If you are Vernon Jordan, it's hard to lie low. But for now, he's trying. At 6 feet 4, a figure of bespoke suits and regal bearing, the 72-year-old lawyer is the ultimate Washington insider. He and his wife, Ann Dibble Jordan, are founding members of the Clintons' political First Family, with ties measured in decades lived, millions of dollars raised and rounds of golf played. When Hillary launched her campaign, the Jordans were onboard for what was billed as a sunny cruise to the nomination. Now, as the S.S. Clinton bails water, the Jordans remain on the ship—but in Vernon's case, not on deck. He has campaigned for her in South Carolina and continues to talk up her chances wherever his investment-banking, legal- and college-speaking duties take him. Still, says a top campaign insider who declined to be named for fear of seeming ungrateful: "I wish he were more out front. But you know Vernon."
I do—and he never does anything by accident. He isn't a superdelegate or a party official, but he doesn't need to be. As a veteran dealmaker and one of the nation's most prominent African-Americans—with closer ties to Barack Obama than most Washingtonians appreciate—Jordan is maneuvering himself into the endgame. That could mean either telling Hillary it's time to pack it in, or persuading Obama not to tear up the party if the powers that be deny him the nomination. (Obama has even fewer ties—and less reason to listen—to anyone in the Washington establishment.) As my source in the Clinton campaign put it, "Vernon wants to be the broker." What does Jordan say? "I will do whatever I can to help my party," he told me.
The key word—and if you are Hillary, the chilling one—is "party." That, and protecting his own role, is where his loyalty lies, however close he is to the Clintons. (Rahm Emanuel, also a potential broker, is another man in the middle.) And he is close. The ties go back to the 1970s, when Hillary, working with the Children's Defense Fund, met Ann, then a social worker in Chicago. When Bill ran in 1992, Vernon was a key adviser and confidant. He remained so during the Clinton presidency—most prominently when he tried to gently hustle Monica Lewinsky out of town by inquiring about job offers for her in New York. The two men relished each other's company in private and their brother act on the golf course. Their favorite scene: Martha's Vineyard, the Beltway-by-the-Sea, where Jordan summers and the Clintons were First House Guests.
In history as in golf, however, there is always another round. Even before Obama rose to the top, Jordan let it be known he knew the up-and-coming player. The introduction came by way of the corporate world: while serving on the board of the Sara Lee Corp., in Chicago, Jordan met Obama through John Bryan, then the company's CEO. Jordan was deeply impressed. When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate four years ago, the Jordans hosted the Illinois state senator's first Washington fund-raiser at their home. At that event, Jordan met lawyer Gregory Craig, now a pivotal adviser to the Obama presidential campaign.
While Obama and Jordan have not talked recently, they have had long chats, including one last summer—while golfing on the Vineyard. No one knows what they talked about, but it probably went along the lines of: you're not ready and Hillary is. If the advice was offered, the younger man did not take it, of course. He also won the match. "He was better than me that day," Jordan says. The key words: "that day." Translation: Jordan expects the two of them have many golf games ahead.