From Jim Crow to Wall Street: Vernon Jordan Turns 80

After starting out as a chauffeur, the counselor to presidents and CEOs never left the driver's seat.

Photographer: Margaret Talev/Bloomberg

Martha’s Vineyard is gearing up for a major party this weekend, and while President Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton are coming, they’re not the guests of honor.

That distinction goes to Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader, Clinton family confidant, Washington lawyer, Wall Street banker and corporate-board-whisperer who hits a landmark birthday on Saturday. Before his party, Jordan spent the afternoon golfing with Obama, Bill Clinton and former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. 

“It’s incredible to know that I’m 80,” Jordan said in an interview over breakfast at his Chilmark summer home a few days before his birthday. “It seems that I got here so fast.”

This would be a milestone event in any case. Even more than that of the nation's first African-American president, Jordan's life mirrors an arc of American history: As a young man in Jim Crow Georgia, his first job was chauffeuring a white banker who was shocked that he could read. Now he counts some of America's most wealthy and powerful citizens as friends and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are proud to call him a mentor. 

But on this exclusive Massachusetts island where Jordan has summered for decades, his contributions also seem even more significant because of their juxtaposition with the events of past year that call into highlight—and in some cases question—the progress he embodies: Racially charged horrors from Ferguson, Missouri, to Charleston, South Carolina. The 50th anniversaries of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. And a presidential race now under way in which Hillary Clinton and her Democratic rivals all are counting on being able to rally minority and female voters around calls for economic opportunity and pay equity to win the nomination and beat Republicans.

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No one has played a more pivotal role in furthering U.S. civil rights in the last half century than Jordan, says Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University professor and historian of African-American life. He is “kind of the Rosa Parks of Wall Street,” said Gates, who credited Jordan with integrating corporate boardrooms. “He realized that the first phase of the modern civil rights movement was fighting legal segregation, but the roots of racism were fundamentally economic.”

Vernon Jordan, far right, “the Rosa Parks of Wall Street,” joins Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google Inc., left, and Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., center, at the Economic Club for a 2012 dinner.
Vernon Jordan, far right, “the Rosa Parks of Wall Street,” joins Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google Inc., left, and Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., center, at the Economic Club for a 2012 dinner.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Gates turned down a chance to be part of Secretary of State John Kerry's official delegation for ceremonies surrounding the re-opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana this weekend because he didn't want to miss Jordan's birthday party. “There's no place in the world I'd rather be,” he said.

The object of all this affection and reverence moves his 6-foot-4 frame little slower than he used to and he said he’s more likely to drive to the corner store in his beloved, 24-year-old red Cadillac convertible than to walk. That said, Jordan is still stirring the proverbial pot.

In June, he delivered a commencement address at Stanford University that took Silicon Valley to task for not doing more to elevate women and minorities. He asked the audience to help “clear the rubble of racism still strewn across this country.”

“A Stanford graduate today is a very hot commodity,” he said. “We live in a world that calls out for you to realize your talents, not just for your own gain, but to lift up those in whose shoes, but for the grace of God, you might have been walking.” He said that “no society that leaves out a significant percentage of its people can long endure” and cited as evidence of the “the color line” statistics that blacks and Latinos were around 4 percent of the Silicon Valley technology workforce while 41 percent of its security guards and about three-fourths of its janitors and groundskeepers.

“It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job,” Jordan said. “It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. But that is the challenge at hand.”

The message is all the more powerful because of Jordan's personal journey: Graduating DePauw University in Indiana as the only black student in his class, then among peers at Howard Law, and rising quickly through the NAACP, the Voter Education Project, United Negro College Fund, and Urban League, roles that placed him at the center of the civil rights movement. Surviving an assassination attempt. Later work that made him wealthy if controversial among some blacks: At the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, where he still goes to the office on Fridays. At Lazard Freres & Co. in New York, his office Mondays through Thursdays. His friendships with the Clintons and role as adviser to President Clinton have lasted long past controversies over his roles in the Monica Lewinsky scandal (he helped the former White House intern find a job). That's because they are built on discretion. Jordan recalled how Bill Clinton wanted to make him the nation’s first black attorney general and he said no, wary of mixing loyalty and friendship with stewardship of the Constitution and convinced he could speak more freely in a kitchen cabinet role.

President Clinton and friend Vernon Jordan watch as their partners putt on the 14th green at the Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on Martha's Vineyard on Aug. 5, 2000.
President Clinton and friend Vernon Jordan watch as their partners putt on the 14th green at the Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on Martha's Vineyard on Aug. 5, 2000.
Photographer: Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

In the year ahead, Jordan said, he expects to campaign for Hillary, not in a major role, but doing anything she needs from fundraising to strategy to networking. “I would welcome an elder statesman role,” he said. “I love her. I have enormous respect for her and she’s my friend. To everything there is a season. This is hers and I think she’s the most qualified.”

Jordan, in our conversation, recalled telling Obama during the 2008 campaign that he was “too old to trade friendship for race” and was sticking with Hillary Clinton through the primary. “But I told him, ‘If you beat her I’ll help you,’ and I did.”

On general election night in 2008, Jordan said, he was in New York and began the night at a party but left early to watch the returns alone with a cigar and a drink.

“When they declared Obama the president, I literally cried,” he said. “But it dawned on me the tears were not my tears. They were the tears of my parents and grandparents. They were the tears of black people that toted cotton and lifted that bale. They were the tears of incredulous belief that a black man had been elected president of the United States.”

I asked Jordan whether he thought Obama had done enough to call out racism and promote civil rights. He answered it like this: “In the last year he’s done it a lot better. He went to the mountaintop in Charleston.” He said he’d cried again hearing Obama sing “Amazing Grace” in June at his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, who was among the slain.

He steered clear of any on-the-record evaluations of Vice President Joe Biden or Clinton’s Democratic rivals. He said the media’s obsession with ratings and entertainment will keep Donald Trump in the Republican game longer than many expect and that a third-party run would help Clinton. Jeb Bush, with whom he said he had served on a corporate board, and whose father he praised, is “the most desirable of the Republicans because he’s got sense enough to govern center-right.”

Jordan reviewed his remarkable life and provided a glimpse of his still powerful influence over a breakfast of salmon, biscuits, and blueberry jam with his wife, Ann, at the house they’ve rented on the Vineyard for the last two decades, on the Allen Farm, which bills itself as the oldest continuously working family farm on the island.

While we are eating, two women with whom the Jordans are obviously close stroll unannounced into the kitchen and say hello. They are getting ready to do some berry canning. One of them is Clarissa Allen, who inherited the farm that has been in her family since the 1700s. The other woman, Abby, is carrying a basket filled with lids for Mason jars. We’re introduced only casually, and Jordan later explains that her father is David Rockefeller.

Soon after, Jordan and I retreat to a screened-in sun porch with wicker chairs and ottomans and a bar cart, off the kitchen, his favorite spot in the house. Out the window is a vista of rolling hills, glimpses of lamb, donkeys and ponies, the sounds of roosters crowing. From nowhere, a couple appears at the porch door, a man and a woman and carrying the day’s New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

This, they explain, is ritual if they’re out for a walk in the summer and pass by the Jordans’ home and the papers are there. They are Lili Lynton, an investor and the sister of Sony Entertainment chief executive officer Michael Lynton, and her husband, Michael Ryan. Jordan tells me he’ll probably go to the corner store later to buy duplicate copies of the papers, just because if he doesn’t the proprietors might worry about why he hasn’t stopped in that day, and also because he’s hoping to bump into Evercore CEO Ralph Schlosstein or financier Steve Rattner.

One thing Jordan loves about the Vineyard, he said, is “you always learn something” from catching up with friends and neighbors. “You hear about what they’re doing, what deal they’re working on or not working on; you get a little gossip. It’s all part of the fellowship.” 

He says that “the most exciting thing in my life now is watching my grandchildren, their interests, school and ambition,” but Jordan is still trying to make connections and to connect other people to each other. He said his other great pleasure is taking a step back and being able to watching the next generation of the civil rights movement unfold from a perch that is a bit more off to the side though still engaged.

Lazard chairman and CEO Kenneth Jacobs said he has sought Jordan's career advice, judgments about people and approach to complicated business decisions. He said Jordan is at the center of “a stunning array of people from young to old of every race, background, rich poor” whom he has helped by mentioning them or connecting them to someone who could change their lives.

“It’s spooky, six degrees of separation,” said Ursula Burns of Xerox, one of the CEOs flying in for Jordan's birthday. “Everybody in the world has some connection to Vernon Jordan. If you want to find out something, if you want to get connected to someone, he’ll say ‘I’ll get the person to call.’”

Like Burns, American Express CEO Ken Chenault said he owed much of his success to Jordan and the paths and connections he helped him to forge. Jordan has been affiliated with both American Express and Xerox since the 1970s. “He’s in my view a catalytic agent of change,” Chenault said. “He’s been able to transform society, go into business, transform business,” and for years has been “positioning people for important roles in companies.”

Burns agreed. “He’s been an unbelievable guide,” she said. “He manages to sprinkle this perspective, knowledge, caring, whether you are a janitor or engineer or CEO, or just a regular worker in a company. It’s one of the most amazing attributes. And I think that’s what America is supposed to be about.”

“He is historically relevant and he is relevant for today,” she added. “You can’t write him off yet.”

Can Jordan envision retirement? “It’s very important to know when to stop,” he said. “At some point, I’ll have to deal with that. But the notion of waking up with nothing to worry about other than your tee time scares the hell out of me.”

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