The Smoothest Of Operators

VERNON JORDAN HAS never been a man who's easily flustered. Late last Friday, besieged by allegations that he had encouraged Monica Lewinsky to lie about her alleged affair with Bill Clinton, Jordan returned a few of the scores of reporters' calls from the comfort of his downtown office. "I'm just going to go ahead and live my life," he coolly, almost defiantly, told NEWSWEEK. His legal advisers had urged him not to go before the cameras a day earlier. But Jordan is used to giving advice, not taking it, and he trusted his instincts.

Sources close to Jordan say he had three reasons for publicly denying the charges. First, he wanted to reassure his corporate clients that his integrity--and his influence-- remained intact. Second, he wanted his close friend Clinton to know, on the record, that Jordan was not about to cut and run. Finally, and perhaps most important, he was trying to send a message to Monica Lewinsky and her lawyer: if you change your story now, it's going to be your word against mine. And in the capital, Vernon Jordan's word is not to be taken lightly.

"The River Jordan," as one of his friends likes to call him, is a mighty current in Washington. He's brokered jobs for the likes of IBM chief Lou Gerstner and World Bank president James Wolfensohn. No other private lawyer in America sits on so many major corporate boards. No other black man in America can boast so many influential friends, from senators to studio heads, people who seek his counsel on everything from jobs to marriages. And probably no man is as trusted by Clinton. Last week, while the rest of the nation was reeling from the allegations against the president, Washington insiders were having a harder time believing that Jordan could have been reckless enough to risk his career. After all, a lot of people say a lot of things about Vernon Jordan--but no one ever said he was careless.

It would be hard to describe to someone outside the Beltway just what Vernon Jordan does. He's been called a "superlawyer" so often that he should probably wear a cape, but he hardly practices law and isn't even a registered lobbyist. "If you ever see me in the library here, tap me on the shoulder," he once told an associate at his law firm. "For you will know that I am lost." His real skill lies in listening to people's dilemmas--and solving them. At 6 feet 4, with a regal bearing, Jordan is famously charming, smart and discreet. He's profited handsomely from companies eager to have the services of the ultimate Friend of Bill. The son of a maid and a postal worker in the projects of west Atlanta, Jordan worked in the civil-rights movement before heading the Urban League for a decade. In 1980, he was shot and nearly killed by a racist sniper in Indiana. He survived, and was reborn as a Washington lawyer.

Jordan first met Clinton during the lawyer's days at the Urban League. Southerners who love to work a room, both men love to eat, golf, tell stories--and flirt with women. Their mutual fondness for the ladies is a frequent, if crude, topic of conversation. Asked at a party earlier this year what it was he and Clinton talk about on the golf course, Jordan slyly replied: "We talk pu--y." Jordan serves as a sort of fixer-without-portfolio for Clinton. It was Jordan who approached Colin Powell about becoming secretary of State, and it was Jordan who consoled the Clintons after the deaths of Vince Foster and Ron Brown. Jordan's second wife, Ann, is a trustee of Clinton's presidential library. (His first wife died of multiple sclerosis.) One friend likens the relationship between Bill and Vernon to that of JFK and his brother Bobby.

But Jordan prefers privacy to the glare of public life. He has routinely dismissed questions about conflicts of interest and his own financial worth. Meanwhile, he has developed a specialty running "transition teams," as he did for Clinton in 1992, which enables him to place friends in key jobs. Friends say Jordan had an interest in becoming Clinton's attorney general or ambassador to Britain, but ultimately shunned the scrutiny of a confirmation process for his more lucrative role as an outsider. He prides himself on maintaining control; at parties, he'll sip a single glass of wine all night. While he cites his mother and a civil-rights lawyer as his role models, he's told friends that his hero in Washington is the late Edward Bennett Williams--the prototypical D.C. power broker.

All of which raises an obvious question about the allegations Jordan now faces: does it make sense that a man who's built his career by being careful would risk everything so carelessly? True, as a walking favor bank and Clinton confidant, Jordan would have been an obvious choice to get Lewinsky a job and a lawyer. But he is also a good friend of Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie, and one of the few powerful people who routinely reach out to interns and secretaries without being asked. When Jordan visits one female cabinet member, he brings 13 long-stemmed red roses--a dozen for the cabinet officer and one for her secretary.

Whatever the truth, the new year isn't starting well for Jordan. The criminal investigation comes at a time when Jordan's civil-rights credentials are also under attack for the first time. In a new book, TransAfrica head Randall Robinson refers to "Vernon Jordan Disease," which he said afflicts successful blacks who forget their roots. Unlike black leaders who live on Washington's "Gold Coast" along 16th Street, Jordan lives in an exclusive white neighborhood. And unlike blacks who vacation in the Oak Bluffs section of Martha's Vineyard, Jordan spreads himself around the island, where his birthday party for Clinton last summer drew the likes of William Styron and Sly Stallone. "He is of no value to black people," snaps Clifford Alexander, a former secretary of the Army. Is Vernon Jordan's star finally fading? That depends on whether the man who fixes other people's messes can find a way to fix his own.