History Thread: Barbara Jordan Takes Down a President

Few people outside of Texas had heard of Barbara Jordan prior to July 25, 1974. Jordan grew up in Houston’s 5th Ward, a poor, overwhelmingly Black neighborhood full of “shotgun houses” managed by white landowners. Her father Ben, was a Baptist preacher, her mother Arlyne a Sunday school teacher. They imparted to her the values of hard work, religion and mastery of the English language. For Jordan’s father, writes one author,”speech was a mark of good breeding and class, and he insisted his daughters speak correctly.” And Barbara, at least, would speak so correctly – and so loud – that the nation couldn’t help hearing her.

From an early age, Jordan showed a precocious interest in politics and social justice. She joined the high school debate team, only to be denied the right to debate against white schools. She attended the all-Black Texas State University and went to Boston for graduate school. Although she worked as a lawyer and professor as an adult, she soon came to see politics as her path forward. “I would never be content with being run of the mill,” Jordan said. “I was thinking about being a pharmacist, but then I asked myself, ‘Whoever heard of an outstanding pharmacist?’”

Instead, she won election to the State Senate in 1966, serving there effectively for seven years. “She doesn’t mind letting you know that she has a very, very high IQ,” one colleague remembered, “but she doesn’t embarrass you by making you feel that you’re nowhere close to being as smart as she is.” Jordan came under the wing of Lyndon Johnson, whom she called “political mentor and my friend” and gave her a detailed lesson in politics. Jordan initially defended even his unpopular stances, for speaking in defense of the Vietnam War. Though Jordan opposed the war in private, she felt “it was important for Texans to be supportive of their man.” Later, after Johnson left office, she became less circumspect about expressing herself.

LBJ and Barbara Jordan

In Austin, Jordan became a tough-minded operator, working with colleagues, labor leaders and Civil Rights organizers. Ben Love, a Houston businessman, found that Jordan possessed “an intelligence that was just visible in [her] eyes,” able to listen and consider various points of view. Her persuasive powers earned Jordan a place on the Human Rights Council, where she advised state leaders on racial issues alongside its chairman, Leon Jaworski of the American Bar Association. It was Jordan’s oratory, however, that made her reputation. Andrew Young, the Civil Rights leader-turned-Congressman, said hearing Jordan speak was “like the heavens have opened up.” 

Jordan was no radical; she believed unstintingly in the American system, finding it the most useful way to affect lasting change. This caused her grief from Black activists who wanted her to be more outspoken on racial issues and less cozy with white conservatives. Still, Jordan’s dedication to the System paid dividends, gaining her bipartisan support within Texas; many Houston businessmen who’d fought integration tooth and nail found themselves working with Jordan to repeal legal segregation in the city in the ’60s and ’70s. “Barbara uses the system for blacks; it doesn’t use her,” a colleague said approvingly.

Jordan maintained cordial relations with most of her colleagues, but her closest friendships lie outside the political sphere. During her time in Austin, Jordan befriended local YMCA director Anne Appenzellar, and joined her and another group of women on camping trips to the Hill Country. “We would camp out in tents and light fires and get dressed in the morning,” Jordan recalled. “Sometimes we would fish and troll in the streams. And I thought: it’s nice for me to be associated with all these people with these outdoorsy interests.”

Jordan, Nancy Earl and one of Earl’s students, 1982

Jordan grew particularly close with Nancy Earl, a blonde Pennsylvanian who worked as a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Earl, who sang and wrote stories in her spare time (and later served as her partner’s part-time speechwriter), fell for Jordan immediately – though she refused to fawn over her. “I was never intimidated by Barbara,” Earl insisted, “I just treated her like everybody else.” Jordan appreciated her candidness; “when Nancy was around,” Jordan’s biographer writes, “Barbara felt no pressure to perform, to be profound or wise. She could simply be.” The two began a relationship that lasted until Jordan’s death in 1996.

In 1972, Jordan was made President Pro Tempore of the Texas Senate, allowing her to serve as an honorary “Governor of the Day” that June. This symbolic achievement afforded Jordan no small amount of pride; Leon Jaworski hailed her as “an articulate and a brilliant woman” who “believes in the processes of a democracy, upholding the standards that made this country great and deploring those which would erode its greatness.” But Jordan’s crowning moment was bittersweet; her father Ben, who had discouraged Barbara’s political career while expressing pride in her achievements, died of a heart attack days later.

Jordan with colleague Ben Barnes

That fall, Jordan ran for Congress representing her old neighborhood, Houston’s Fifth Ward, in 1972. While she faced a competitive primary challenge from Curtis Graves, a Black State Representative who called Jordan a “tool” of the white Establishment, she easily won the general election, becoming the first Black congresswoman elected from the South. Her victory placed her front and center for the Watergate scandal, in which she received an unexpected starring role.

“President Nixon dominated Barbara Jordan’s first two years in Congress,” biographer Mary Beth Rogers writes. First, Congress passed the War Powers Act limiting the President’s ability to wage war. Jordan led the fight to limit the President’s right to impound congressional funds. Frustrated by the reluctance of Speaker of the House Carl Albert to press on this point, Jordan confronted him with all the force she could muster as a freshman. “We do not expect powerlessness of Congress as an institution,” she proclaimed. Albert got the message and soon scheduled a floor vote, where Jordan made her first star turn, accusing Nixon of a “trampling perversion of the Constitution.”

Jordan as State Senator

Lyndon Johnson, shortly before his death in January 1973, sent his aide Jack Valenti to persuade Peter Rodino (D-NJ) to place Jordan on the House Judiciary Committee. “When Barbara first came to my office…to introduce herself,” Rodino recalled, “I immediately realized…that Barbara would make a great addition to our committee, that she would make a difference.” There, she joined a fresh crop of trailblazers on the Committee: Black Congressmen John Conyers (MI) and Charlie Rangel (NY), along with Brooklyn’s Elizabeth Holtzman, its only other woman; Holtzman instantly pegged Jordan as “a very imposing person.”

Jordan’s closest friend on the committee, however, was fellow Texan Jack Brooks. Brooks had a reputation as “the meanest man in Congress,” but he had a soft spot for Jordan, whom he’d befriended during their time in Austin together. As Jordan was the only woman in Texas’s congressional delegation, Brooks invited congresswomen from other states to their lunches to ensure Jordan wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in an all-male environment. Jordan appreciated the gesture, and the two worked together throughout their time in Washington.

Leon Jaworski

Meanwhile, Jordan continued to make her mark as a Nixon critic. She noted with approval the appointment of another Texas colleague, Leon Jaworski as Special Prosecutor in October 1973, following Archibald Cox’s ouster during the Saturday Night Massacre. Congressman Jim Wright told Jordan that “Either President Nixon honestly believes in his innocence, or else he doesn’t know Leon Jaworski.” Jordan opined that “I think it’s the latter.” And indeed, Jaworski proved no more amenable than Cox had been in pursuing the President.

During Gerald Ford’s confirmation hearings as Vice President, Jordan grilled Ford over his loyalty to the president and seeming indifference towards Civil Rights. “Would it be fair to characterize your voting record on civil rights,” she demanded, “as trying to stall the train as long as you can and then jump on when you know it will keep on going no matter what?” Jordan became one of only eight congresspeople to vote against Ford’s confirmation. Though she had a cordial relationship with the former Minority Leader, she doubted he had the judgment to be president – and Ford’s future actions did little to change her mind.

But Jordan’s political rise ran parallel to a personal crisis. After sessions in Congress, she noticed that her legs were becoming numb and heavy. Her friends persuaded her to see a doctor; she was hospitalized and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Treatment options for MS in 1973 were few, with a long-term loss of mobility distinctly possible; indeed, Jordan used a wheelchair in her later years. Still, Jordan persevered with the encouragement of Nancy Earl, who moved in with Jordan full-time at her Texas home to safeguard her health. Jordan was released from hospital and, two days later, attended her next session of Congress, her colleagues having little idea what she’d just experienced. “She would figure it out later,” Rogers writes of her thinking; first, she had to hold a criminal president accountable.

Jordan and Gerald Ford

In February 1974, the House of Representatives voted to begin impeachment hearings against Nixon. “None of us…had ever studied what impeachment went in law school,” Elizabeth Holtzman recalled; the only precedent was Andrew Johnson’s dismal experience a century earlier. So Jordan plunged into legal and constitutional treatises about impeachment and worked closely with John Doar, the Committee’s chief counsel. She also consulted with Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee; if she felt awkward soliciting advice from the former segregationist, she didn’t show it.

Charlie Rangel recalled the difficulties of coordinating the impeachment vote. “You had about five different groups that met regularly,” he told an interviewer, “and Peter Rodino and John Doar was like an orchestra leader…different groups were playing different music and they had to come together and get on a common theme.” Ten of the committee’s seventeen Republicans signaled their willingness to defend Nixon no matter what the evidence showed; the committee’s more liberal Democrats were pressing for harsher articles of impeachment, holding Nixon accountable for bombing Cambodia. Doar later said that he and Rodino wanted “to have the vote of the committee be at least two-thirds,” but that seemed a long-shot.

Jordan was not, like her friend Jack Brooks, one of the “fragile coalition” of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats who would prove the linchpin in an impeachment vote; their deliberations would ultimately result in only the strictest impeachment articles being adopted. (Nor did she share Brooks’ view that Peter Rodino “didn’t have the guts a chairman needs to have,” working closely with the mild-mannered New Jerseyite.) She harbored no doubts about Nixon’s guilt and the need to hold him accountable. But how could she make a case that transcended the partisan divide that consumed Congress?

Judiciary Committee. From left to right: Elizabeth Holtzman, Jack Brooks?, Jordan, Peter Rodino, John Doar, Charles Rangel.

Ironically, Jordan argued against public impeachment hearings, warning that the 38-person committee would use the opportunity to grandstand for the television cameras. “Let us deal with the issue and make a decision on the basis of the facts,” she told Peter Rodino. But, she admitted, “I did not have much support for that position.” When hearings began in July 1974, Jordan found herself aggravated by the stem-winding oratory of her colleagues, most of whom seemed motivated more by political than legal or moral concerns. She later admitted that, as late as the evening before her statement, she didn’t have a speech prepared.

So Jordan worked into the night of July 24th with her secretary Marian Ricks and researcher Bob Alcock to craft a speech. They seized on the example of a colleague, Walter Flowers of Alabama, who had continually invoked the preamble of the Constitution in his own opening statement, and found ways to tie it both to the matter beforehand and Jordan’s own background as an African American woman. The trio crafted an oration filled with references to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, summarizing Barbara Jordan’s view of the United States.

The second day of the hearings began with testimony from Charlie Rangel and then Republican Joseph Maraziti, one of Nixon’s staunchest defenders. Then Rodino turned the hearing over to Jordan. Her 13 minute oration laid out, with devastating clarity and spellbinding, orotund delivery, the legal and Constitutional case against Richard Nixon, earning herself an immediate place in history.

Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “We, the people.” It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in “We, the people.”

Today I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution…

Thus Jordan framed the stakes in terms above politics. She reminded listeners that women, and Blacks of any gender, were not “included in We the People” when the Constitution was originally framed. But that it remained the duty of Americans, especially those in public office, to hold the country to its self-proclaimed standards. And if Americans can overcome, albeit to a painfully limited degree, ingrained, systematic racism and sexism, surely they can do something much less lofty, like impeach a President.

Nixon’s defenders continued to demand “specificity” in the charges against the President – a complaint that ignored the mountains of evidence compiled by multiple Watergate investigations, including the Committee’s own. So Jordan, with devastating clarity, spelled out the charges: obstruction of justice, using the CIA to interfere with the FBI investigation, paying hush money to the burglars, Nixon’s knowledge of other “White House horrors” like the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and the ITT bribery scandal. All of which, Jordan argued, met the threshold of impeachable behavior.

James Madison again at the Constitutional Convention: “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.” The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregard the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, conceal surreptitious entry, attempt to compromise a federal judge, while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice. “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”

If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder!

During floor debates, Jordan followed with pointed barbs at her Republican colleagues. After Charles Sandman, the President’s most obnoxious defender, insisted that Nixon had no chance to defend himself before Congress, Jordan reminded the New Jersey Republican that Nixon’s lawyer, James St. Clair, had been present throughout the proceedings, examined witnesses and made the best case possible for his client. “Was he gagged? Was he silent? No, because this Judiciary Committee cast a rule which allowed the President’s counsel to speak.” She dismissed the “bottomless arguments” of the President’s defenders as distractions from his obvious guilt.

Jordan and Charlie Rangel

Jordan would recall that “there were tears” as she and many of her colleagues prepared to vote. “For Richard Nixon? No. But that the country had come to this.” Ultimately, the committee adopted three articles of impeachment against Nixon, by margins of 27-11, 28-10 and 21-17, meeting Doar’s expectations on at least two articles; Rodino (whose voice audibly cracked while pronouncing his “Aye” vote) planned to name Jordan as one of the floor managers should impeachment reach the Senate for trial. Nixon resigned two weeks later, belatedly realizing that the political odds against him were too long.

Soon after President Ford took office, he invited Jordan and other members of the Black Congressional Caucus to visit China. “We were in China in some little province…and sleeping on these slatted cots with straw mattresses,” Jordan recalled, when she received a phone call from a reporter. The reporter asked Jordan what she thought about Ford’s pardoning of Nixon; “what the hell are you talking about?” the disbelieving congresswoman yelled into the phone. She had no doubt that Ford wanted her out of the country when he made his decision, and never forgave him for it.

Whether Jordan’s speech substantially affected the impeachment vote, or Nixon’s decision can be debated. Dan Rather, a fellow who repeatedly butted heads with Nixon during Watergate, harbored little doubt. “What Barbara Jordan did [in] that appearance,” Rather argued, “she articulated the thoughts of so many Americans.” Certainly she riveted the millions watching her on television, from a white attorney from Iowa who told her “before last night I had been a lifelong Republican,” to a 100 year old Black man from her home state who assured her “I know you had some Bad Days to make it where you are.” Jordan most cherished her Houston supporters who greeted her with a banner reading, “THANK YOU BARBARA JORDAN FOR EXPLAINING THE CONSTITUTION TO US.”

Jordan with Jimmy Carter and Hubert Humphrey

Jordan later delivered the 1976 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, becoming the first Black woman to address a party convention. Among other legislation, she worked with her impeachment colleague Elizabeth Holtzman to pass the Equal Rights Amendment through Congress and overcame objections of the Texas Democratic Party to renew the Voting Rights Act. Although Jordan considered running for higher office (some viewed her as presidential timber), she left Congress in 1979 due to her health. Although she periodically resurfaced in national politics – she spoke again at the 1992 convention, and Bill Clinton considered her for the Supreme Court seat filled by Ruth Bader Ginsberg – she mostly remained in Texas until her death in 1996 at age 59.

“I am neither a black politician nor a female politician,” Jordan says. “Just a politician. A professional politician.” True enough, and she’s been criticized in some corners as insufficiently progressive. “She had no interest in being a symbol,” Texas Governor Ann Richards commented. “She had interest only in proving herself by her effectiveness and leaving a legacy of what she had done, not just what she had said.” Today, Jordan’s support for immigration restriction renders her controversial, even if her proposals were nowhere near as harsh as conservatives who try to appropriate her legacy.

Jordan and Ann Richards

Regardless, one can hardly doubt Barbara Jordan’s legacy and accomplishments. If she didn’t openly embrace her importance as a Black woman in Congress, her actions speak with eloquent thunder. She always tried to do right by her constituents, while also enhancing the stature of women, African Americans and African American women across the country. And her ringing defense of American ideals remains as powerful now as 47 years ago.

Note: This article draws mostly from Mary Beth Rogers’ biography Barbara Jordan: American Hero (1998), along with “The Making of Barbara Jordan” from Texas Monthly and Natalie Pecola’s “Young, Gifted, Black, and Closeted: Barbara Jordan’s Political Rise in a Country Not Yet Ready For Her” on Autostraddle. For broader information on the impeachment process, I consulted the Nixon Library’s oral histories with John Doar, Elizabeth Holtzman and Charles Rangel.