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Vernon Jordan's Tell-All Will End Where Years With Clinton Began

Memoir: 'People look at me and believe I was born Jan. 20, 1993,' the former first friend says. 'My life was defined long before that.'

April 22, 2001|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The memoir the New York publishing world wanted Vernon Jordan to write certainly would have been titillating.

Publishers were eager for the handsome Washington power broker to peddle gossip about his friend Bill Clinton or about back-room deal-making in the nation's capital. If he could dish, he could publish, Jordan was told.

But Jordan was not about to have his legacy further eclipsed. There would be no tabloid headlines: "Presidential Pal Tells All." The essence of Vernon E. Jordan Jr., he says, is to "never apologize, never explain" and, above all things, never betray a friend.

And so he found a serious black female lawyer to be his coauthor and an independent white publisher of quality nonfiction willing to let Jordan write his version of his life in a memoir that ends the day President Clinton is inaugurated.

"People look at me and believe that I was born Jan. 20, 1993," the day Clinton took office, Jordan said during a recent interview. "That is not true. My life was defined long before that. I had done many very interesting and exciting things."

"Vernon Can Read! A Memoir" still is a work in progress but is expected to be published by Public Affairs in October. It is not likely to sate the gossips or dissuade his critics, who see Jordan as a black man who lost his soul on the way to stratospheric success.

"I'm not looking for consensus for what I did," he says. "But I would like for someone to be encouraged, inspired, instructed to do as well."

What Jordan would like to offer up is an inspirational story of an African American man rising to power and influence far beyond the politics of the black community. He also seems eager to reclaim the heroic parts of his life that might have been overshadowed by five appearances before a grand jury after he was accused of aiding in the cover-up of Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. In the public's mind, Jordan became the guy next to Clinton in a golf cart; surely his 65 years add up to more than that.

Much of the memoir is devoted to Jordan's early life and career--his growing up in segregated Atlanta and his parents' influence, particularly his entrepreneurial mother, who saw great things for her son. The title came from an episode in his youth when a white employer was astounded that he could read. In the book, he apparently will detail the first 20 years of his career championing blacks as a civil rights lawyer in Georgia and later as president of the pro-business National Urban League.

But still unclear--even in Jordan's mind--is whether the memoir will offer much insight into the second 20 years of his career.

Cheating Death, Then a Death in the Family

In 1981, a year after a gunman nearly took his life, Jordan moved to Washington to join Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, one of those omnivorous law/lobbying firms. In the next few years he became a director of a dozen blue-chip corporate boards and foundations, lost his first wife, Shirley, to multiple sclerosis and married Anne Dibble.

Jordan's transition from advocating in public to brokering in private was more logical than those who accuse him of selling out suggest.

His job at the Urban League involved a lot of hobnobbing--playing golf, schmoozing, attending football games--with white executives at the same time that he was reminding them to help black job-seekers and to not forget the underclass.

Just as activists threatening boycotts could not be the only influence on the white establishment, Jordan sought to prove that civil rights leaders kneeling in Selma, Ala., did not have to be the only models for black success.

"I wanted to parlay my experiences--in the Urban League, in corporate America, in philanthropy, in government grants--into something else," he says. "I wanted to be able to do that in the same way that white people had, and I wanted to prove that it could be done."

He more than proved it. With his people skills and imposing presence, Jordan forged relationships with everyone who is anyone in elite government and business circles. If he chose to, he could name-drop like few others.

While the Clinton era might have tainted his public image, it did not ruin him professionally. To the contrary, with even more friends in high places, Jordan levitated to a new plane in the 1990s. A year before Clinton left Washington, Jordan became a senior managing director of Lazard Freres, a top New York investment banking firm in Manhattan.

Still at the epicenter of social and political Washington on Fridays and weekends (yes, he also has Republican "friends"), Jordan camps out Mondays through Thursdays at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.

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