her Outstanding Freshman Senator, and
she, in turn, called them all her friends.
Before leaving the Senate, she was named
Governor for a Day, a purely symbolic
title yet one, the book makes clear, in
which she reveled. It was another milestone.
The Quick Fix
Jordan came to Congress in 1973, and
well before her last term, I'm told, she
was a woman bored with her work. The
glory days of impeachment had come and
gone, as had the initial exhilaration of
being elected to Congress. Quickly she
had become a star—she was perhaps the
best known person in Congress by the
end of her first term-and it seemed
difficult for her to keep motivated after
that. She was easily frustrated by the
workings of Congress, quickly annoyed at
how long it took to get anywhere "... It
was easy to become bogged down in
the minutiae of committee meetings and
settings and roll call votes and quorum
calls and spend many hours doing things
that you really had no interest in doing,"
she writes. Even in her first year, there
were portents of this. A number of times,
after particularly bad days, Jordan would
storm into her office and announce to
anyone within earshot: "I don't need
this place, you know. I can leave any
willing to stretch herself too thin. She
had only one legislative assistant, so she
wouldn't have to feel badgered by a half-
dozen assistants all pushing her in a half-
dozen different directions, and she spent
a lot of her time simply studying the
various bills coming up on the floor.
That is also why she resented the black
and women's caucuses. As with the Harris
County Democrats, she felt they were
trying to "use" her for their purposes.
They were trying to stretch her too thin,
she thought, always asking her to sign
onto some letter to the president, or to
join them in a press conference, or, to
speak out on something on their behalf.
What she wouldn't see is that the caucuses, and the Harris County Democrats,
were full of people working towards
something, committed to some set of
goals. All Jordan could see was that she,
Barbara Jordan, was being asked to
perform a favor, for which she personally
would get nothing in return.
If that sounds a bit harsh, contrast it
with her attitudes towards those who
she believed could help her: "When
Congressman (George) Mahon, chairman
of the Appropriations Committee, interrupted her on another phone call to ask if
she would sing with him at the West
Texas Chamber of Commerce meeting,
she was jocular and glad to oblige," writes
Hearon. "Doing favors was part and
parcel of the ongoing business of doing
While working in Congress can be an
essentially thankless, anonymous task, the
business of speechmaking brought with it an
immediate gratification. She could always
bring down the house, no matter what the
audience or the topic. It was a quick-fix—a
reaffirmation of her stardom.
During the heady days of impeachment, she had played an important role
on the Judiciary Committee, for
chairman Peter Rodino trusted her instincts and had consulted her practically
daily. But later she would not go out of
her way even to attend her subcommittee
meetings, and when she did, she had
nothing to offer. She just sat and listened.
By the end of her third year, she had
all but stopped pushing for bills she wrote
or offering amendments. Once in a while
she would drop a bill into the congressional hopper and there it would die.
She began spending more time than ever
on the House floor. The last six months
of her congressional career, even her staff
had a hard time seeing her because her
co-author, Hearon, had become a de-
facto administrative assistant, practically
running the office while the two of them
wrote the book.
What Jordan never lost her taste for
was the politics of the House. She may
have been absent at subcommittee meetings, but she never missed a meeting of
the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a group of Democrats who decide
who is going to be on what committee
and perform other "political" functions.
(Here, too, the liberals soon became resigned to the fact that Barbara Jordan
would invariably side with the conservatives.) She quietly made a few overtures to the House leadership in an effort
to get on the House Rules Committee at
a time when the leaders were trying to
make the committee less independent and
more subservient to their wishes. That
would have been all right with Jordan,
who would have liked working for the
leadership, thus putting them in her political debt.
It is often said in her defense that Barbara Jordan was not the kind of person
business in the Congress . . ."
She granted a lot of those favors by
doing what she did with Mahon—making
appearances and speeches. While working
in Congress can be an essentially thankless, anonymous task, the business of
speechmaking brought with it an immediate gratification. She could always
bring down the house, no matter what
the audience or the topic. It was a quick
fix—a reaffirmation of her stardom.
As such, it became something she did
often (and profitably-Jordan usually
made in the neighborhood of $12,000 a
year in honoraria). She campaigned for
Carter at his request (another political
chit), and recalled: "I don't know
whether Carter ought to thank me for
campaigning for him, or I ought to thank
him for sending me to these places to
campaign because I was having a ball. The
reaction to me was what turned me on."
She made her famous speech at the
Democratic Convention at the request
of fellow Texan Robert Strauss (add
another political chit) and glowed in the
warmth of the nation's applause. Afterwards, there was a party in the VIP
lounge, and Jordan was the star there too.
"They were all kissing my ass, that's all
I can say about that time."
After Carter was elected, Jordan began
looking for new milestones. Congress
had already lost its luster. There was a
great deal of talk about her becoming
a member of the cabinet, but most of it
didn't interest her. To her, writes Hearon,
"the idea of a cabinet post seemed to
offer nothing more substantive than
another First Time. More immediate, and
therefore more real to her, was the campaign trail with its familiar thrill of bringing audiences to their feet." And Jordan
adds: "I didn't want HEW: a black
woman head of HEW couldn't do a thing
that would be of interest." What she did
want was Attorney General. While it is
never spelled out in the book, the sense
one gets is that she felt HEW was the kind
of cabinet post that a Pat Harris might
be named to, but only Barbara Jordan
could pull down Attorney General. Attorney General wouldn't be any First
Time. Here would be another notch to
She was never seriously considered for
the post, particularly after her one
meeting with the Carter people turned
into a debacle—they were stunned and
angered by her refusal to even listen to
any offers other than Attorney General.
Well after he was elected, and his
Cabinet firmly in place, Carter again
asked Jordan to campaign, this time for
Brendan Byrne in New Jersey. She turned
him down. "I had done my thing for Carter at the time of his campaigning and
helping with the election," she writes.
"And I hadn't called in any of those
chits at that point. I decided: I don't
need to stockpile favors at the White
House, so I won't go to New Jersey.
That's just politics."
Jordan left Congress last year without
looking back. Part of the reason is that
she had gotten from it all she wanted—the
fame and recognition. The milestone had
been achieved; she had no further need
for Congress. (Another part of the reason
may well have been her health, which
has been rumored for years to be worse
than she will publicly admit.)
Before leaving Congress, she made one
of her last major public appearances at
a Harvard commencement, where she
gave the address. Her description of the
event reveals a lot about why Barbara
Jordan was such a disappointment as
a public official.
"And I had done a lot of those (commencement addresses); had been
awarded, at that juncture, twenty-two
doctoral degrees, including one at Boston
and one scheduled at Princeton. So I was
thinking: Well, maybe I don't need to do
any more of those. How many commencement speeches do you give? How
many honorary degrees do you want?
"Then I got a letter from Harvard
University. It had voted to give me an
honorary doctoral degree at its June
commencement. So I answered myself:
Well, that's one you take. How many
more? One more."
The speech that day, given in her
usual ringing, inspiring tone, was about
the lack of citizen participation in government. She spoke in particular about the
regulatory agencies, how difficult it was
for an ordinary citizen to poke his nose
into the business of the Atomic Energy
Commission, for example, how the rules
were stacked against it, and the expenses
were too high.
"The people want in," she said.
"How much longer, how much longer
will people tolerate a network of illusions
and vacuous rhetoric? How much longer?" she said.
"We want to be in control of our lives.
Whether we are jungle fighters, craftsmen,
company men, gamesmen, we want to be
in control. And when the government
erodes that control, we are not comfortable," she said.
"The stakes are too high for government to be a spectator sport," she said.
The crowd, of course, was in awe, and
what no one thought to ask was what had
Barbara Jordan done to make government less a spectator sport? Why hadn't
she tried to make it easier for people to
intervene in the proceedings of the
Atomic Energy Commission if that is
what she thought important; Why hadn't
she done anything to help Americans take
more control of their lives?
In her efforts to Make It, she had
come to see life as a collection of awards,
of milestones to be achieved and then
abandoned for newer heights. Certainly
she was bored by Congress (and certainly Congress can be a boring place), but
it didn't help much that she looked at the
passage of bills as a chance to collect pens
from a President—which is precisely how
she looked at it. ("How many times do
you keep presenting a bill and getting it
passed and getting a President to sign
it? How many pens do you want?")
Certainly, HEW would have been a difficult place to manage, but it didn't help
that Barbara Jordan wasn't even willing
to try. To her it didn't matter that HEW
touches the lives of all of us; it just didn't
sparkle with the right kind of First Time.
And certainly she had gone far, but for
what purpose? The Voting Rights Act
was a nice bit of work, but it didn't
come close to tapping the immense
potential of Barbara Jordan. If the
minutiae of legislation bored her, there
were plenty of other things she could
have done. To name but one, Jordan was
in a unique position in the House to bring
some sense to the question of energy
prices. As the congresswoman from
oil-rich Houston, she had the trust and
support of the oil and gas industry, who
yearn for ever-higher prices. As the
congresswoman from the largest ghetto
in Texas, she was revered by the poor,
whose need for cheap energy is just as
She was the one person both sides
trusted; had she the inclination she could
have helped cut through the hyperbole
and the rhetoric surrounding the issue.
By talking to both sides, she could have
brought some rationality to our energy
mess. She had the talent to pull off
something like that. But she never had
The One Speech Legacy
"What is different about tonight?"
she asked the audience at the Democratic
Convention. "It is that I, Barbara Jordan,
am a keynote speaker." She needed to
get beyond looking at herself as a symbol
—"I, Barbara Jordan"—but she refused
to do so. LUtimately, her vision was too
limited; she never saw the potential for
doing good with her talents. What's
remarkable about her book, I suppose, is
its underlying admission of that failure.
By far the bulk of it is about making it-
winning the oratorical awards and Girl of
the Year, getting into the Texas Senate
and being Governor for a Day, coming to
Congress and making the famous
impeachment speech, and the convention
speech, and finally making that trip to
I asked one Texas politico whether he
thought she had left a legacy. "Surely,"
he said, "her impeachment speech will be
recited by schoolchildren for generations
to come." I tend to doubt that, but even
if I'm wrong, that hardly seems enough.
Barbara Jordan was a symbol and a hero
at a time when America yearned for
someone like her. Barbara Jordan: A Self-
Portrait tells a lot about how she became
that symbol, and almost nothing about
what she did when she got there. And the
reason for that, quite simply, is that Bar-
barba Jordan never got around to doing
Joeseph Nocera is an editor of The Washington Monthly.
(c) 1979 The Washington Monthly. Reprinted with permission.