"We have a very important week ahead of us," Kenneth Starr said at the end of last week. "It's going to be a very substantive week, I am confident." And nothing will be more important and, hopefully, more substantive than Vernon Jordan's appearance in front of the grand jury on Tuesday. Jordan has already made it clear through friends and associates speaking to Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" that, as his friend and colleague Bob Strauss put it, "Vernon is a loyal, devoted friend. But Vernon is not a fool."
In the hierarchy of values loyalty, falling on your sword for a friend is more noble than survival. But there is another dynamic at work here. "If Vernon lets the white guys get him down," a close friend of Jordan's told me, "they'll be taking down not just another man but another black man, one of the handful right there in the middle of the inner circle. So this is not just about Vernon, it's about once again blacks being used by whites to do their dirty work."
This, then, may be the moment when the two Vernon Jordans converge. The first Jordan was a civil rights leader, head of both the National Urban League and the United Negro College Fund. In May 1980, in the middle of the night, he was ambushed in Indiana and shot with a deer hunter's rifle for being out with a white woman. The wound, the size of a fist, was an inch away from his spine. "I obviously thought right after I was shot that I was going to die," he told The Washington Post five months and five operations later. "It's all reflective of the sickness in this society," he also said, "that black people continue to be the point persons of racism."
When, a dozen years later, he was named to manage Bill Clinton's presidential transitional team, Jordan had completed a transition of his own. "I'm not a civil rights leader anymore," he said. Indeed, civil rights activist Randall Robinson has acidly condemned wealthy, successful blacks who catch the "Vernon Jordan disease, a degenerative condition among blacks that results in a loss of any memory."
Jordan has called the civil rights movement "my vineyard." He tilled in it from his graduation from Howard University Law School in 1960 to his resignation from the Urban League in 1981. But then, Martha's Vineyard prevailed, and Jordan found himself reaching out to help white felons like Webb Hubbell and poor little rich girls like Monica Lewinsky.
So, Vernon Jordan has traded in the arduous vineyard of his idealistic youth for the lush gardens of high privilege where fine wines, aromatic cigars and directorships of Fortune 500 companies are always being served. "Every Christmas Eve," Jordan told PBS' "Frontline" in 1996, "the first family comes to have Christmas Eve dinner with our family. (The president) comes before he goes to the church service at the cathedral, and there're my grandchildren walking around, giving him books to read, pulling at him, sneezing in his face. ... It's a typical American family event on Christmas Eve. And it's warm, and it's fun, and it's good food and good fellowship and good wine."
Will they all be together again next Christmas Eve? Jordan has always stressed his "common purposes and background with Clinton." The grandson of a sharecropper, he likes to quote what Lyndon Johnson once told him: "I grew up poor and white in the South. You grew up poor and black in the South." And that's one of the things Jordan feels he shares with Clinton.
But suddenly, the poor black kid who started his career working for a civil rights lawyer for $35 a week, and then went on to shine on the national stage, has to make a decision: Will he let himself be more ballast thrown off the ship of state so that the poor white boy who went on to shine on the national stage can keep going on and on?
The grisly footage of Betty Currie being pushed around by a mob of cameramen apparently had a big impact on Jordan. "It looked like a lynching," another Jordan friend told me. But whose fecklessness put Currie in the middle of a media lynching?
Deciding not to take the fall for witness tampering would be, under any circumstances, a perfectly rational decision -- particularly for a member of the bar. What endows the survival instinct with some moral authority is deciding to take a pass not just for your own sake but to avoid revisiting the ugly past when blacks were society's most readily dispensed with members.
"I think it's sufficient to say," Jordan told "Frontline" in 1996, "that he's my friend and I will go with him, stand by him and prop him up ... and I believe he would do the same for me." Maybe when Jordan went down the list of Betty Currie, Maggie Williams, Lani Guinier and all their white sisters and brothers, it dawned on him that Clinton would not, after all, do the same for him.
Jordan the suave power broker may be on the verge of a reintegration with Jordan the civil rights veteran, who used to fire up the troops with powerful speeches about racism and the "ravages of unequal history." Jordan's and Clinton's histories first collided in Little Rock in the 1970s when the civil rights leader was visiting Arkansas for the Urban League. This week, as he answers the grand jury's questions, Jordan may have reached the conclusion that this is the fork in the road where his and the president's unequal histories diverge -- perhaps forever.
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