Vernon Jordan on Politics, Obama and Civil Rights

Vernon Jordan, prominent D.C. power broker and former Executive Director of the National Urban League, talks about his book, Make it Plain: Standing Up and Speaking Out. The former Clinton adviser discusses his phenomenal career, politics, and what's next for him.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

.

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. .Now, it's time for Wisdom Watch. .It's our ongoing series where we speak with distinguished elders from a variety of fields, hoping they'll share not just knowledge but wisdom from years of accomplishment. .

Today, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. .He began his career as a civil rights attorney. .A few years later, he rose to national prominence as the executive director of the National Urban League, a post he held for a decade. .He has been a friend and confidante of many presidents - most notably President Bill Clinton. .He led the Clinton transition team during the first days of that administration. .

MARTIN: Standing Up and Speaking Out." .And he joins us now. .Vernon Jordan, welcome to the program.

VERNON JORDAN: .Thank you. .It's good to be here.

MARTIN: .And before we talk about the book, I want to take you back to election day, when Barack Obama was elected as first African-American president of the United States. .And I'm thinking about your days in the field, field secretary for the NAACP, helping to integrate the University of Georgia, all those battles, and I wonder where you were and what was going through your mind? ..TEXT: . Mr. JORDAN: .I went to an early dinner. .And about 9:30, I came to my New York apartment. .I was alone and sitting in the most comfortable chair, watching it gloriously all alone. And I'm sort of glad that I was.

MARTIN: .Why?

JORDAN: .Well, I don't want anybody else to see my tears. .

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JORDAN: .It was nice. .I could have gone with two of my kids to Chicago. .I didn't want to do that. .And I've had this experience twice when I was alone when something really major was happening in the world. .

The first time was the Sunday morning when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. .And I was home alone. .My wife was with the National Symphony Orchestra in Russia. .And I was just glad that I could just let it out as I saw Nelson Mandela walking to freedom, which he had not had for 27 years. .

And being alone and watching Barack Obama being declared the president-elect of the United States, it was an incredible moment in my life. .I'm 73 years old. .I did not think I would live to see this day.

MARTIN: .I wanted to ask you, though, during the primaries, you were a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton?

JORDAN: .That is correct.

MARTIN: .Of course, you're very close to the Clintons. .But some people wonder why you were the only one. .A lot of people who are part of the - I don't know if I'm going to call it civil rights brain trust, if you will - Andy Young, John Lewis, Maxine Waters did not support Barack Obama. .And the reason that I think a lot of people are curious about this is that people like you had a lot of responsibility at a very young age, all of you did. .And a lot of people wonder why you didn't see yourself in him.

JORDAN: .What people have to understand is that my daddy taught me that you danced with the one who brung you. .I'm too old to trade friendship for race. .And I said that to my friend, Barack Obama, in my kitchen when he came in 2006 to talk about his plans. .And he understood it. .

I've known Hillary Clinton since 1969. .I've know, Bill Clinton since 1973. .And so, I don't owe anybody an explanation about that except myself because I'm the only one who has look in the mirror and say that I have a clear conscience about it, and I do.

MARTIN: .And, of course, you served on President Bill Clinton's transition team. .Now, president-elect...

JORDAN: .I was chairman of the transition.

MARTIN: .You're chairman (unintelligible). .In fact, I do recall you in the old executive office building.

JORDAN: .When you were working for the Wall Street Journal to cover the White House. .Sure.

MARTIN: .I was working for the Wall Street Journal, and you were doing your thing. .And now that President-elect Obama is in the process of his transition, what do you think are the critical factors in a successful transition, especially when there was a change of parties, as there also was in Bill Clinton's case?

JORDAN: .Well, there is no such thing as a perfect transition. .But I think that this transition, as for as much as I've seen it, it has gone very well. .They have done something that we did not do in '92, and that is to make that first big appointment, the chief of staff. .And I think that's a good thing. ..TEXT: . MARTIN: .One of the things that President-elect Obama has done and also something he promised to do, which is also something that he and Senator John McCain had in common, is that, in some ways, he's distancing himself from the Washington establishment in a way. .He's put some very tough rules on people with ties to lobbying organizations serving in the transition and later in the administration. .

Now, of course, one of the things that people always say about you is that you're the ultimate Washington insider. .Do you feel that the kind of experience that you have achieved over the years, that you've mentored other people in achieving, understanding the process, building relationships. .Do you feel in a way that that is being diminished in some way?

JORDAN: .No. .I don't feel that at all. .What I do know is that new occasions teach new duties. .Barack Obama ran and was elected on the platform of change. .And so some things will, in fact, change, but it's all positive. .I think it's all good, and let's see where it's going to go.

MARTIN: .If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. .We're speaking with attorney, civil rights activist, power broker Vernon Jordan. .His latest book is "Make it Plain: Standing Up and Speaking Out." .Mr. Jordan, the book collects with notes some of the notable speeches you've given throughout your career. .Do you have a favorite kind of speech to give?

JORDAN: .It's hard to rate the ones that I've selected for this book because I think they are some of the best speeches I've made. .The three that I would cite is my first speech to the Urban League in 1971, which is the first speech in the book. .The next is my daughter's commencement from the University of Pennsylvania. .That was a huge moment in both of our lives and the life of her now-deceased mother and our families. .And the third is my eulogy for Thurgood Marshall, given my relationship with him, my admiration for him going back to my age of 12 or 13, and to be asked by Mrs. Marshall to give one of the eulogies at his home-going was just an extraordinary experience.

MARTIN: .I have to tell you, though, that one of my favorite stories that you tell in the book is about your Emancipation Proclamation Day speech on New Year's Day. .Is it Telfair County? .Was it Telfair County?

JORDAN: .Yeah, Telfair County, Georgia - McRae, Georgia for Mr. Alex Horne.

MARTIN: .Will you tell that story?

JORDAN: .Well, Mr. Alex Horne, who was president of the NAACP of Telfair County, and he asked me to drive from Atlanta to McRae, Telfair County to give the Emancipation Proclamation speech. I went, and he showed me the program, and the program was filled with presentations by ministers, church choirs, youth groups. .We got to the church. Less than 10 people showed up. .

But I addressed those less than 10 people - I think it was actually nine - with the same fervor that I would have had there had been 900 people. .And that was a great teaching experience for me. .And as I think of the speeches I've made subsequent thereto, in a more fruitful time in my career, I look back on Telfair County. .I view that as bread cast upon the water. .It was part of my preparation to be a leader, and I value that and remember it so much.

MARTIN: .If you would talk a little bit more about two of those three speeches that you mentioned. .I think Thurgood Marshall, of course, I think everybody remembers our Supreme Court justice. .But Whitney Young, I'm not sure that's a name that a lot of people know anymore.

JORDAN: .Yeah. .But the audience to which I was speaking was his audience because he had been executive director of the Urban League for 10 years, and he was their leader. .So I was speaking to his constituents there which he had led for 10 years.

MARTIN: .But you just talk to me about what that was like. .You're a very young man, and Whitney Young is a huge figure, and here, you're stepping into his shoes. .If you could just talk to me a little bit about what it was like to face this audience that held him in such high regard.

JORDAN: .Yeah. .Well, first of all, Whitney was my friend. .I knew him when he was in Atlanta before he came to the Urban League. .Maybe a year and a half before I went to the United Negro College Fund, a year maybe, Whitney talked to me about coming to work for the Urban League as his deputy. .And then he wrote me a letter saying, I'm withdrawing my offer to you to be my deputy because I think the only job here for you is mine, and that's not open yet. .I actually have that letter.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JORDAN: .And then, when I was a candidate for the United Negro College Fund, Whitney called me and said, I want to see you. .So I went to New York. .He said, take this job. .He said, you come here to New York, and so I did. .And when I got to town, Whitney showed me the ropes. .He had me to dinner to meet CEOs and chairmen of companies at his home. .We exchanged dinners, and our families were friends. .

And then, a year after I moved to New York, Whitney Young drowned in Lagos, Nigeria. .And not long after that, the search committee asked me to be Whitney Young's successor. .So, that's the background to my first speech at the convention. .First of all, I had to follow Ossie Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JORDAN: .And the staff and my family and the Urban League constituency, you could see the worry in their face that I had to follow Ossie Davis, the great and marvelous actor. .I did not have sense enough, Michel, to be afraid. .When I got up to give it, it was just like a preacher preaching his first sermon or trying out for a church, and I passed the test.

MARTIN: .Evidently.

JORDAN: .Yeah.

MARTIN: .Evidently. .The other speech you mentioned that I thought was very moving and also was moving to hear the back story, was when you gave your daughter Vicky's commencement address at Penn. .And you say that, you know, she originally said, you know, I don't want you to do it. .Why can't you just be like any other dad and sit in the audience that day. .Did that hurt?

JORDAN: .No, no. .I understood it, and I was happy to be relieved. .I had given her commencement when she finished kindergarten, when she finished 8th grade, and I gave her high school commencement. .I thought that was enough. .I was not surprised when she told President Meyerson, why can't my dad just sit in the audience like other daddies? .And then - she said that at Thanksgiving. I said fine, and I forgot about it. .

She came home for Christmas and was out on a date, came in about midnight, and she said, I want to talk to you. .And I said OK. .We sat down, and she said, I've changed my mind. I've decided that you can give the commencement at the University of Pennsylvania when I graduate. .So I said, well listen, Vicky, what about all that is ordinary daddy stuff, me sitting like an ordinary dad? .And she said, well, I've decided that you're not an ordinary daddy.

MARTIN: .I don't even know what to say after that. That sounds wonderful. .Who do you enjoy as an orator?

JORDAN: .Well, my favorite preacher is Gardner Calvin Taylor, who preached at the Concorde Baptist Church for 42 years. .He's 90 years old now, living in Raleigh, North Carolina. .

But there's a sermon that I should never forget preached by Vernon Johns, who preceded Martin Luther King at Dexter Avenue Church. .The speech was entitled "The Vindication of Life," and he started off with the graveyard poets, and he concluded his sermon at Howard Rankin Chapel with the story of Moby Dick. And he was so incredible in his description, you felt like you were right there on the edge of the water watching Ahab with his stick leg dealing with the whale. .I've never forgotten Vernon Johns.

MARTIN: .I think it is going to be surprising to some younger people, if I may say, that you can remember so many of these speeches and sermons so vividly. .And I am wondering if there is someone known today to the younger generation who will be remembered in that same way?

JORDAN: .I'm sure there is. .I don't know who they are, but I remember my commencement speech from my undergraduate school in 1957. .It was given by Tom Watson. .When I first met him when I moved to New York, I told him that, and he said, anybody who can remember speech that I gave 12 years ago is my friend.

MARTIN: .What do you think about Barack Obama and his oratory?

JORDAN: .Well, I first met Barack Obama when he was a state senator. .I went to Chicago. .My wife, Ann, and I gave him the first fundraiser in Washington and helped him as much as I could when he was running for the Senate. .And that speech four years ago at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the headline turned out to be - or should have been "A Star is Born." .And we've seen the rising or lifting of that star, and we saw it when he was elected president of the United States.

MARTIN: .I wonder how you felt about some of the criticism of him during the campaign from Republicans who say he's all talk. .In fact, actually, Senator Clinton pretty much said the same thing. .He's all talk. .That's all he is, is a speech.

JORDAN: .Well, we now know better, and we're going to find out more about that. .Campaigns are about rhetoric, and people say things often that are not true, often even that they don't really mean. .The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we've seen the first slice of that with this election. .And come January 20th, we'll begin to see the rest.

MARTIN: .What is interesting to me, though, that rhetoric is used almost as an epithet these days, when, in fact, you know, as you've made clear in your book, that rhetoric is a very important tool of persuasion. .I wonder if you feel that...

JORDAN: .Well, it has been true throughout history where leaders have made speeches that have made a difference. .I think you would say the Sermon on the Mount was an opportunity to make a difference. .Churchill speaking during World War Two, those words made a difference. .Roosevelt in 1932, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. So rhetoric speechmaking has been and is very much a part of our life because it is persuasive and it causes people to follow. .And so, people respond to it.

MARTIN: .What would you like people to respond to or to draw from your book, your latest book?

JORDAN: .Part of the reason for this book, Michel, is that most black history is oral. .I want my grandchildren, all nine of them, to be able to pick up this book and see what Popop had to say and to see what his contribution was to change in America.

MARTIN: .Finally, before we let you go, do you have any wisdom to pass along to us, maybe advice you might offer to a younger you?

JORDAN: Well, I think there is no substitute for hard work, sacrifice, and excellence. .If every individual can work toward achieving through those three venues, they will have good and enriching lives.

MARTIN: .Vernon Jordan is an attorney, civil rights activist, adviser to presidents. .He is the author of a new book "Make it Plain: Standing Up and Speaking Out." .And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. .Mr. Jordan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JORDAN: .Thank you so much, Michel Martin.

MARTIN: .And that's our program for today. .I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. .Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Make it Plain

Standing Up and Speaking Out

by Vernon E., Jr. Jordan and Lee A. Daniels

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