He will be remembered in the history books, rightly, as a leader of civil rights, confidant of presidents, a broker of power at the highest level. But he had another title: the most charming man in Washington.
It would be a mistake to dismiss this as somehow superficial. In a city full of very intelligent, deeply ambitious but ultimately self-centered people, Jordan had a unique ability to make anyone who met them felt seen, understood, and valued – and they adored him for it. “It was a magnet”, said the great lady Buffy Cafritz, one of his closest friends. “You were drawn to him.
It was an imposing figure: tall, handsome, elegant and confident. He was formal, in the best sense of the word. After the announcement of his death on Monday, Joe Scarborough tweeted this encounter: “Several years ago Vernon Jordan came up to me on his way to get on a plane at DCA, shook my hand and said, ‘Son, when you’re on TV, show respect to those looking at you and wearing a tie. ‘I said’ Yessir ‘. He smiled and walked away. I started wearing a tie the next day.
But there was something more: call it charisma, call it charm, call it curiosity. “He made everyone feel that he was the most important person to him – and it was genuine,” says Ann Walker Marchant, niece of Jordan’s wife, Ann Dibble Jordan. “He was laser focused on how they were doing and what they were doing.”
This laser focus is the key. If charm is an art form, Jordan was a virtuoso. Most people, with the slightest encouragement, love to talk about themselves. It takes discipline to resist this impulse and shine the spotlight on others, a talent so rare that people find it hard to put their finger on it. But it’s the foundation of what we call charm, a timeless quality for winning friends and influencing people.
Part of that can be attributed to the old-fashioned southern hospitality and exquisite manners he learned from his mother, a caterer to Atlanta’s elite families. She encouraged her son to leave the South to attend DePauw University in Indiana, where he was one of the few black students. He went to Howard University to study law, then embarked on a legal and business career which led him to the White House as a friend and dearest adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton. – before, during and after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“We worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together,” the former president tweeted on Tuesday. “We loved him very much and will love him always.”
Part of it was his circumspection, an invaluable quality to the rich and powerful. Jordan was believed to be a steadfast friend every day. “You knew you had a friend who would never break a trust, and that’s important in Washington,” Cafritz says. “He always made you feel so much better.”
He was a master of compliments: he flattered, not in the awkward style of the socially anxious, but with sophisticated playfulness. He found something to congratulate in everyone: he made men feel smart and funny; he made women feel smart, funny and attractive.
“I like people a lot, and it starts there”, he told me in 2000 for a story on the art of flirting. “I am a very social being. I like the conversation. I find people fun and exciting. And I love women, but I love them all: I flirt with pretty ladies and I flirt with not-so-pretty ladies. I’m an equal opportunity flirt: old, young, fat, skinny, black, white – all. (This, of course, was two decades ago, and the wisdom of powerful men who flirt – even in social situations – is now seen differently.)
He was not only a very social being, but very organized: he had legions of friends and somehow found time for them all. “Barely a week would go by without a call from Vernon just to check in, no matter where he is in the world,” says philanthropist Roger Sant.
Jordan listened more than he spoke, asking questions and then follow-up questions. He preferred small dinners – eight people maximum – where the conversation could be deepened and he could get caught up in everyone’s lives, Sant said. When he could be persuaded to speak for himself he was “an accomplished and entertaining storyteller, and stories generally had a moral – as when George Wallace sent him an extremely caring and kind letter afterwards. [Jordan] was shot dead in Indiana. There were so many stories we rarely heard the same. (While recovering from this 1980 attack, Jordan, then president of the National Urban League, was visited by President Jimmy Carter, candidate Ronald Reagan, and other luminaries.)
Jordan’s discretion could be maddening if you were a journalist. He knew everyone and presumably everything, but in three decades of covering Washington’s elite, he always returned my phone calls, but never spilled tea on any of them. “I consider conversations with my friends to be private,” he explained, and after a few niceties, that was it.
Good to know: Jordan hosted an annual pre-dinner luncheon at the Alfalfa Club, an unofficial gathering of America’s most powerful political and business leaders. Even those who skipped dinner would make an appearance at the lunch, including President Barack Obama. But nothing – not the guest list, not a funny story, not even the menu – was leaked to the press, because that’s how Jordan wanted it.
As a result, the Jordans were on Washington’s A-list, sought after as guests or co-chairs at the city’s most prestigious events. Jordan has often been invited to give a speech, a toast, a eulogy – and has never been disappointed. He worked hard on his remarks, then made them seem effortless.
Jordan’s performance “was unprecedented,” said Kevin Chaffee, editor of Washington Life. “He gave as much of himself to a small group of listeners as he would have if his audience had been crowded.
His lived experience – a black man at the top of America’s power structure – has made him an invaluable mentor and advisor across racial, economic and social lines. He met Obama when the future president was a simple state senator; Obama sought Jordan’s advice as he considered a 2008 presidential run. Jordan told him he would back his old friend Hillary Clinton, but pledged his full support if Obama won the primary.
The two shared the stage at Howard University in 2016, when Jordan officially introduced Obama as a speaker. Howard President Wayne Frederick sent Jordan a framed photo of the two, which hung in a treasured spot in his home.
“It was a wrapping up moment,” says Frederick, who has become a close friend over the past decade. “I know he was extremely proud.”
At the heart of Vernon’s call, Frederick said, was hope. “He was optimistic and open-minded about life’s challenges and opportunities that allowed him to engage anyone and anything he encountered. That optimism left “no room for bitterness or anger” and propelled him forward – mentoring young black students, diversifying US boards.
“Yes, he had charisma,” says Frédéric. “But I also think part of it was pure kindness. He really approached people from a place of good and respect for the humanity of the people.
Call it charisma, call it attention, call it respect – but it left an indelible mark on a city hungry for a little charm.