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INTERVIEW WITH VERNON JORDAN


FL: You were a key player in the transition team that was something of a turbulent period. Could you talk a little about the lessons learned in that...

JORDAN:

I think turbulence is your word.

FL: How would you describe it, then?

JORDAN:

I think that any transition to a new government is by it's very nature trying. Mistakes are made. A lot of tension, a lot of excitement and in that process things happen. It was for me, a great privilege to be asked to chair the transition, to work with my good friend, Warren Christopher, and on the whole, I think we did a pretty good job. Based on what I know now, if we had to do it all over again, I think that I would recommend that we start with the White House first. I think that we spent an inordinate amount of time, maybe too much, on cabinet positions and therefore at the end were rushed in terms of doing the White House. If there was an opportunity, which there won't be to redo '92, I think my recommendation would be that we start with the White House.

FL: One in particular, the Lani Guanier story - would you do that differently again? How did that happen?

JORDAN:

I have a very straight view about that. I think many people confuse privilege to serve, with right to serve, and I do not think that there is a right to serve. I do think it's a privilege to serve and I think that there was some confusion, there, on the part of the nominee. And once that gets confused, I think that the President has a responsibility to do what he has to do and that is to decide whether to continue or not to continue with a particular nominee. In this case, he decided not to continue. I happen to think he was right and supported him in that because it was not about Lani Guanier, it was about who the President wanted to be in that particular job and he made that decision. I supported him in that decision and I think it was right.

FL: Did you think he was right initially to nominate her?

JORDAN:

I thought that, too. I think to some extent staff work could have been better and that he could have been better served and better briefed and that was obviously a mistake. But when you take into consideration a mistake, when you take into consideration her need based on her sense of her right to the job as opposed to the privilege to serve, I think the President made the right decision.

FL: Were they friends and was that a painful decision all around?

JORDAN:

They were obviously friends. The President was at her wedding, he and the First Lady, so there's some history of friendship. I think any new President would like to avoid unhealthy circumstances. That's not always possible and in this particular circumstance, it was not possible. So you have to do what you have to do. He did what he had to do and, God, I know there are a lot of my friends who think that he was wrong to the point of his agony, it had to be uncomfortable. But that's part of being President, that you make decisions that make you uncomfortable and that you make decisions about friends and allies that make you uncomfortable.

Take NAFTA, for example. There were many Democrats in the Congress who were opposed to NAFTA, and one of the largest contingents of the Democratic party, the labor movement, was opposed to NAFTA, so to oppose members of your own party and a huge constituent in your party about something you believed in has to have some pain attached. But that's also a part of being President, I believe.

FL: Did his friendship with Lani survive that...

JORDAN:

I don't know the answer to that. I think they have not seen each other. Whether it survived or not, I do not know and only time can cure that.

FL: The gays in the military, I would be interested in what your own view of the civil rights issue was of the rights of gays in the military...

JORDAN:

I think there is a distinction, clearly, between the civil rights movement on one hand and the gay/lesbian movement on the other. They are sort of two different things grounded in fundamental rights of equal opportunity and I believe that every American ought to have an equal opportunity to do what all other Americans do and that includes service in the military. I just believe that.

By the same token, I acknowledge that it is a complicated political problem and I think in the very first instance the President showed great courage in confronting it. A lot of people don't like the timing of it but he took it on early, took a lot of gaff for it. But whenever he had taken it on, in my judgement, it would have been a problem. By it's very nature, it is a problem in this society and continues to be, not just in the military but in the society, generally. And I think that it was handled about as well as it could be handled. We can always argue about timeliness, but there's never a good time to raise an unpopular issue.

I believe gays in the military would have been a bad issue at any time based to the deep opposition to it in this country. And so, there is never a good time to raise unpopular issues. Therefore, the earlier you deal with it the better, in my judgment, and I think it helped the country to face up to a very fundamental problem from which there is no hiding place for anybody. It's an issue that transcends race, geography, class, age, urban rule. It is indigenous to this society... it is out there and it is out there in ways that it's has never been out there and the gay/lesbian issue is not an issue that is going to recede into some dark closet. It is here to stay.

FL: Did you talk to him about it? Did you advise him to go forward...

JORDAN:

No. The military was sort of not my interest and I don't remember being specifically involved in any kind of advice and counsel about it. There are always various scenarios about how a given President on any given issue should have dealt with it. I think he did the best he could with what he had.

FL: Bosnia...have you ever had over time conversations with him about this terrible story?

JORDAN:

I think my conversations with him about that are of no moment. What I think is important to understand about Bosnia and the President's action on it is that even after some time of deliberation and studying and apparently not knowing quite which way to go, that in the face of overwhelming opposition of the American people, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States made a decision that we should be involved with NATO and we're there. I think that says something about his political character, his guts, his intestinal fortitude, whatever you want to call it, that in the end he acted on what he thought to be, and with Congressional approval, the best interest...to be in the best interest of this country in terms of our national interest and...in the interest of world leadership as the only super power.

It was assertive. It was right and I hope that he will get credit for it not so much as a politician, but as a statesman doing what he thought was right at a time when the vast majority of the American people were opposed to it. And I think the same thing is true with the actions of our government as it relates to the Mexican peso. I mean, there was an attitude, "Let the Mexicans drown in their own misery." And this President and this administration, against public opinion decided that we could not do that, preventing, I think, a domino theory that if went down then all of Latin America could likely go down. And it was a wise judgment and it had bipartisan support. It happened and it was an action taken in the ultimate interest of this country, of Mexico, of North America. It was the right thing to do. He did it. Haiti. Nobody wanted to go to Haiti. Everybody said we shouldn't go to Haiti. Haiti didn't matter. We had no national interest there. But there's been an election. Aristide was restored to power. He is now out. There has been an election and we haven't heard much from Haiti, so something's going right because there was the political courage in the face of big opposition to do the right thing.

FL: A number of people have commented upon Clinton's remarkable ease, just utter comfort level with African-Americans. His biographer, David Maraniss has even said, "I think Clinton has a Black soul." Do you feel that ease.....

JORDAN:

I don't understand this notion that this President is cited for ease with Black people. This is a man who is at ease with people. And it ought to stop right there because to make it special to Black Americans, somehow makes us not so special. Bill Clinton is comfortable with people.

FL: Wrapping up -- to go back to friendship, I'm just trying to get just a sense of this man having fun...hanging out with him and having fun. Paint another scene. The golf scene was one..but what else?

JORDAN:

This was during the height of the transition and I went to Little Rock pursuant to an appointment to talk about a very important matter and we decided that we would meet at the mansion at 9:30, maybe 9:00. And I fly to Little Rock, I do my business with Warren Christopher and I hop over to the mansion, probably about 9:00. And, because I sort of knew my way around, instead of going through the front door, I just went in the side door there...the kitchen entrance. And here was the President elect of the United States of America standing in the kitchen at the Governor's mansion cheering Arkansas as it played Memphis State in a basketball game. All alone, free of all of the problems of his transition, enjoying a basketball game between Arkansas and Memphis State. And he was completely into this basketball game. And I came in and sort of joined him and he says, "I'm glad to see you," but he kept watching the basketball game and I watched it with him.

And Arkansas won and we sat down and started talking. He knew every player's name, height, weight, and point average. He knew where each came from, the name of the high school, how well they did in high school. He obviously knew the coach. He knew about recruitment. He could tell you how so-and-so... a kid got really recruited because the coach went to the house and had supper. He knew that and it was more than the information gathering. It was his interest in this coach and this team and what they were doing when they weren't playing basketball, when they were playing basketball, what they were doing in their studies.

He just knew that and I think it's not only a measure of his enthusiasm for basketball and sports and athletics, but it's also a measure of his care about people, about individuals, about achievement and he viewed these athletes as achievers and his enthusiasm unbridled, unashamed, open, notorious, cheering in the kitchen for Arkansas to win. And that still happens.

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