Mister Inside

updated 11/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

BILL CLINTON WAS ON THE SPOT. EVERYONE wanted to know whom the President-elect would appoint to lead his transition team, an assignment that would determine the future employment (or idleness) of flocks of Democratic job seekers circling hungrily around Little Rock. Indeed, the wrangle over who would be the appointments czar had opened the first major fissure in the Clinton camp, with contending factions lobbying in favor of different candidates. Finally Clinton made his choice. It was a surprise: Vernon Jordan.

The onetime civil rights leader was in Washington, D.C.—not Little Rock—when he got the call. "The Governor asked me to do it, and as with everything he's asked me in this campaign, I said yes," he recalled with deliberate understatement last week in his law office. Jordan was crossing into treacherous waters—and had to help calm them. Campaign chairman Mickey Kantor, 53, had wanted to head the transition team. He was opposed by younger members of Clinton's staff and, reportedly, by James Carville, the President-elect's chief strategist. They found Kantor presumptuous in his public announcements that he would lead the transition. Instead they backed Warren Christopher, 67, a deputy secretary of state under Jimmy Carter. For Bill Clinton, Jordan would become the smiling face on a compromise. Kantor would remain in the running for White House chief of staff, while Jordan headed up the transition team in Washington, leaving Christopher in Little Rock to handle the team's day-to-day problems there.

Now, Jordan must deal with the sudden popularity of a man freshly invested with power. Judging just from the towering stack of pink telephone messages on his desk, he has already become one of the most avidly pursued men in Washington. He says many of these pink sheets "are from job seekers."

Not that he's likely to be overwhelmed by the task. Jordan, 57, knows all about gelling through problems and crises with equanimity. In 1961, as a young lawyer who had just graduated from Howard University law school, Jordan helped integrate the University of Georgia by escorting a young student, Charlayne Hunter (now a national correspondent at PBS's McNeil-Lehrer News Hour), through a jeering crowd of hostile white students. As head of the National Urban league from 1972 to 1981, he fought for funding for the nation's inner cities. He is acquainted with both controversy and tragedy. In 1985, Shirley, his wife of 27 years, died after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis. (The couple had one daughter, Vickee, now 32, a public relations executive in New York City.) "Sickness is hard," says Jordan. "But she was very courageous and a good person."

During his wife's illness, Jordan became the target of a would-be assassin. On May 29, 1980, shortly after 2 A.M., a sniper opened fire on Jordan as Martha Anderson Coleman, a local Urban League board member who had earlier heard him deliver a speech, dropped him off at his motel in Fort Wayne, Ind. The massive shotgun wound narrowly missed his spine. Although a white supremacist was arrested and indicted, he was later released for insufficient evidence. The crime remains unsolved.

One year later, Jordan left the Urban League. In 1986 he married Ann Dibble Cook, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Work who gave up her position to move with him to Washington, where he was, as he remains, an influential, sought-after lawyer. Says Pamela Harriman, the Democrats' premier socialite and party giver: "He knows inside the Beltway and out."

Jordan's friendship with the President-elect goes back 20 years to when he was on Urban League business in Arkansas. "We're just buddies," says Jordan. "I eat in his kitchen; he eats in mine. If I Hilary is in town, she comes to dinner. If he's in town, he comes to breakfast."

Jordan, who played a key role in the choice of Sen. Al Gore as Clinton's running mate, is also being mentioned as a possible choice for Attorney General. But first he must navigate the treacherous straits of the transition. Already, Jordan is being scrutinized by antismoking activists who note that the Washington insider is a $50,000-a-year board member of RJR Nabisco, a major cigarette manufacturer. Jordan has said he will "build a wall" between his board work and his transition responsibilities. It had better be a high one. Bill Clinton is hoping for a squeaky-clean Administration. Besides, he's allergic to tobacco smoke.

MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington, D.C., and NINA BURLEIGH in Little Rock

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