Hamilton Jordan: The Carter Years and Beyond

Every election cycle a new crop of political aides emerge as stars, and so it happened that two young Southerners, both barely over 30, appeared as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, the ultimate in what passed for cool 30 years ago. Irreverent and wisecracking, the two Georgians, Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, provided a welcome contrast to Jimmy Carter's straitlaced image, yet they were so close to the president that those of us who covered the White House knew that talking to Ham or Jody was like talking to Jimmy himself.

It was hard for me to reconcile the young upstart I first met in 1974 in Atlanta with the Hamilton who attended the 30th-anniversary retrospective of the Carter presidency earlier this year. It wasn't only the oxygen tank that he pulled beside him; it was the life he had lived in those 30 years since leaving Washington. It was a life of service and courage, one that would not have been predicted from the antics that landed him on the front page when he was in the White House.

Hamilton Jordan died at his home in Atlanta on Tuesday. He was 63 and had fought six different cancers since first being diagnosed with lymphoma in 1984, a cancer he believed was the result of his having been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He didn't have to go to Vietnam. The military declared him medically ineligible because he had flat feet, but he went anyway as a volunteer with an international refugee organization. I didn't realize at the time how much that said about him. His time in Washington was rocky. He was an outsider and he had a chip on his shoulder. "I expected they'd knock the chip off, but I didn't think they'd take my whole shoulder with it," he once said.

Jordan lost his fight with cancer on the same day the nation learned that Ted Kennedy is suffering from a cancerous brain tumor, a twist of fate that brings the two men together in the news 30 years after they battled each other all the way to the Democratic Convention in 1980, and beyond. "We could beat Kennedy or Khomeini; we couldn't beat them both," Jordan said after a contentious convention in which Carter and his challenger circled each other on the stage, with Kennedy avoiding the traditional raised-arms victory clasp that signals a unified ticket. The American hostages held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran would not be released until President Reagan took the oath of office, handing Carter one final humiliation.

Characterized as a party boy, Jordan seemed to delight in encouraging his image as a rule-breaker in staid Washington circles. He would stash his dirty tennis clothes in his West Wing office, and he wore blue jeans to social functions long before that was socially acceptable. He got in trouble for allegedly spitting amaretto at a woman in a bar and for allegedly comparing the cleavage of the wife of the Egyptian ambassador to the Pyramids at a state dinner. He denied both charges. In 1979 he was the subject of a special counsel investigation over whether he had snorted cocaine at a nightclub in New York. NEWSWEEK ran a story about Jordan (with a picture of him drinking a Coca-Cola) under the headline "Now, Ham and Coke?"

The evidence that Jordan did drugs was nonexistent, and no charges were ever brought. Carter stuck with him throughout, distrustful of the media's judgment and mindful of Jordan's keen sense of strategy. An 80-page memo written years earlier by Jordan became the game plan by which Carter, a little-known one-term governor and former peanut farmer, methodically built the credibility, organization and network of contacts to become president. The plan was detailed to the point of setting out a reading list for Carter, along with the names of national figures in politics and the media whom Carter should invite to the governor's mansion for an evening of informal conversation.

Jordan's disillusionment with Washington was profound. Unlike so many White House aides, he left and never came back, flirting instead with third-party politics. He was a co-chair of Ross Perot's campaign in 1992, and last year he wrote one of his groundbreaking memos sketching out the forces in society making 2008 the perfect year for a third-party presidential bid. But with the two major parties gravitating toward reform-minded candidates in John McCain and Barack Obama, Jordan told the Atlanta Press Club in March that he thought the oxygen for an independent candidacy was gone, relegating Unity '08, a group he helped create, to the sidelines. (To read a piece Jordan recently wrote for Newsweek.com analyzing the Obama campaign, click here.)

Jordan spent much of his time counseling fellow cancer patients, and his memoir, published in 2001, is titled "No Such Thing as a Bad Day." Together with his second wife, Dorothy, a pediatric nurse, he founded a camp for children with cancer. Like the president he served, Jordan's life after the White House defined him more than the four years he spent in Washington.

Hamilton Jordan: The Carter Years and Beyond | U.S.