In 15 Minutes, Barbara Jordan Built A Legacy

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Jordan participated in the Watergate hearings that brought down President Richard Nixon. Her famous speech reminded her colleagues and anyone wishing to follow the Constitution as they deliberated on the president’s actions, what was at stake.

By W. F. StrongMay 16, 2018 7:28 am| ,

Andy Warhol summed up our modern, technology-driven world: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” But Barbara Jordan turned this idea on its head. In 15 minutes, she delivered a speech that gave her lasting, worldwide fame.

She was only 38 when she, on national television, argued for the indictment of Richard M. Nixon for high crimes and misdemeanors. Surrounded by more senior members of the House Judiciary Committee, mostly men with far more experience in government and law, Jordan gave a speech that was so brilliant, she stunned the committee and mesmerized those watching on television.

Here is how she opened:

“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 solemness 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.”

Jordan’s Watergate speech is flawless in its eloquence. Few people ever reach these persuasive heights – you find it in Lincoln, and Kennedy and Martin Luther King. And you find it here in Barbara Jordan, a rare talent for setting logic on fire.

She was persuasive because she was anchored in the Constitution rather than anger or political posturing. Many worried at the time that agreeing to file articles of impeachment was the same as throwing Richard Nixon out of the White House without due process. She opens the constitution and teaches:

“It is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an article of impeachment means that that member must be convinced that the President should be removed from office. The Constitution doesn’t say that.”

Jordan had a beautiful blend of legal and common language, a style that the man on the street can follow and be moved by. She tried to allay these fears by explaining, in Constitutional terms, that all the House can do is vote for impeachment, which is an indictment. The Senate must have the trial and decide guilt or innocence – and punishment.

She again follows the technical explanation with a simpler one:

“The framers of this Constitution were very astute. They did not make the accusers and the judgers — and the judges the same person.”

She follows this razor-like rationale, guided only by the Constitution, to this conclusion:

“Has the President committed offenses, and planned, and directed, and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That’s the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.”

Nixon resigned a few days later. I don’t think he cared to face this inquisitor.

And it wasn’t just Jordan’s infallible logic that supporters admired and opponents feared. It was her divine voice and impeccable diction that animated that logic, seeming to place it beyond rebuttal.

I have a friend, Dr. Juliet Garcia, who served on a bank board with Jordan. She says Jordan “could read the agenda and make it sound profound.”

When Barbara died in 1996, having devoted her life to serving Texas, Ann Richards remembered her this way. “There was simply something about her that made you proud to be a part of the country that produced her. And she forever redefined what it meant to be a Texan in the eyes of this nation.”

Jordan’s life was truly a succession of firsts: first African-American woman to serve in the Texas State Senate, first African-American Texan elected to Congress, first woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, first woman to have a statue erected in her honor at UT Austin, and – this makes me smile – even in death she achieved another first. She was the first African American to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery. I do miss her. We sure could use her voice, and her logic, today.