The ’70s Cocaine Scandal That Could Have Rocked the White House

3 minute read

The presidency of Jimmy Carter is often remembered for its fair share of actual crises, from the Iran hostages to Love Canal.

But the scandalous news reported in the pages of TIME on Sept. 3, 1979 — 35 years ago today — was about a crisis that isn’t remembered much at all. Following a long feature about the President’s week-long August vacation-cum-campaign-tour on board a Mississippi River steamship, came this news:

Amid all the festivities aboard the Delta Queen, there came an ominous telephone call for President Carter at about 8:15 last Thursday night. It was the new Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti. He regretfully told the President a stunning piece of news: he had just ordered the FBI to undertake a preliminary investigation of Carter’s two closest White House aides, Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan and Press Secretary Jody Powell. The reason: an allegation that Jordan had snorted cocaine during a visit to New York City’s Studio 54, a celebrated disco club — the first version of the story said in April 1978 — and that Powell had been with him at the time.

As TIME reported, the FBI interrogated Powell on board the ship and Jordan in D.C. — both denying the allegation. Jordan admitted that he did go to Studio 54 “for about an hour once” but did not use drugs.

But, as the story continued, the accusations didn’t exactly come out of nowhere: at the time, two of Studio 54’s owners were themselves in trouble, for tax evasion, obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges, and one of them had hired notorious lawyer Roy M. Cohn. Cohn heard that Jordan and Powell had visited the club, so he taped a statement from the dealer alleged to have provided the drugs and brought the tape to the FBI. Although the disco owners didn’t deny that they had ulterior motives — Steve Rubell, Cohn’s client, said he would testify against Jordan and Powell only in exchange for immunity for himself — the weight of the accusation meant that it could lead to, as TIME put it, “a major political crisis.” Hamilton Jordan was a powerful figure in politics, as well as, as People noted at the time, someone with “a reputation as a partygoer.”

That crisis, however, never really materialized. A special prosecutor was appointed to the case, but no charges were filed. As Jordan, who died in 2008, wrote in his memoir No Such Thing as a Bad Day, “I remember the ‘celebration’ in my office in the White House on the afternoon that Independent Counsel Arthur Christy announced that the grand jury had voted 24-0 against bringing an indictment against me. Christy — who obviously had figured out the scam that Roy Cohn had almost pulled off — announced that there was no serious evidence against me and told a few key press people on background that I had been ‘set up’ by Roy Cohn and friends.”

In the end, the events of 1979 did not lead to an indictment — but they did lead to this chart from the Aug. 22, 1994, issue of TIME:

TIME, Aug. 22, 1994
A chart from the Aug. 22, 1994, issue ofTIME

Read TIME’s full 1979 report on the burgeoning scandal here.

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