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?
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?
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.
Was there anything in your respective backgrounds, as different as they
might be that--summarize what might have drawn the two of you
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...
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?
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
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...
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
He has been described as someone who has an extraordinary range of
outside interests. What is conversation like with him...
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
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...
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
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
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
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
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?..
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...
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.