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
I think turbulence is your word.
FL: How would you describe it, then?
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
FL: One in particular, the Lani Guanier story - would you do that
differently again? How did that happen?
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
Did you think he was right initially to nominate her?
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
FL: Were they friends and was that a painful decision all around?
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
Did his friendship with Lani survive that...
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...
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
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
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
FL: Bosnia...have you ever had over time conversations with him about this
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
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
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?
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.