Secret agenda man

Vernon Jordan is known as the First Friend of the president. What is not known is just how much influence he exerts, and on whose behalf.

By David Corn

Published March 10, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- When Vernon Jordan appeared at the federal courthouse in Washington last week, it looked as if he had first gone to his tailor and said, "One Washington power broker outfit, please." There he was, wearing a tan topcoat, an exquisitely cut dark suit and a felt hat adorned with a distinguished feather, walking in the footsteps of Clark Clifford, Thomas Corcoran and other legendary Washington influence masters.

Of course, neither of those two behind-the-scenes operators had to testify before a grand jury because a White House intern was captured on tape boasting of sexually servicing the president of the United States. But even when thrust into such an unusual situation, the 62-year-old Jordan kept cool, affirmed his friendship with the president and smoothly defended his own integrity. It was almost as if the real secret to protect was not the true nature of the relationship between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, but Jordan's own kind of intimacy with the president.

With the exception of Hillary Clinton, it appears, no one spends more quality time with the president than Jordan. Numerous media reports identify Jordan with the sobriquet "presidential friend," as if that is his official position. But what precisely does FOB One do when he's not duffing with Clinton on the links?

In his spare time, Jordan conducts business at the law and lobbying firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Field, pocketing $1 million a year. Yet Jordan maintains he neither practices law nor lobbies for the firm's clients, which represent a fair slice of corporate America. So how does he earn his keep? A little bit of this, a little bit of that. "He puts people together," says one former senior Clinton White House aide who used to interact with Jordan. Who does he put together? "I'm not really sure," the aide notes. And to achieve what? "Not sure about that, either. Deals, I suppose."

Jordan does not file any disclosure reports that reveal his sources of income or that indicate who pays for his unique services. He and his wife sit on 17 corporate boards, apparently a record for a husband-wife team. His roster includes Dow Jones, American Express and Bankers Trust. All told, he receives $500,000-plus a year from his directorships. If he's a man with an agenda, it's a hidden one. In Jordan's line of work, one shouldn't have to spell out quid pro quos -- it's in bad taste. But when a man has such access to the president -- and delivers important favors for the president and his staff -- it is fair to ask what he might wish in return, even if a payback isn't explicitly requested.

A recent Wall Street Journal article illustrated one way in which the former civil rights leader operates. When an acquaintance asked Jordan to help her 24-year-old son find a job, Jordan invited the young man to his office and called Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who called Kurt Campbell, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, who referred the job seeker to a defense company, which hired him. This may be, as the Journal explained, standard operating procedure for Jordan. But it also shows how Washington operates on favor-trading. Now, does the deputy assistant secretary owe the defense firm a favor in return? Does Talbott hope to receive some assistance from Jordan down the line? This is what a fixer like Jordan does, he greases the wheels -- not necessarily out of public interest, but for his own purposes.

One of the more stunning aspects of the Lewinsky affair is how gracefully Jordan has managed to skate through it, so far. For weeks after the initial scandal broke, he kept out of the media line of fire, and even during his grand jury appearances he was handled with the utmost gentility. How did he arrange that? "That's just Vernon," says a Clinton aide with a chuckle.

That is, Jordan is a favorite son of the Washington establishment, and that includes its media denizens. As the initial revelations poured out and White House correspondents were talking excitedly of a "White House meltdown," Chip Reid of MSNBC told viewers that he had spent the day canvassing the nation's capital and that he had found a consensus among the town's high and mighty: It's possible that President Clinton would have an affair with an underling and then suborn perjury, but Jordan would never do a thing like that. Not our Vernon, the town's ultimate gatekeeper.

While Clinton has a well-known distaste for the Washington social
establishment, the president's aides concede that Jordan has plenty of pull
with him. After all, Clinton asked him to oversee the presidential
transition after his 1992 victory. (And when Jordan was helping to select
administration appointees who would have to deal with tobacco matters, he
was sitting on the board of cigarette manufacturer RJR Nabisco.) But these
aides routinely deny that Jordan does anything so brash as to lobby the
president on behalf of a particular client.

Yet Jordan does exert influence on policy. A year ago, a White House aide
who was handling the administration's brief on campaign finance reform
informed me that White House staff members were concocting some
hard-hitting initiatives on this front. To truly take on this matter, I
replied, Clinton would have to be willing to alienate corporate
contributors and close friends like -- I picked a name out of a fedora --
Vernon Jordan.

"Vernon," she said with a smile. "Yes."

"What about him?" I asked.

"He called me," she said. Now, this aide was no lowly intern, but she was
not one of the heavier weights in the White House. Yet she was receiving a
call from the First Friend, who wanted to talk about policy.


"He told me he thought it was not a good idea."

Not a good idea for the president to push campaign finance reform? "And,"
I asked, "he just assumed that because he's Vernon Jordan he could block a
presidential initiative in this area?"

"Yes," she said, with a nervous laugh. But -- after a pause -- she assured me
that Jordan would not be able to kill the initiative.

Maybe not. But a full-fledged campaign finance reform initiative never
materialized, and though the president said he supported reform, he did very
little to champion the cause in the past year. No arm-twisting, no campaign to pressure members of Congress. And on the day the McCain-Feingold reform bill -- a modest measure -- met its final death, the president
was out of town.

The lack of White House vigor on the reform front may not be directly attributable to Jordan. Nothing in
Washington ever is. But he made a call, talked to the person in charge,
made his views known. And the companies that sign up with Akin, Gump know

How many similar calls has Jordan made since Clinton took office? We do not
know. How else has he tried to influence administration policy? We do not
know. We know more about what Monica Lewinsky did during high school than
what Vernon Jordan does daily in Washington. But his affairs matter much
more than hers.

David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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Bill Clinton Campaign Finance Hillary Rodham Clinton Msnbc White House