That unique exchange heralded thousands that would keep Clinton and Jordan engaged and entertained for the next four decades. His pranks would take place on Thanksgiving Day at Camp David and Christmas Eve parties at the Jordans’ home in DC; on Martha’s Vineyard during the summer holidays; and in the Oval Office. That the “first black president” of the United States – the nickname given to Clinton by writer Toni Morrison in 1998 – chose as his first friend a black man from the south (Jordan grew up in a deeply segregated prewar Atlanta) does not It is surprising and it is not a coincidence. As one former assistant to the couple put it: “They complemented each other perfectly: they were both extremely intelligent and charismatic; they were both larger than life guys with big appetites. “
“I could see that he was aggressive, confident and genuine,” Jordan noted in describing that first encounter. “It was clear that he had a deep and affectionate concern for race, so there was an immediate affinity.” And Clinton saw those same beliefs in Jordan, along with the political acumen and infectious personality to advance black interests in all aspects of American life. But their easy relationship and love of the game, especially in politics and sports, took the Clinton-Jordan friendship to another level. What’s more, they were both gamers, knowing how others, often women, reacted to his boundless charm and electric bearing. Clinton and Jordan, six foot two and six foot five, respectively, with broad shoulders and beaming smiles, lit up whatever room they occupied. When Clinton later shared that same magnetism with Monica Lewinsky, a twentysomething intern in the White House (now a Vanity fair contributing editor), the consequences would be devastating, jeopardizing his presidency and forcing Jordan to play an uncomfortable role at the center of a national scandal.
In 1980, things were anything but radiant. Feeling the sting of Clinton’s defeat, Jordan decided to pick up the phone, knowing the governor could use an understanding ear. Hillary replied, only to hear a resonant baritone, asking, “Do you have any sand down there?” Hillary replied, “I don’t know how to make grits, but you come.” A few weeks later, Jordan, in a three-piece suit, was standing in the small kitchen of the Clintons’ little yellow frame house; they had just left the governor’s mansion. Jordan was expecting a hot plate of instant grits that Hillary had bought that morning. Seeing the young couple with their one-year-old daughter, Chelsea, Jordan could feel his friend’s discouragement. Gone was the confidence that had so impressed Jordan in their first meeting. Now he saw a man adrift.
For the next two and a half hours, Jordan dominated the discussion. He spoke in direct and direct terms: Stop feeling sorry for yourself and appreciate what others see in you. You are a man of immense promise who suffered a single electoral defeat. You have too much commitment to the causes that concern you, too support to leave the stage. “I knew that I had just become the youngest former governor in the history of the country. And that my epitaph was written, ”Clinton recalled. “He said, ‘You and Hillary are so talented and your heart is in the right place; everything will be fine. ‘ “
“No one else was telling me that,” Clinton recalled 40 years later. “That was not the story.”
Jordan’s message resonated with Clinton as he received offers that would have given him financial security and less distress. Clinton had been asked to become head of the World Wildlife Federation, chief of staff to California Governor Jerry Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and president of the University of Louisville. Then the Jordan appeared like the lonely voice in the desert. “It’s not over, and you shouldn’t think it’s done,” Hillary recalled Jordan saying as Clinton recounted the opportunities she was considering. “It made a big impression on him at the time.” Her husband echoed this sentiment: “He told me I had to stay in the game… I just took a deep breath and instead of feeling miserable, after that everything started to fall into place. And I started thinking about the rest of my life and trying to live in the present and the future. “Hillary would add,” That conversation was a milestone in Bill’s decision to stay in Arkansas, stay in politics, and ultimately instance, run for president. “
Before leaving for the airport, Jordan offered one more piece of advice to her friend Hillary Rodham: she needed to start using “Clinton” as her last name. If Bill was going to make a political comeback, and do it in Arkansas, Hillary had to agree to the conventions of the time. As Bill Clinton recounted, “Vernon told him, ‘I’m older than you. I think keep [the] The last name is bothering a lot of older blacks and we need all of them. And Hillary thought: if Vernon believed he could do it and maintain his integrity and be who he was, it made him think he could do it. “Hillary agreed:” It was important to have his voice in that decision. I respected his intelligence and political experience, and I really paid attention. “
The Clintons stood still, moved on, and two years later, Bill Clinton, with Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side, took the oath of office as Arkansas’s 42nd Governor. Amid the sea of spectators in front of the Capitol stood a beaming Vernon Jordan.
In 1991, when the nation’s focus began to shift to next year’s presidential election, Jordan was as well regarded as any other American working at the intersection of politics and business. Every year, he traveled to Europe to attend the Bilderberg Gathering, a gathering of the world’s elite focused on issues affecting the alliance between the United States and Europe. It was also an opportunity for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to see and be seen. Jordan went out of his way to extend an invitation to a restless Clinton, then in his fifth term as governor.
Three years earlier, Clinton had decided not to run for the White House. (She expressed concern about the impact of a presidential campaign in Chelsea, then seven years old. And a close Clinton aide, Betsey Wright, had warned her boss about her record of what she called “Bimbo eruptions.”) he was eager to move up the national political ladder and had emerged as one of the leading voices of moderation in a party that seemed to be veering to the left. Jordan, aware of Clinton’s ambitions, believed he needed some international exposure and foreign policy seriousness to become a more credible candidate, especially if he was up against the experienced George HW Bush.
Bilderberg presented a perfect opportunity. “Vernon called me and said, ‘I think you should go,'” Clinton said. “‘It would do you good to expose yourself to them.’ In June 1991, the two arrived in Baden-Baden for a few days of high-level talks with European leaders such as Gordon Brown, the future British prime minister, as well as senior members of the Bush administration. They then headed to Russia, giving Clinton the opportunity to witness for himself the country’s dramatic transition to a market-driven democracy. In retrospect, Jordan saw the experience as Clinton’s “coming out party.” And on the flight home, both men recognized that Clinton had the maturity and intellectual breadth to be president. However, there was a problem: Bush’s approval ratings, optimistic after the first Gulf War, were still in the 1970s. To many observers, the president seemed invincible. But not Clinton. He had recently seen factories close in his home state. He felt a vulnerability from Bush and told Jordan as his plane crossed the Atlantic: “I’m here living in the real America and Bush’s popularity is based on the Gulf War. But the economy is in a much worse situation. . . . There is a lot of anxiety here. And I really think I need to see this. “