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Kenneth F. Bunting

Kenneth F. Bunting

Posted: February 23, 2011 03:02 PM

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The way political gossip had it at the time, former President Lyndon Johnson pulled strings, twisted arms or called in favors to have Barbara Jordan, the new Congresswoman from Texas, seated on the House Judiciary Committee.

Whatever the truth of that rumor or the juice LBJ had after leaving office, it was an unusual, almost unheard of, assignment for a freshman member.

Even more remarkable, as the 93rd Congress was undertaking its gravest and most important task, Jordan was pegged to give lead off remarks at the live televised House Judiciary Committee hearings on articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.

Barbara Charline Jordan, who would have turned 75 this month, was certainly no ordinary freshman. Her debut in Congress in 1973, as had been her debut in the then all-white and all-male Texas state Senate in 1967, has never before or since been equaled. Even in this politically redefining era of the rightward-leaning Tea Party, decades later, hers remains an unequaled standard as Congressional debuts go.

Televised Congressional proceedings are as commonplace today as rain, reality shows or politicians who posture, glad hand and grandstand. But in 1974, televised sessions of Congress and its committees were extremely rare.

On that historic evening, Jordan's resonant voice bellowed with unwavering conviction:

"My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."

Network anchors were literally awestruck by Jordan's remarks and her self-assured delivery. Much of the next day's published commentary said her words touched the conscience of the nation. Using whimsy, but powerfully didactic seriousness, Jordan had begun by noting that in their first iteration, the words, "We the People," didn't include people of color.

"I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake," she mused.

As instant celebrity enveloped this new political star, I was reminded of another great speech, one not recorded in any history books, which was also powerful and persuasive.

Before Jordan's unforgettable voice of authority and moral conviction was ever heard in Texas state Senate, or in the halls of Congress, it inspired the 1966 graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School in Houston. Petty as it might seem, I've always felt we deserved bragging rights for having known first what a great orator she was.

Jordan was guest speaker at our "Class Day and Baccalaureate Ceremony" at Washington. She had lost primaries for House seats in the two prior elections but had won the Democratic Primary for a state Senate seat a few weeks before our graduation. She still had not yet held elective office, or even had her name on a General Election ballot.

It is a day that I and many of my fellow BTW classmates still remember remarkably well.

Before she died, I had a friendly, good-natured "bet" with Jordan, with a lunch tab at stake, that I could remember more about what she said in her address to the 1966 graduating class at Washington High School than she could.

Had we ever followed up - and one of my great regrets in life is that we didn't -- I most definitely would have won that "bet." I always knew that. But I'm even more certain now because of what I heard from classmates I emailed in preparation for this remembrance. Their recollections of what Jordan said in that address nearly 45 years ago closely parallel how I recalled it in a speech I gave at an event for the Franklin High School Public Service Academy in Seattle several years back.

Jordan told us in 1966 that opportunities come to those who seize them; that time waits for no one; and that obstacles in life should be regarded as challenges to be overcome. As we thought about our futures, she wanted us to know that the saddest regrets would be those of people who looked back on what might have been had they made the effort.

And she implored us to endeavor to do good, and try to make a difference, in a changing world much in need of good works.

A new Barbara Jordan Freedom Foundation has been set up to carry on her ideals. Those who have been thinking about what she stood for have narrowed her core interests to children, justice and freedom. For more information, go to BarbaraJordanFreedomFoundation.org where you can download a brochure or contribute money, volunteer time and ideas.

I never got to know Jordan as well as others I know who served with her in the state Senate, worked on her Congressional staff or had the good fortune of being one of her students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.

But we had some unforgettable personal encounters that spanned her political career and public life. Each time I had a chance, I told her how well I remembered her remarks to my graduating class.

My "bet" with her was my silly way of telling Jordan she had been a true and significant inspiration, long before she was famous; long before she had the stage, the spotlight or the bully pulpit given to those who assume mantles of leadership in public life.

So, I told Jordan about her speech and its impact when I first met her in the late 1960s at a conference for left-leaning Democrats held at a dude ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

I told her again in the late 1980s when I was chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's state capitol bureau in Austin. During those years, Jordan was trying to avoid the limelight as an LBJ School faculty member, although she was a much bigger superstar than any of the Texas governors who occupied the Governor's Mansion those same years.

And, I told her again in the 1990s when I got to introduce her at a dinner in Austin for a Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIFT) award presentation.

In her public persona, Jordan was a leader of enormous stature and presence, commanding respect, even deference. But it belied an approachable, unassuming modesty that made her exceptionally amiable in personal encounters.

Although I had heard tales of it, I first saw that disarming friendliness in 1969, when leading Texas liberals held an unusual strategy session at a dude ranch near Wimberley, Tx.

I was still a student at Texas Christian University, studying journalism but active in the state Young Democrats organization. I was also a part-time district aide to one of Jordan's state Senate colleagues, Don Kennard of Fort Worth.

Somehow I got invited to the Wimberley conference, although I was a nobody in contrast to the august roster of participants and attendees. The leading movers and shakers in the state Democratic Party's liberal wing gathered to ponder and devise a winning strategic response to white voter defections over civil rights, the splintering caused by George Wallace's presidential bid the year before and President Nixon's emerging "Southern strategy."

Those incredibly smart visionaries at the Wimberley conference feared that, lacking the right strategic response, Texas liberals would soon find themselves on the outside looking in, and that ours and other Southern states might someday be dependably Republican.

No one staged a walkout that day. But it just so happened that there were also two important football games that day. And, just outside the meeting room were a couch, some easy chairs and a TV.

One of those games, between No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas, was billed as "The Big Shootout." President Nixon was at that game, seated with another future president, then-Congressman George Bush. The other game Jordan and I watched, between the Oilers and Jets, ended regrettably with a Jet victory. But an Oiler rookie receiver named Jerry LeVias, who had starred at Southern Methodist at a time when most Southwest Conference schools weren't recruiting black athletes, had an outstanding performance in the loss.

Jordan and I watched, enjoyed the games and each other's company and conversation. Besides football and politics, we swapped stories about my boss, her Senate colleague; and we talked about changes in society and in the character of Houston neighborhoods.

At the time, my childhood home was in the 7th Congressional District and represented by the elder Bush. On a paper napkin, Jordan sketched how she hoped that might change in redistricting. I always wished I had saved that napkin. What she drew looked a lot like the shape of the 18th Congressional District that she represented with great distinction for three terms.

Jordan was never lured into presidential politics. But in a 1975 Cosmopolitan Magazine survey about women who national opinion leaders might like to see as president, Jordan topped the list. She was prominently mentioned as a potential running mate after Jimmy Carter sewed up the Democratic nomination in 1976. Twice she delivered keynote addresses to Democratic National Conventions.

And, on a spring day in 1966, she excited and inspired a graduating class at Washington High School, who fondly remember and greatly appreciate what she had to say.

Ken Bunting is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He is a former reporter and top editor who worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, among other newspapers.