From Foster's suicide to golf links, Jordan was always there for Clinton Subpoenaed D.C. lawyer is insider who's dealt with crises before

January 23, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton's longtime friend called a news conference to try to explain away his role in the burgeoning White House sex scandal, his opening line was so obvious he had trouble delivering it with a straight face.

"My name," he said, grinning, "is Vernon Jordan."

It was a big wink at this crowd of reporters, which had flooded a hotel ballroom yesterday to record the words of the man for whom introductions have become unnecessary. In this town, most people with power or a hankering to get some cannot afford not to know who Vernon Jordan is.

"You could almost stick a pin in a phone book and find someone who knows Vernon very, very well," said Lloyd N. Cutler, who became White House counsel in 1994 when Jordan -- on behalf of Clinton -- urged him to take the job. "The president can call on him without having it circulate everywhere. People trust him."

Now Jordan has been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury on allegations that he and Clinton pressured Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, to lie to lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones about a purported affair with the president.

Jordan, 62, stood coolly before the cameras yesterday -- carefully groomed, a gold tie pin at his throat and a crimson handkerchief in his breast pocket -- to explain his efforts on behalf of Lewinsky.

Those efforts included helping her find a public relations job in New York, which fell through when the scandal erupted, and a lawyer in Washington when she needed help.

Jordan, whose roots are in the civil rights movement, has found power in Washington without having run for office. He's become LTC a fixture in Clinton's inner sanctum and never had to leave his job as a senior partner at one of Washington's most politically connected law firms.

Jordan has been a trouble-shooter for Clinton throughout his presidency. He stayed at Clinton's side until 2 a.m. on the night after deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. shot himself in 1993. He found work for Clinton friend and former Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell in 1994, when Hubbell was under federal investigation.

Most importantly, whenever the president has called, day or night, Jordan has been there.

In Washington, Jordan -- who was named after George Washington's Mount Vernon -- has sought to plant himself in the government landscape. But he prefers operating in the background.

"Vernon is obviously a very close friend of the president and I'm a very close friend of Vernon's, yet I never hear anything about his relationship with the president, nor does anyone else," says Richard Moe, a long-time friend. "He does not have an official role."

Instead, Jordan cements his power by being where the president needs him.

This means playing endless rounds of golf with Clinton or urging Gen. Colin L. Powell in 1994 to become the president's secretary of state.

Jordan himself had the chance, thanks to Clinton, to become the nation's first black attorney general, but turned down the Cabinet post. Instead, he prefers his private job, where he helps corporations navigate the political currents of Washington.

Outside his office at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld hangs a 6-foot-tall portrait of Jordan who is 6-foot-4. This, along with his taste for gin, his red convertible, his elegant suits, have enhanced his smooth reputation.

Meanwhile, Jordan's strategic planning for corporate clients and his closeness to Clinton has left some critics wondering about potential conflicts of interest.

Jordan, who reportedly earns more than $1 million a year as a lawyer, makes hundreds of thousands more as a director of nine companies, including Xerox, RJR Nabisco, American Express, Dow Jones and Sara Lee.

A native of west Atlanta, where he lived in the projects, Jordan rose to prominence in the civil rights movement and later as head of the National Urban League.

His first moment in the national spotlight came as an advocate for the black community -- there he was, walking through an enraged white mob alongside Charlayne Hunter, a young black woman trying to enter the University of Georgia in the 1960s. He was nearly killed by a racist sniper who shot him in the back in 1980.

Now, his allegiances often lie where the power is.

"Vernon Jordan has been a very close friend of every president, whether Democrat or Republican, since Johnson," said William T. Coleman Jr., a lawyer and old friend. "He has the capacity and the ability to tell people in high places what they ought to do."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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