Although best known later in life for his relationship with former President Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Vernon Jordan, who died last week at 85, had a significant career as a civil rights leader and was a friend to multiple presidents on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, the arc of his life was a testament to the ways in which race relations in the United States improved over that time.
Born in Georgia in 1935, Jordan left the South to attend DePauw University in Indiana, and he got his law degree from Howard University. He then worked in the civil rights movement and for the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League.
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson selected him for the White House Conference on Civil Rights. But Johnson was not the first president he met. In the 1950s, when Vice President Richard Nixon came to speak at DePauw, Jordan was waiting tables and took a picture with Nixon. Years later, when Nixon was president and Jordan was head of the National Urban League, he showed the picture to Nixon, saying, "Mr. President, this photograph was taken at a time when both of us were on our way up." Nixon, Jordan recalled, "got a great kick out of it."
A hallmark of Jordan's life and career was his ability to hold on to his principles as he made increasingly powerful friends. Vice President Gerald Ford once received a telegram from Jordan asking him to attend a National Urban League fundraiser while he was traveling in Oregon. Ford dutifully went, even though he had been planning to attend a Portland Trail Blazers basketball game instead. In 1976, though, when Ford's State of the Union did not include sufficient mention of black people, Jordan created and published a report that countered the president: the State of Black America.
President Jimmy Carter was also friendly with Jordan and considered him for multiple Cabinet slots. But Jordan was willing to criticize Carter as well. In a 1977 speech to the National Urban League, Carter reported that his wife, Rosalynn, was paying attention to Jordan's critiques on TV and in print. According to the former president, she told him, "Vernon doesn't think you are doing as well as I think you are doing, Jimmy." In 1980, though, when a racist shot Jordan in Indiana, a shooting that would require multiple operations, Carter visited him in the hospital.
Then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan would also visit Jordan in the hospital. Later, when Reagan did become president, Jordan sagely said that he would grant him the "benefit of the doubt." President George H.W. Bush, Reagan's successor, repeatedly met with Jordan for discussions regarding the 1991 Civil Rights Act.
Jordan's most important presidential relationship, the one for which he was best known, was with Clinton. Jordan was all things to Clinton: adviser, supporter, golf partner, and friend. Clinton considered him for attorney general, and Jordan co-chaired Clinton's transition. They would even celebrate Christmas together.
But sometimes, too much closeness is not a good thing. When Clinton was trying to find a soft landing spot for Lewinsky, the young White House intern with whom Clinton had a highly inappropriate relationship, Clinton turned to Jordan for help. Jordan, by now a power broker and on multiple corporate boards, helped Lewinsky get a job at Revlon. When the details came out, it tarnished Jordan's stellar reputation. Jordan knew it, and he complained that he was more than his relationship with Clinton. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "People look at me and believe that I was born Jan. 20, 1993. That is not true. My life was defined long before that."
Despite the Clinton experience, he continued to be friendly with presidents. Former President George W. Bush sent gentle jibes his way during a speech to the Economic Club of Washington, saying, "The objective is to have strong support from Republicans and independents and discerning Democrats, like Vernon Jordan." Jordan endorsed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008, telling Michelle Obama, "I'm too old to let race get in the way of friendship." But he was friendly with Obama nonetheless. They played golf together, and Obama attended Jordan's 80th birthday party. In all, it was a remarkable life, especially given his origins and where the U.S. was when Jordan was born.