• U.S.

Clinton’s Crisis: The Master Fixer in a Fix

10 minute read
Eric Pooley

Beneath the practiced politesse of his delivery, Vernon Jordan’s eyes were blazing. His sonorous voice was edged with contempt for the very idea that a roomful of reporters could question his honor. Standing under the hot lights last Thursday, Bill Clinton’s close friend and unofficial adviser made it clear that this media circus meant little to him. “Never apologize, never explain”–that had been his motto for 17 years, ever since he left the presidency of the National Urban League after a racist gunman nearly took his life, going on to become Washington’s most powerful back-room fixer. Now he had to violate that principle and offer a partial explanation of his role in the tawdry matter of Monica Lewinsky. “After I shall have read my statement,” he said, wrapping himself in a protective layer of syntax, “I will not take questions. I’m going to leave and go back to work.”

But this was the essence of Jordan’s work–doing what he could to help a powerful friend. Only this time, Jordan was forced to do it in public, which broke the cardinal rule of the big-time Washington operator. Jordan, like other dealmakers before him–Clark Clifford, Edward Bennett Williams, Jordan’s partner Robert Strauss–is a larger-than-life figure. But unlike them, he chooses to be virtually invisible–a self-protective mechanism he put into place after he was shot. He makes few speeches, shuns TV, grants almost no interviews and never, ever discusses his friendship with Clinton–with anyone. That discretion magnifies his value because Jordan appears at Clinton’s side at the direst of times. He was with Governor Clinton in 1980 after the young pol’s bitter electoral defeat. He was with President Clinton on the night of Vincent Foster’s suicide, the day of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s fatal plane crash, and the night consultant Dick Morris was thrown overboard at the 1996 Democratic National Convention because of a sex scandal. He knows how to clean up a mess. “The last thing he’d ever do is betray a friendship,” Clinton once told the New York Times. “It’s good to have a friend like that.”

Jordan wields enormous influence over Clinton, yet sees no conflict when one of the 11 blue-chip corporations of which he is a director ends up profiting from a decision he helped the President make. He oversees a staff of close to 100 registered lobbyists but provides little or no public disclosure of his own influence-peddling activities. He earns $1 million a year from a law practice that requires him to file no brief and visit no courtroom, because his billable hours tend to be logged in posh restaurants, on cellular telephones, in the tufted-leather backseats of limousines–making a deft introduction here, nudging a legislative position there, ironing out an indelicate situation before it makes the papers.

But the Lewinsky problem–which Jordan, according to Lewinsky confidant Linda Tripp, tried to solve by counseling Lewinsky in the back of his limo–made the papers anyway, forcing the fixer into the spotlight. Lewinsky reportedly told Tripp that Jordan said to her, “They can’t prove anything…Your answer is, ‘It didn’t happen, it wasn’t me.'” If that turns out to be true, Jordan could be on the hook for suborning perjury and obstruction of justice. And if Lewinsky cooperates with independent counsel Kenneth Starr in exchange for immunity, Starr would presumably try to work his way up the ladder to Jordan–and Clinton could find out once and for all what his friend is made of.

“I want to say to you absolutely and unequivocally that Ms. Lewinsky told me in no uncertain terms that she did not have a sexual relationship with the President,” Jordan said last week, without explaining how the subject had come up. “At no time did I ever say, suggest or intimate to her that she should lie.” He admitted introducing her to a lawyer after Paula Jones slapped her with a subpoena, and said he had been “privileged to assist” Lewinsky with her “vocational aspirations,” securing job interviews for her at American Express and Revlon. He did this not because he wanted to buy her silence but because he believes “in giving a helping hand…[to] young and old, male and female, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, rich and poor.”

Jordan, 62, is indeed known for helping others, opening doors and making introductions for hundreds of acquaintances over the years. But what moved him to pull so many strings for this former White House intern, an obscure woman whom others have characterized as unremarkable? Her “drive, ambition and personality,” Jordan told the reporters, “were impressive.”

If Jordan’s performance seemed stagy and even sanctimonious, it may have been because “drive, ambition and personality” are not the only attributes he and Clinton are known to find impressive in young women. “Large men of large appetites” is one of the euphemisms that have been used when broaching the subject of their legendary womanizing. Jordan’s reputation as a ladies’ man dates back to the 1970s, when the civil rights leader was traveling constantly and his first wife Shirley, who died in 1985, was restricted to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. Jordan, who remarried in 1986, does not discuss his reputation except in the most oblique terms: “I like people. I’ve always liked people. I like all kinds of people. And I’m not going to stop liking people.”

His second wife Ann has shown good humor on the subject. “I’m sure women find him attractive,” she told the Washington Post in 1992. “I do.”

Clinton and Jordan have plenty in common. They are both sons of the South, civil rights advocates, products of the 1960s who steered to the center on their path to power, world-class storytellers who like to think of themselves as capacious spirits in the crabbed and pinched Washington scene. Their banter is sexually charged. At a White House dinner in 1995, to cite an example, Clinton found himself sitting next to a statuesque blond and at one point, according to an account in Washington Monthly, turned to Jordan and jokingly told him to keep his “hands off” the woman, because “I saw her first, Vernon.” A Washington insider who has played golf with Clinton and Jordan on several occasions told TIME that on the links and in the locker room, “all they talk about is ‘p_____.'” Jordan has basically admitted as much. “We talk like men,” he told a reporter in 1996. “There’s nothing wrong with a little locker-room talk.”

Both were raised in lower-middle-class circumstances by strong mothers who foresaw great things for their sons. Jordan was born in Atlanta in 1935; his father was a postal worker, his mother a caterer to upper-class whites. Tending bar at their parties, Jordan saw the kind of life he wanted to lead, a kind of life then denied to blacks. His aspirations led him into the civil rights movement. After earning a bachelor’s degree at DePauw University and a law degree from Howard, he came to prominence in 1961 when a howling white mob tried to prevent a young woman named Charlayne Hunter from becoming one of the first blacks to enter the University of Georgia. Jordan, a law clerk of 25, used his 6-ft. 4-in. body as a battering ram, clearing a path through the mob.

Such flash-point confrontations would be a rarity for Jordan. He was a lawyer, not a preacher or street activist, and after a risky period spent registering black voters across the South, he came to eschew marches and sit-ins in favor of working inside the system and raising money from white-owned corporations. In 1970 he became executive director of the United Negro College Fund; a year later, he was running the moderate, pro-business National Urban League. He got to know everyone who mattered in corporate America–white, black, whatever–and in politics as well. He played tennis regularly with John Ehrlichman, the Nixon aide, and the Urban League’s federal contracts soared. Before the ’70s had ended, he was enjoying a chauffeured Mercury, a Fifth Avenue apartment, an annual getaway to Martha’s Vineyard, seats on four corporate boards and a reputation among some blacks as a “sellout.” He didn’t see it that way. “Black power will remain just a shout and a cry, unless it is channeled into constructive efforts to…influence the established institutions of American politics,” he said.

Even a moderate like Jordan was a target. In 1980 a white supremacist took aim with a .30-06 rifle and shot him in the back in a motel parking lot in Fort Wayne, Ind. The crime was committed at 2 a.m. as Jordan, who had delivered a speech on race relations earlier that night, was arriving back at his motel with a blond divorce who had been entertaining him at her home. It was explained that Jordan and the woman had been up late discussing racial issues.

The near death experience caused him to remake his life. Eighteen months later, he left the Urban League; friends from those days believe he decided not to die for the cause. In January 1982 he accepted an offer from Robert Strauss, the silky, down-home Democratic kingmaker, to join Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, a firm with one of the biggest practices in Washington.

As rainmaker and fixer, Jordan soon equaled Strauss himself. But unlike Strauss, he didn’t advertise it. “Jordan has been a stealth presence in Washington,” says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. “He’s a super-lawyer who is rarely seen or heard, but who hobnobs with the high and mighty and receives large sums for doing so. Little is known of how much he traffics on his relationship with Bill Clinton. He is close to the most powerful people and does not need or want publicity.”

Jordan has said that as early as 1980, he was convinced that Clinton would one day be President. In 1991, when Clinton was thinking seriously about a run for the White House, Jordan invited him to be his guest at the Bilderberg conference in Germany, an annual meeting of the international business and political elite. Jordan has called it Clinton’s “coming-out party.”

The next year, after Clinton won the presidency, he tapped Jordan to be co-chairman of his transition team. It was the first time most observers realized that Clinton, who had run as a Washington outsider, was so close to this consummate insider. There was talk that Jordan could have any Cabinet post he wanted, but in the end he wanted no post at all. Jordan saw no reason to submit himself to financial disclosures or give up the clout and freedom of private practice. He knew he could speak to Clinton whenever he chose, on any topic he chose. After all, the two men saw each other frequently for golf. The Clintons spent Christmas Eve with the Jordans and regularly visited them on the Vineyard in the summer. Says Jordan’s friend Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation: “Public life can be a pretty high-risk proposition.” But as Jordan is finding out, the private life of a fixer carries risks too. He could go before Starr’s grand jury in Little Rock as early as this week.

–With reporting by Jack E. White and Adam Zagorin/Washington

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