as a relief to a president who has suffered considerable embarrassment at the hands of the incautious and the self-serving (Think: Web Hubbell, Dick Morris).

“Obviously Vernon is privy to a lot that goes on, but he is totally discreet,” says Richard Moe. “You never hear him talking about issues at the White House.”

“Vernon knows a lot of stuff about the President and his personal life, but he’ll never trade on it,” former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers told Times reporter Jeff Gerth. “He talks to the President about everything, I think, but it would diminish his power if he talks about it. He protects the President, his friend.”

Jordan is equally careful to protect his professional reputation. His friends and colleagues all make a point of emphasizing that Jordan is not a lobbyist and that he would never use his personal relationship with the President to push clients’ interests. Jordan himself has dismissed the possibility of such behavior, saying that it would be “stupid” and damaging to both his and the President’s positions.

And if there’s one thing Vernon Jordan is not, it’s stupid. “If you call him for help or advice, Vernon will usually assist in a sound cause,” says Ed Sylvester, “but he’s not going to go looking to get himself hurt. If someone approaches him to do something that’s substantively sound but risky, he’s not going to wander into it carelessly.” So it seems unlikely that Jordan and Clinton spend their days on the links discussing the specific benefits deregulation would bring Akin Gump client AT&T, and what that would mean for Jordan’s bank account. But Jordan unquestionably influences Clinton’s policy making, and these policy choices in turn affect Jordan’s clients. For example, Jordan played an important advisory role in the President’s decision to accept the North American Free Trade Agreement. As a result of NAFTA, J.C. Penney—on whose board Jordan sits—opened facilities in Mexico. Likewise, thanks to NAFTA’s loosening of certain financial regulations, Bankers Trust (another company from which Jordan collects hefty director’s fees) now has facilities south of the border.

That Jordan himself is not a registered lobbyist is cold comfort. Who ultimately has more influence: some random, mid-level lobbyist or a senior law partner who oversees dozens of lobbyists for his firm? And even assuming that Jordan is capable of never allowing personal or professional interest to cloud his political judgment, the lack of oversight he enjoys is stunning. Lobbyists are required to disclose their financial stakes in the issues they pitch on the Hill, as are members of Congress. Jordan is not compelled to tell anyone anything. (Nor is he likely to do so voluntarily. He reportedly turned down a couple of administration posts in part because of the financial disclosure requirements.)

Regardless of his scrupulous ethical standards, Jordan is a deal maker for big-money interests. The people he is paid to advise—both as a lawyer and as a board member—are not always so concerned about the public good as about the bottom line. Akin Gump client agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland, for example, was recently busted by the Justice Department for price fixing. And since 1992, Akin Gump has been representing Food Lion management in the various suits stemming from a Labor Department investigation and ABC “Primetime Live” story about labor violations and unsafe food preparation at the chain.

Nor are the companies for which Jordan serves as a director always so concerned about the little guy. Union Carbide received international criticism for its handling of the 1984 poisonous gas explosion in Bhopal, India that killed more than 5,000 people and injured an additional 500,000. (Last December, the International Medical Commission studying the effects of the blast condemned Union Carbide for being “as obstructive as possible” and creating an “immoral international situation.”

Even more notable was Jordan’s service on the board of RJR Nabisco. In 13 years as a director for the nation’s second largest cigarette manufacturer, Jordan may or may not have been privy to the industry’s dirty laundry. What he undoubtedly did know, however, is that while he was collecting $50,000 in directors fees every year (he left the board in 1993 but retained his $750,000 pension package), big tobacco was targeting the African American market. This should have given even a moderate civil rights champion pause for thought. (And should give us all pause about Jordan’s 1983 statement to The New York Times that his work had never forced him to choose between his heart and his head.) But Jordan apparently liked his spot on the board. In Barbarians at the Gate, the best-selling account of the corporate raiding that shook RJR Nabisco during the ’80s, Jordan is portrayed as a go-along-to-get-along guy, less concerned about what a leveraged buyout would mean for the company than for his $50,000-a-year pension.

Whether or not Jordan was directly involved in any of these companies’ shenanigans, they illuminate whose interests he’s looking out for. And even if he endeavors to be the squeaky-cleanest guy to walk the planet, Jordan—with his political influence—has relinquished his right to be the sole monitor of his own affairs as surely as Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton.

Yet even the media tread carefully where Jordan is concerned. When the news first broke that members of Clinton’s “inner circle” had been involved in soliciting work for fallen Justice Department official Webster Hubbell, Jordan’s name was mentioned, along with Clinton’s former and current chiefs of staff, Mack McLarty and Erskine Bowles. After that initial blip, however, no further reference to Jordan’s involvement (or lack thereof) has been made in the innumerable follow-up stories, save for his inclusion on a list of those subpoenaed by the House committee investigating campaign-finance misdeeds and an assurance by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen that, of course, the Hubbell incident had nothing to do with hush money—because Vernon Jordan was involved.

Even back in ’92, when more than a few eyebrows were raised over the “no more politics as usual” president-elect’s selection of Jordan, the consummate insider, to head his transition team, the press was cautious with its criticisms. A November 12 editorial in The New York Times, under the heading “Vernon Jordan’s Ethics,” noted that transition co-chair Warren Christopher had pledged that the new administration would have “the most stringent set of ethics rules that have ever been promulgated for our country.” The piece also noted that Jordan was a director for RJR Nabisco and that, in order to prevent any appearance of conflicts of interest when helping select health officials, ‘Jordan could [recuse] himself in the relevant instances or [resign] his directorship at Nabisco.” Hardly damning. But the very next day, the Times ran a second editorial that read somewhere between an apology and a retraction. Under the headline “It’s the Bully Pulpit Again; Vernon Jordan’s Integrity,” the piece began: “An editorial yesterday about Vernon Jordan, chairman of Bill Clinton’s transition organization, came out subject to a harsher reading than was intended.” The piece went on to assure readers that “In hindsight we can see that the editorial…might have been read to suggest that Mr. Jordan had in some way acted unethically or in ways reflecting on his integrity. We did not intend to convey any such impression.”

Part of the general hesitation to scrutinize Jordan too closely may be because so many business and political leaders consider him a good friend, or at least a valuable ally. Of course, his enormous influence—of the kind not dependent on a mere political election— would in itself be a significant deterrent to public criticism. Unlike politicians, who delight in publicly dismantling one another for sport, true Washington powerbrokers thrive by keeping the details of their business precisely that—their business. Vernon Jordan is the epitome of the Washington powerbroker. He has joined the exalted ranks of the Bob Strausses and the Henry Kissingers—untouchables whose informal contacts and clout give them far more power and access than any lobbyist. But until we can find some mechanism for holding people like this accountable, we can only hope that Saint Vernon keeps a tight rein on that immaculate conscience.

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Follow Michelle on Twitter @mcottle. Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board and the Washington Monthly's Board of Directors. She was an editor for the Monthly from 1996 to 1998.