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Vernon Jordan, Power Broker And Former Presidential Advisor, Dies At 85

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Vernon Jordan - attorney, civil rights activist and adviser to presidents - has died. He was 85 years old. Jordan was a witness and participant in many watershed moments in modern American history. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch podcast has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In "Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain," last year's PBS documentary on his life, Vernon Jordan leads a visitor down a hallway hung with photographs of him with some famous people.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VERNON JORDAN: MAKE IT PLAIN")

VERNON JORDAN: And every president since Lyndon Johnson is here. Here I am with Johnson, President Nixon.

GRIGSBY BATES: He got along all right with all of them, especially Bill Clinton, who was one of his best friends. But he also didn't hesitate to chastise them when he thought that was necessary. Even his fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, at an Urban League dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VERNON JORDAN: MAKE IT PLAIN")

JORDAN: Black people didn't vote for Nixon, and Black people didn't vote before they voted for Jimmy Carter. And it is not enough for President Carter to be just a little bit better than his predecessors.

GRIGSBY BATES: Jordan recalled Carter wasn't thrilled about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VERNON JORDAN: MAKE IT PLAIN")

JORDAN: And he said to me, you could have told me that in the Oval. And I said, if you think that, you don't understand your job or mine.

GRIGSBY BATES: That was Vernon Jordan - urbane, polished, but plainspoken when he had to be. It was why so many presidents valued his counsel.

Vernon Eulion Jordan was born and grew up in Atlanta. He shone in the segregated schools he attended before going off to DePauw University in Indiana and law school at Howard University. Jordan often said a fellow Atlantan, Martin Luther King Jr., inspired him to become active in the civil rights movement. He became a field secretary for the NAACP and director of the Voter Education Project. Later, he was chosen to replace Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League, after Young's death in 1971.

His career nearly came to an abrupt end in 1980, when Jordan was shot and almost killed after an Urban League dinner in Indiana. There was speculation because the league volunteer who'd driven him to his hotel was white, Jordan told C-SPAN's Brian Lamb.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JORDAN: I think that the notion that I was a civil rights leader and was out late at night with a white woman, that some people tried to read in that - into that something that was not there, whatever that was.

GRIGSBY BATES: After a long convalescence, Jordan recovered and went on to work in corporate America, first in one of Washington's premier white-shoe law firms, then onto Wall Street. He always used his power and connections to open doors and to mentor people of color. Jordan was fiercely loyal to his friends and upset some people when he backed Hillary Clinton when she ran against Barack Obama in 2008. But he told NPR's Michel Martin then he'd been Clinton's transition chief and had known both Clintons for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JORDAN: What people have to understand is that my daddy taught me that you dance with the one who brung you. I'm too old to trade friendship for race.

GRIGSBY BATES: Today, Vernon Jordan, the consummate Washington insider, is being lauded by other power brokers around the country. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Stacey Abrams all tweeted their gratitude for his work and friendship. He brought others with him, Abrams tweeted, and left a map so more could find their way.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "STARLIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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