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Vernon Jordan, a close friend of Clinton and former head of the National Urban League and Chairman of the Clinton Transition Committee. He is a frequent golfing partner of the President.


FL: Would you talk a bit about how long you've known Bill Clinton and when you first met and then how the friendship evolved over the years?

JORDAN:

Well, I've known the President since 1973, about. It was during my tenuous [tenure as?] President of the National Urban League. I met him at a meeting of Urban Leaguers in Little Rock. A meeting having to do with some aspect of job opportunity, jobs, discrimination, as it were. It was a meeting of considerable interest to him. Race has always been of great interest to him, and he showed up. He was there. The First Lady I met in 1969 at Ft. Collins, Colorado at a meeting convened by the League of Women Voters. She was at that time, I think, a senior in college, or there about. Or just going to law school, I'm not sure which. And it was a meeting convened by Lucy Benson who was then the President of the League of Women Voters. Willie Brown and I were sort of there to speak about black political participation, both in the South and in the West and to share experiences with the League of Women Voters. And so I met the First Lady then. Then in Arkansas I met the President.

I knew in 1973 that some day this young, exciting Southerner, lawyer, would run for President, and I thought he'd win and I was right.

FL: What were your specific first impressions of him back then?

JORDAN:

What I remember is the energy, and excitement and enthusiasm that this young Southerner, who had left Yale law school to come back to the South to teach and to be involved in change. And what attracted me to that was that I came back home for the same reason. And so there was this mutuality of interest, this concern and in 1973 not many law professors were showing up at Urban League meetings to participate and to share and to assume some responsibility for making the South a better place. This young law professor, who was either running for Congress, or had just lost his congressional effort was there doing his bit, participating, caring, sharing, leading. And that made a huge impression on me and this friendship that has since blossomed... it germinated. It came together.

And I cannot be more explicit except to say that it's a feeling, it's instinct, it's intuition. It's what you feel when you meet people and my suspicion is that the feeling was mutual. I was in one place. I was from New York and I was running the National Urban League. And he was a professor. He was getting ready to launch his political career. But what I liked most was that he came back home to help.

FL: Was there anything in your respective backgrounds, as different as they might be that--summarize what might have drawn the two of you together...

JORDAN:

Lyndon Johnson once told me in the green room at the LBJ School that he and I had a lot in common. And I said, "What is that, Mr. President?" And he said, "I grew up poor and white in the South. You grew up poor and black in the South." And he said, "We left our local jurisdictions and we went on to do things on the national scene. We have that in common." And then he said, "We both succeeded great men under tragic circumstances. I succeeded," he said, "John Kennedy when he was assassinated and you succeeded Whitney Young after he drowned." And he went on to give me a little advice and as I think about meeting Clinton for the first time, we did bring some common purposes and background. We both grew up in the South, of modest means. We both left the South to go get our education. We both went back to the South with sort of the same purpose in mind. And that is to make it better for the least of these. Mostly black people and poor white people, who had never and to this day, to some extent, do not fully participate in the political and economic process of the old confederacy.

And so I think that was a tie that bound us. Certainly for me. And he could have gone to Wall Street. He could have gone to work for some big company, but he came home to teach and to participate in the political process. That is not unlike what I did, who came home and went to work for a civil rights lawyer for $35 a week. And.. I was happy and I was doing what I really wanted to do at that particular time in my life. So... this common ground, this common purpose, I think without it being articulated, without it being talked about, without it being written down in some kind of a plan just attracted this white guy and this black guy to one another.

FL: I read some place an article which talked about your mother, who sounds like quite a force. Obviously, Clinton's mother was a very strong force in Bill Clinton's life...I wonder whether that was another bond...

JORDAN:

Well, that's obviously a very strong bond in that we both had very strong mothers. We're both very close to them and I think, like me, his mother was his best friend, and my mother was my best friend and in some ways still is my best friend. And I think that our mothers knew intuitively that we were going places and were going to do things, and they pushed us and they encouraged us and they were there for us. But I don't think that's unique to Bill Clinton or unique to Vernon Jordan. I think that's unique to mothers in many ways.

FL: And what temperamentally sort of unites you? What is friendship like with Bill Clinton and how do the two of you have fun? [W]hat does this man do when he's not working, which he does most of the time?

JORDAN:

Well, he discovered golf long before I did and has played it longer and plays it better. It's a new discovery in my life, regrettably. But it is the one place where I find, at this stage in my life, great joy and comfort and solace, and fun. And competition. And I think all of those animate President Clinton about... That's his attitude about it. That it's fun. It's outdoors. It's with a buddy. There are no microphones and that there is... there is no press except, probably, at the first tee. But then there's green grass and beautiful trees and azaleas and water, depending upon the time of year and to some extent, it's a boy thing, you know? It's the boys hanging out, doing what boys do on the golf course, competing, laughing, chewing on cigars, and having a bit of lunch. It's fun and fellowship and friendship, for me, at it's very best.

But it's also the same when I play with my son and my son-in-laws, or when I play with my law partners or other friends around the country. I like it. I like the esprit de corps of it and I think the President does, too. Although it has it's frustrating aspect. You don't hit the ball as far, you don't make your par, get a birdie instead, or you get a double bogie when you really think you should have parred your hole.

There is another aspect to this friendship and relaxation. Every Christmas Eve, the First Family comes with other members of the family to have Christmas Eve dinner, repass, or whatever, with our family. And it's just the families. And this is such an important part of him that on Christmas Eve, which is an important day in all of our lives, to be with family and friends, and in that sense he's not President, he's an average American who values friendship and who values family, and wants the two to come together on Christmas Eve. He comes before he goes to the church service at the Cathedral and there're my grandchildren walking around, giving him books to read, pulling at him, sneezing in his face, and that's kind of nice. And there's Roger, his brother, with his little baby who is crawling around with these other little boys and girls. It's a typical American family event on Christmas Eve. And it's warm and it's fun and it's good food and good fellowship and good wine.

FL: Describe this almost legendary sort of competitiveness of the President who loves to win in the whole range of kinds of games that he plays...

JORDAN:

Well, the competitive aspect is not actually applicable to me. He's played golf longer and he plays golf better than I do, but as I have improved, it's become increasingly competitive. He will say, from time to time, "You outdrove me, Vernon." And I'd make a par and he'd make a birdie. He does not miss that. So he is competitive and so am I, but it's not competitiveness to the point that the game ceases to be fun. It is fun competitiveness, if you understand what I mean.

There are some guys I won't play golf with because they are crazy when it comes to competitiveness. To compete with the President is fun. He, obviously, likes to win, we all like to win, to have a low score. At the end of the day there's no moaning about not winning or having a high score. It's a relaxed time afterwards and some reflection on our play, "Well, I didn't play well." And I think that's how it should be. I mean, there's no attitude about defeat. There may be an attitude that, "I didn't play well," but it's not about, "I didn't win."

FL:

He has been described as someone who has an extraordinary range of outside interests. What is conversation like with him...

JORDAN:

I am continuously impressed by how much he reads given all that he has to do and given all that he has to read officially as a part of his job. I am continually impressed by his reference to this book or to that book or to that report or that study and I don't know where he finds the time to read - history, novels. He's also a great movie lover. He loves good movies, I think to watch a movie is a great opportunity and time for relaxation and to getting out of yourself and into something else. I think reading does that, but reading does more in that it is instructive for him and it expands his mind and broadens his horizons and I think that's the student, that's the intellect in him, that he wants to read. I read a lot, but I don't read near as much as he does and I think it's a habit that he got into a long time ago.

He also likes cards. You can find him, sometimes, playing solitaire. He likes cards. He likes hearts. He likes spades. He loves cards. I've never known and I'm always fascinated at people who can. My wife plays solitaire. I don't know how to play solitaire, but I can learn hearts or spades quickly and get into it. I like gin, but I think that's another form of both relaxation and competition.

FL: We hear about his legendary energy and a desire to connect. Have you ever experienced that and is there one particular event that you could describe when you see that way he connects with people...

JORDAN:

Well, I would describe President Clinton as a politician who's never seen a hand that he didn't want to shake. And that is just a part of his nature. It's intuitive. It just happens. And I have seen him on one occasion last year at Jackson Hole. I watched him make calls from the phone from the golf course to the families where these foreign service officers had been killed in Bosnia and it was a very depressing moment. But he got his work done and we moved around the golf course and I remember on the 16th hole--homes right next to the golf course--and a kid about 4 years old says, "Mr. President, today is my birthday and your birthday is the day after tomorrow, or tomorrow and so I have a birthday card for you, Mr. President." He said it from the sidelines as we were going in the carts and I watched the leader of the free world, the President of the United States get off the golf cart and go to this youngster, sit down, fold his legs indian style and read with this kid the birthday card that he had prepared for the President. And I watched him autograph that card to that kid, mind you, in the middle of a golf game. We had not gotten to the green and there were his parents and his grandparents, cameras in hand, undoubtedly Republicans with the great big house on the golf course in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with tears in their eyes, snapping pictures of the President of the United States sitting on the grass with their son or grandson, as it were, for his birthday.

He was having fun, he was being competitive, but stopped to acknowledge this 4-year-old or 5-year-old kid's birthday and the card that he had made for the President. Now he could have said to the Secret Service guy, "Take it," and he could have signed it and moved on. But he stopped, sat down on the ground and watched it. That... that still resonates in my mind. Now, I think some cynical people would say, "Boy, he was just being political." And I would say, "He was just being Bill Clinton, responding to a 4 or 5-year-old kid."

FL: Clinton as an extraordinary campaigner. People talk about it as an art form that he's brought to a very, very high level. What are elements of that for you?

JORDAN:

I don't think I can give you a scene. What I can tell you about this extraordinary ability to campaign is that he likes it and he likes people and he believes in democracy. I was not there, but it was February of 1992 in New Hampshire right after the Gennifer Flowers press conference. And the Governor and his staff are in a little crowded room in some New Hampshire motel. People were somber, sad, some discouraged, some disappointed, sort of not knowing what to do, what to say or which way to go, and it was quiet, as it was described to me.

And George Stephanopolous asks the question, he breaks the silence, and he says, "Governor, what do we do now?" and Governor Clinton answered in one sentence. He said, "Take me to the people." Take me to the people. He didn't say, "Call the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal." He didn't say, "Call NBC, CBS, ABC or CNN." He said, "Take me to the people."

And therein lies his understanding of what democracy is really about. It is not the Post and the Times and the Journal, and it is not the networks. It is to the people. And he took his case to the people and the people heard it, they understood it and they elected him and I think that is one of the best descriptions of who he is and what he is in that he understood even in a very down time where the ultimate power in our democracy rests and vests. It's with the people.

There is an old biblical scripture which says, "Woe be unto him who puts his hand upon the plow and turns back." I think Bill Clinton understands that and has always understood it and it's sort of a hallmark of his career: resilience to press on. If you believe enough and care enough and want to lead enough, you just keep going. I know a little bit about that.

FL: This is to circle back -- last question about friendship. How deep does friendship go with President Clinton or yours?..

JORDAN:

I think it's safe to say about our friendship that for him I would go with him, stand by him and prop him up on every weak and lean and side. I believe he would say the same thing about me.

I think that it's safe to say that I've tried to be there for him. I know he's been there for me and that will continue.

FL: Are there any specific moments you could share with us, scenes that are revealing in which you have comforted him, or been there...

JORDAN:

For true friendships, even of public figures, that public figure is entitled to what you and I would have as friends and that is privacy. And I think it's sufficient to say that he's my friend and I will go with him, stand by him and prop him up on every weak and lean and side. And I believe he would do the same for me.


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