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OBITUARIES : Hamilton Jordan, 1944 - 2008

Carter chief of staff ran presidential bid

May 21, 2008|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

Hamilton Jordan, a key political aide to Jimmy Carter who went to Washington with the president from Georgia and was the youngest person in U.S. history to hold the post of White House chief of staff, died Tuesday night after repeated bouts with cancer. He was 63.

Friends said Jordan died at his home in Atlanta at 7:30 p.m.

Carter issued a statement saying he and his wife Rosalynn were "deeply saddened" by the news.

"Hamilton was my closest political advisor, a trusted confidant and my friend," said the former president. "His judgment, insight and wisdom were excelled only by his compassion and love of our country."

After Carter won the presidency in 1976, defeating President Ford, the 32-year-old Jordan was part of the "Georgia mafia" that relocated to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. His first assignment was to draw up a list of possible Cabinet appointments. "I'm a short-order cook," he told the New Yorker's Elizabeth Drew. "I'm trying to find a CIA director one minute and calling a Cabinet officer to get someone placed in an agency the next minute."

But his profile gradually increased and in 1979 he was named chief of staff, a post he held for the duration of Carter's term.

He played important roles in helping Carter pave the way for the Panama Canal treaties and chaired task forces on civil service reform and the Saudi-Egyptian arms package. He also participated in the Camp David peace talks between Israel and Egypt.

He helped handle the delicate negotiations with Panama that allowed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to find a haven there. Pahlavi fled Iran in the wake of an Islamic fundamentalist revolution that included the seizure of more than 50 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy.

Jordan was also not a typical political glad-hander. He was known for not returning phone calls and for giving congressmen the cold shoulder. House Speaker Tip O'Neill sometimes referred to him as "Hannibal Jerkin."

And allegations of outrageous behavior created tabloid headlines.

He was investigated on what proved to be false charges that he sniffed cocaine at a hip disco in New York. At a Washington reception, he allegedly stared at the cleavage of the Egyptian ambassador's wife, saying he was searching for "the twin pyramids of the Nile," an allegation he later denied.

Once, the White House issued a 33-page report trying to establish that Jordan, recently separated from his wife Nancy, did not spit his drink down the front of a woman's blouse at a singles' bar in Georgetown. He insisted he was innocent. "I don't know of anything I did, with the exception of not being accessible to the press, that caused me to be unfairly accused of those things," he told The Times' Betty Cuniberti.

William Hamilton McWhorter Jordan was born in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 21, 1944, and raised in Albany, Ga., his father's hometown. Born with bowed legs, he wore braces to bed for 11 years. Reporters often wrote that he grew up in a political family and that classmates voted him most likely to become governor. But it was his mother, Adelaide Jordan, who explained the depth of his passion. "If he didn't win himself, he'd run his cousin," she told one interviewer.

He meandered through college at the University of Georgia in Athens, telling The Times' Jack Nelson that he took "5 1/2 unspectacular but fun-filled years" to graduate, which he did in 1967 with a political science degree.

One day he attended a rally for a candidate for governor, a peanut farmer from Plains, Ga. Jordan thought it "a very poor speech" but he was impressed by Carter's moderation on the race issue and his sincerity. Carter lost that election but gained Jordan's allegiance.

Disqualified from military service because of flat feet and a sports injury to his knee, Jordan went to Vietnam as a volunteer for a refugee relocation group called International Voluntary Services. After 10 months in the field, he was home again, suffering from blackwater fever, convinced that the war was wrong, itching to get back into politics.

He offered to run Carter's campaign and this time they won. And then, less than two years into Carter's gubernatorial term, Jordan wrote an audacious and brilliant 72-page assessment on how to win the White House.

The memo outlined in year-by-year detail what actions could catapult Carter to the presidency, focusing on early primaries and campaigning in many states, including homework assignments to bolster the governor's foreign policy credentials and plans for how to garner sympathetic media stories. "Stories in the New York Times and Washington Post don't just happen," Jordan wrote, "but have to be carefully planned and planted."

Jordan's plan allowed Carter to pull off one of the most remarkable come-from-nowhere campaigns in presidential electoral history.

After the Carter presidency, Jordan returned to Georgia and wrote a book about his White House years, called "Crisis."

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