Opinion | Civil Rights

Vernon Jordan: an American legend, and a good friend

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On the night of Jan. 3, 2008, I was in a Manchester, New Hampshire, hotel room to get a head start on the primary action there, as the votes from the initial Iowa caucuses were coming in, and Barack Obama was headed to a huge victory over Hillary Clinton.

The phone rang: "Hunt if you don't think I am very moved right now, you're one dumb son-of-a-bitch."

It was my good friend, Vernon Jordan, who at the time was supporting his longtime friend Hillary Clinton. But the emotions of the past half-century were streaming to the fore for the longtime civil rights leader. The serious possibility of the first black president was emotional.

For four decades, I talked with Vernon at least every couple of weeks, sometimes more often. I've never known a more charming or engaging person.

Vernon died yesterday.

He was a legendary figure in American life: a top civil rights figure, a prominent business leader, a confidant to presidents. If judgment were the coin of the realm, he would have been a multi-billionaire.

Jordan was raised in Atlanta's public housing in a close-knit family. One of his first political memories, he told me, was listening to a radio forum with gubernatorial candidate Eugene Talmadge, who said there were two issues in the campaign: "N------ and roads. I'm against the first and for the second."

After being the only black student at DePauw University in Indiana, Vernon went to Howard University Law School where he was mesmerized hearing the likes of Thurgood Marshall and the fight for equal rights.

That was his calling, back home to the South.

He was the lawyer who walked Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes through a jeering crowd to integrate the University of Georgia. He registered disenfranchised black voters throughout the region, was among of that remarkable group of black Southerners in the 1960s: Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Andy Young.

In 1971, Vernon was named head of the Urban League in New York, where he dealt extensively with prominent politicians and business leaders on civil rights. After a decade, he joined a law firm and began serving on dozens of prestigious corporate boards.

He never forgot his roots. He peppered executives with inquiries about how many minorities were employed and how many were on the management track. He'd talk about Selma and the Edmund Pettus bridge.

He was courted by politicians of both parties. After Vernon was shot by a white racist in 1980, Ronald Reagan visited him in the hospital. It was right after the Republican presidential candidate had campaigned at the segregationist Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Vernon told me it was Reagan's "makeup call."

Vernon's closest relationship was with President Clinton. He turned down an offer to be Attorney General; instead, he became first confidant. When the scandal broke about Clinton's illicit affair with an intern, special prosecutor Ken Starr went after Jordan for trying to arrange a job for her. It fell apart - there were hundreds of young women and men that Vernon had helped with advice, a recommendation or a job.

At his law firm in Washington and in his senior role at Lazard Freres investment house in New York, Vernon was a global power broker, walking the corridors of corporate as well as political power.

If he hadn't chosen the law, he could have been a man of the cloth. At his annual Sunday sermon at Howard's Rankin chapel, Vernon could bring the congregation to their feet as well as any revival preacher, regaling them with stories about the contrast to growing up in the Old South, while delivering a powerful social and substantive message.

He often returned to speak in his native South, usually celebrating another civil rights icon. On one such occasion, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the vicious segregationist whom Jordan had battled decades earlier, was also attending. Wallace was wheelchair-ridden after an assassination attempt.

The old segregationist had mellowed, was full of regrets. On stage he asked Vernon to come over, asking a favor of this towering black man: "Vernon would you bend over and give me a hug?" Vernon did.

As well as wielding power and influence, Vernon Jordan was fun - great fun. He loved to recount the time - on the eve of the George W. Bush inaugural - when a white man with a deep southern accent told him he was his hero: "He thought I was Clarence Thomas."

Dinner with Vernon and Ann, his equally exceptional wife, might include members of Congress, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, cabinet members, CEOs, professional football owners. Everyone loved being around Vernon. There always was scintillating conversation and memorable anecdotes. No matter the guest list, the dominant figure in the room was that remarkable American story, the man who rose from the segregated public housing of Georgia to become one of the most influential figures of the last half century.

I told my wife once there was no better company than Vernon; in the best sense, he's a man's man. With a smile, she replied, "There isn't a woman in Washington who wouldn't die to sit next to Vernon at a dinner party."

I am going to miss him.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

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