We have barely sat down and the mobile phone of one of the most connected men in America is ringing. Vernon Jordan and I have just arrived at San Pietro, the homey Italian power lunch spot in Midtown Manhattan where he is a regular. He apologises but really must take this call. Is it perhaps a senator or captain of industry? By the time the call ends San Pietro is humming with Masters of the Universe, and I soon have to move to Jordan’s side of the table to hear him above the din. My back is to the throng, but occasionally I turn my head and confirm that — yet again — he is the only black person in the room.
It is Thursday, and Jordan will later take the train back to his home in Washington. Now 83, he splits his time between the two cities that have defined his life for almost five decades. His career has taken him from the White House to Wall Street and back. From Monday to Thursday, he is in New York at Lazard, the venerable investment bank he joined nearly 20 years ago. On Fridays, he can be found at Akin Gump, the Washington law and lobbying firm to which his mentor, the super-lawyer and Democratic party grandee Bob Strauss, lured him over 35 years ago.
Jordan is, strictly speaking, neither attorney nor banker. Rather he is a whisperer to the powerful, the man who can make the introduction, give the straight talk and soothe the egos of business titans. His powerbroker persona is most manifest in his decades-long friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton. To jaded voters on the left and right, he is the ultimate Washington insider, a man whose seamless waltz between business and politics has fuelled resentment at an incestuous system. Yet his successes in the boardroom and the smoke-filled backroom have, by now, obscured a distinguished role in the civil rights movement — and an upbringing in the segregated Deep South. Born into a world that had little use for his talents, Vernon Jordan would make himself indispensable.
Henry Louis Gates, the celebrated Harvard historian, tells me he regards Jordan as the man most responsible for breaking down the colour barrier in corporate America. “Historians will remember Vernon Jordan as the Rosa Parks of Wall Street,” he says.
We have a corner spot against the window facing 54th Street, a relatively quiet section where Jordan can take the whole scene in. Nibbling at the crudités on our table, Jordan asks if I’ll have a drink. I stick to mineral water, as does he. “I’ve been going to 21 for a long time but the food is better here,” he says, referring to the fabled 21 Club, his other favourite haunt just down the street.
This will be our second lunch together. The first came during my time as an MBA intern at Lazard, when our group would gather each week in the partners’ dining room to meet the firm’s heavy-hitters. Vernon’s easy manner at San Pietro is familiar from that June day in 2005. Dressed as impeccably as ever in a blue suit and monogrammed dress shirt, his handkerchief folded neatly in his breast pocket, he is also showing his age: the 6ft 4in frame is leaner, the stride slower, and the booming baritone voice that won oratory competitions as a teenager has softened considerably.
I wonder how Jordan compares Washington with New York, where he first moved in 1970. “One is a company town, Washington. There is only one conversation,” he says. “New York, on the other hand, is about business. But it’s also about culture. It’s about entertainment. And I feel like as I go back and forth between the two, that I have the best of both worlds.”
In the weeks after our lunch, reports of payments made to Donald Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen by companies such as AT&T and Novartis revived memories of how the president railed against the nexus of politics and big business during his 2016 campaign. As one of the smoothest operators on Washington’s K Street, does Jordan think the seamy culture of influence-peddling that Trump labelled “the Swamp” is a real phenomenon? “The word ‘swamp’ is an insult to dedicated public servants who chose to go to Washington and serve,” he says. “I think ‘the Swamp’ negates that dedication.”
It’s a curious answer. I point out that the term is generally taken to refer less to the civil service than to the lobbyists, consultants and grifters who relentlessly advocate on behalf of moneyed interests. “I think they’re all part of the process and they’re on every side of every issue,” the Akin Gump man replies, unruffled.
The proprietor arrives at our table to hand us menus. But San Pietro is a place where insiders know you have to order from the specials, and there are enough to fill what seems like five minutes of description. Jordan listens patiently and decides on the asparagus to start and then the sea bass. I go with a green salad and grilled salmon.
“Are you a big eater?” Jordan asks. “I love eating,” he beams. “My mother had the best catering business in Atlanta when I was growing up.”
Jordan was born in the Georgian capital just six years after another eminent Atlantan, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. His father was a postal worker who frowned on his son’s ambition, with his mother serving as his ultimate inspiration. As a teenager, he waited tables at events where she was working. He was mesmerised by the world of the white lawyers and businessmen he served.
When Jordan left Georgia for DePauw University in rural Indiana in 1953, he was the only black student in his class; he recalls that at the time of his arrival, the town had no barbers willing to cut a black person’s hair. His segregated education left him unprepared for college too: “We were reading the history of civilisation and my classmates, who’d gone to private schools and fine township high schools, were on chapter six; I was struggling to get out of the preface.” But he persevered and went on after graduation to Howard University, the historically black university in Washington that was the training ground for many of the era’s finest civil rights lawyers.
In 1960, by then married and with a child, he returned to Atlanta to work for a civil rights attorney, Donald Hollowell, for $35 a week. It was a galaxy away from San Pietro. He remembers defending a young black man arrested and sentenced to death in a rural Georgian town where no restaurant served black customers; Jordan and his colleagues would go to the market to buy a loaf of bread, cold meat and a soft drink, and retreat to the parking lot.
Working for Hollowell, Jordan helped win the 1961 legal challenge that desegregated the University of Georgia. In a scene that played out across the south, angry white crowds demonstrated as black students attempted to enrol. Jordan escorted his client Charlayne Hunter through the mob, a moment captured in a now-famous photograph. Later that year, he became Georgia’s field office head for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and then moved on to the Southern Regional Council and the Voter Education Project. This was dangerous work, criss-crossing Georgia organising black voter registration efforts, running the risk of lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan.
The civil rights movement employed a range of tactics, from litigation to civil disobedience to more militant action. Jordan favoured working through the system, and his high-profile jobs in New York — first at the United Negro College Fund in 1970, then as president of the National Urban League, an organisation with roots in social work that promoted opportunity for black Americans — earned him rebuke from some quarters for being too conciliatory.
He addresses that criticism when I ask him about Hillary Clinton’s cosiness with high finance — which perhaps cost her the 2016 presidential election. “It is not a crime to be close to Wall Street,” he says. “If you are a politician, you have to have relationships with every kind of entity. And so, I have also been criticised about being a banker at Lazard, just like I was criticised for going to DePauw University in 1953. They said, ‘You want to be white.’ Well, all I wanted was a good education that I couldn’t get at Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia or Emory [which all admitted only white students]. Just like they said to Jackie Robinson, just stay here in the Black League . . . You cannot be deterred.”
A waiter brings the sea bass whole for Jordan to inspect. He nods and, minutes later, it returns filleted, along with my perfectly grilled salmon.
While Jordan is most associated with Bill Clinton, he met Hillary first, in 1969, when she was a college student attending a League of Women Voters event in Colorado. I ask him what he observes to be the foundation of the Clintons’ relationship. “I think it’s that mutual interest in social progress,” he says, noting that the couple travelled to Texas to volunteer in 1972 for the quixotic presidential campaign of George McGovern, the Bernie Sanders of his day.
The nostalgia is a reminder that Jordan and both Clintons alike began as social activists. Yet all three came to symbolise the gilded Democratic party establishment that the American left has increasingly rejected. Jordan is unapologetic and defends Hillary’s handsomely paid speeches to Goldman Sachs. “Roosevelt was a rich, rich man and he got us through the Depression. We got the New Deal... I don’t know of any politician who would have turned down Goldman Sachs on principle.”
The main courses have now gone and dessert — fruit, cookies, chocolate soufflé — is brought to the table, unsolicited and on the house. Jordan selects the berries and citrus, sipping at a ginger ale he has ordered and leaving the sugary treats to me.
Clinton’s 2016 campaign refocused attention on her husband’s stint in office at a time when new activist movements such as Black Lives Matter were voicing harsh criticism of his 1990s policies on welfare and criminal justice, arguing that they punished minorities disproportionately. Jordan, while at the Urban League, scolded President Jimmy Carter for ignoring the plight of black Americans. But predictably, he is protective of his friend. “I thought [Bill] Clinton was a very good president and there was no issue for me about his caring about the issues that were confronting the black community,” he says. “I knew Lyndon Johnson well. The Johnson era was about the right to check into the hotel. Clinton’s era was about getting the right kind of education to get the job, so you would have the money to check out.”
Jordan deploys the hotel metaphor often. After the legal and legislative victories of the 1960s, the prize of racial equality became more complex. His approach was to find a spot in the elite establishment — the boardrooms, Democratic party politics, Akin Gump, Lazard. “I would see these guys get their friends’ children jobs, so I learnt the process and I got my people jobs. When the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] kids were raising hell in the streets, Roy Wilkins was in the courtroom and Whitney Young was in the boardroom,” he says, referring to two less militant 1960s civil rights figures. “To make it all work, we cannot have the same roles and competencies.”
His New York jobs brought him into contact with chief executives just as corporate America finally got interested in diversity. Jordan would go on to serve on as many as 10 boards at a time, working for such blue-chips as Xerox, Dow Jones, American Express and Revlon. At the last of these, he secured a job for Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern with whom Bill Clinton had an extra-marital affair. Jordan himself was called to testify in front of special prosecutor Ken Starr’s grand jury about allegations that he found Lewinsky work in exchange for her silence about the affair.
Have big, powerful institutions been guilty of tokenism? “For the most part,” he says. “They never really worked at it [meaningful diversity] and it is represented in the numbers. You’ll see liberals going down to march in Mississippi, but when it came to desegregating Forest Hills [an affluent area of New York], it’s too much. And once you open the door, you can’t decide when you’ll close it.”
The Trumpian age might seem to be Jordan’s nightmare: his close friend defeated by a man who rose by challenging the legitimacy of the first black president, even as Republican states roll back the voting protections for African-Americans that Jordan risked his life for.
“The Trump thing is very bad for black people and for the country as a whole,” he says. “But we have been here before. That is the story of our lives.” He lists the litany of injustices suffered by black Americans on the road to achieving legal equality, from slavery to the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision to Jim Crow.
Jordan does not feel defeated. “I am the ultimate optimist. Because you have to believe that you can make something happen. I always knew that I was going to be somebody. So I concentrated on getting prepared rather than being angry. And the one thing I’m certain of is that wherever I am in life, whatever I may have accomplished, I did not get here by myself.” He then rattles off a succession of teachers, bosses and colleagues who pushed him forward.
Not everyone heeds Jordan’s advice. He told Barack Obama he was too callow to run for president in 2008. “If you want to do it, you shouldn’t be dissuaded by me,” he told Obama. “But what you should understand is that I am too old to trade friendship for race. And Bill and Hillary have been my friends. We have been through a few things together. But if you beat her, I will be with you 100 per cent.”
Jordan pauses as the proprietor walks over and politely interrupts. “Can I tell you a small story?” he says. One night, a few years back, a nondescript businessman from the Midwest comes for dinner without a reservation. He is informed he will have to wait for a table to open. Jordan, who is dining there that night, looks up and spots the gentleman. “Mr Jordan said to me, ‘You are going to have to give him my table now, because this man is very important!’ ” — the man being his friend from Omaha, Warren Buffett.
We are now more than two hours in, and San Pietro has emptied. How much longer, I ask, will Jordan keep working? “Waking up wondering about my tee time and bridge game scares the hell out of me. So I’m going to keep going for a while. Lazard is not suggesting I hang it up and neither is Akin Gump. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
And with that, it is time to go: there is a three o’clock train to catch.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.