Born Again as White House Chief of Staff, Ham Jordan Leads the Carter Revival
08/06/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
I intend to do this job and do it well. I don't intend to fail the President.
In the 80° heat of his sun-splashed corner White House office, his jacket buttoned and his tie cinched tight, Jimmy Carter's new chief of staff patriotically sweats. If it bothers him to abandon the country-cool style he brought to these corridors of power 30 months ago, he submerges his reaction in the cause that has consumed his entire adult life—the fortunes of Jimmy Carter. "We've gone through a lot of good and difficult times together," says Jordan. "I have no apologies to make for the degree of commitment or loyalty I feel toward the President."
Loyalty is one of Jordan's indisputable virtues. Political acuity is another. Yet during his tour in Washington he has made a name for himself—sometimes unwittingly—as a bodaciously bad boy whose escapades with women, liquor and lewd remarks have spiced up many a gossip column—and at times threatened to embarrass the President. House Speaker Tip O'Neill dubbed him "Hannibal Jerkin" for his neglect of congressional relations. The name stuck during the thinly substantiated Amaretto-and-cream-spitting incident and his leering observation on the bodice of the Egyptian ambassador's wife. Jordan's mother, Adelaide, who lives in Albany, Ga., allows with a fond smile, "He's a fun-loving boy." (Her son called after the Cabinet firings and warned, "Mother, get a tough hide. I'm going to be blamed for all this.")
Jordan's appointment, intended to help the President get away from his desk and out among the people, in effect leaves the trillion-dollar store to a 34-year-old political point man saddled with apparent debits: a confessed disinterest and inexperience in policy matters, a disaffection with most of official Washington, a political philosophy either unknown or nonexistent, an antic personal life. Rated on his own evaluation form, by which he vows to make dozens of White House staff changes in coming weeks, Jordan would fare badly. "His office lights were always off earlier than mine," says one already departed staffer. "Work was never so important that it got in the way of a tennis game." Former Treasury Secretary Blumenthal is known to fear that Jordan might play the economy for Carter's political profit—and, as the President's surrogate, few doubt Jordan will have the power to do so. "It's probably a mistake to put Hamilton in there," asserts a top party leader in New York. "But they tell us he's going to be a new man, work like hell, pay attention to people and stop screwing up. He had better. He's carrying Carter's future around with him."
Why Hamilton Jordan? The most frequent answer derives from his political relationship with the President; it is as intimate as father to son. He has been with Carter even longer than Amy has, starting as a volunteer 13 years ago and working full-time since 1968. Though barely remembered by his political science professor and described by a close college friend as "a truly ordinary guy—the typical fraternity boy who loved practical jokes," Jordan was an astute campus politician at the University of Georgia. Rejected by the Army after graduation because of bow legs—a painful defect that kept him in braces as a child—Jordan spent a year as a volunteer relief worker in Vietnam, returning to Georgia to work as a bad-debt collector for a local bank. When Carter's second run for the state-house began in earnest, Jordan, who had worked for the candidate during the first, signed on. He has been Carter's chief political strategist ever since. "Everybody in politics has an us-and-them attitude," says a Georgia friend. "Hamilton has always had a healthy dose of that."
Some critics argue that Jordan has been too much strategist, not enough statesman. "Hamilton never appeared to be interested in substance and facts," a former colleague says. "The Panama Canal treaties are a good example. Ham got together the people to put them through, but if the Administration had taken the opposite position he would have performed with the same efficiency." During the Mideast peace talks at Camp David, an official discovered him playing a solitary game of pool. "I can take only so" much of that Mideast stuff," he reportedly explained. At last year's economic summit in Bonn, he met a young German woman and dropped out of sight for days. "His hotel box was full of messages," a former Administration aide recalls. "The door to his room had notes all over it from White House people."
Some say his divorce from Nancy Jordan last fall sobered him. "He loved her," a colleague reports. "I think he still is very much in love with her. He was surprised that she went through with it." Another onetime aide says, "He should never have got married. He just wants to get looped with his pals, make cracks at waitresses and get laid." Still, Jordan's gossiped-about romantic life appears to have slackened. So far there are no accounts of a repetition of last year's swimming parties at pollster Pat Caddell's house. They were notorious for, among other things, the size-14 bathing suits women guests were given to flop around in.
Jordan says that Carter has been "understanding" about his personal life. "I'm sure if you asked him about some of the things I've allegedly done," Jordan admits with a laugh, "he'd say he would have preferred that they not be in the newspaper—whether I'd done them or not." More seriously, he adds, "I did not realize the sacrifices in your private life you have to make in public office. I suppose you could say I've learned the hard way not to put myself in a vulnerable position."
The new Hamilton Jordan indeed seems more circumspect than the old. Friends report he now dates one woman regularly, and Jordan says, "If you asked people who knew me five years ago, I hope they would say I've developed and matured."
The question still is whether the old college prankster who once lived in the back seat of his car after being thrown out of his fraternity house—and just last month had his white Chrysler immobilized by police for unpaid parking tickets—can shoulder the second weightiest job in the White House. "The intellectual evidence is not wonderful," one ex-colleague says. "His campaign abilities were good, he was good at getting big blocs of people, but he does not have a sense of either the nuances or the history of how government works."
What he has is one of the keenest political minds in the country. "He'd much rather be working on the 1980 campaign than be chief of staff," says a fellow Georgian. Informed speculation holds that another of his brilliant, top-secret campaign strategy memos is on Carter's desk already. Whether it is the agenda for victory or for defeat depends very much on Ham Jordan's performance at government itself—and Jordan, sweltering in his new clothes, knows it.