The White House announced last Friday that Jeff Zients will replace Ron Klain as White House Chief of Staff, triggering journalistic retrospectives on Klain’s influential tenure and predictions about the shape of his successor’s role in the Biden administration. The transition also inspired this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Advisors and Chiefs of Staff: The Powers of the President’s People,” in which Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discuss the roles, responsibilities, and public personae of those with close access to the Commander-in-Chief. An especially rancorous referendum on the chief of staff role came in 1979, when Jimmy Carter gave the title to his decidedly controversial long-time aide Hamilton Jordan.
After President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in January 1977, his long-time aide and campaign manager Hamilton Jordan moved into the West Wing office of former Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who was set to begin serving a one-to-four-year prison sentence shortly thereafter for his Watergate sins.
Jordan, like incoming Press Secretary Jody Powell, was barely thirty years old. A native of Albany, Georgia, Jordan had been a Carter aide for virtually all of his post-collegiate life. A casual talker and dresser, he wanted to make a clean break with the formality, opacity, and rigid hierarchy of the Nixon years.
Jordan did not initially take the title of chief of staff, and Carter simply did not appoint one in his stead. Jordan explained his reasoning to Louise Sweeney of the Christian Science Monitor in August 1977. “The difference between Haldeman and me is the difference between Nixon and Carter,” Jordan proclaimed. “Nixon was a person who liked to deal with exclusively one person, didn’t like to face up to the problems of the outside world. Carter doesn’t deal exclusively through any one person, he likes to deal directly with Cabinet officers on problems.”
Sweeney pressed about Jordan’s image as a bad boy, reinforced by Powell and Jordan’s May 1977 photoshoot by Rolling Stone’s Annie Leibovitz, where they posed as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sweeney threw out some adjectives that media figures had tossed around to describe Jordan – loyal, iconoclastic, and disorganized.
“Loyal? Yeah. Iconoclastic? Maybe. Disorganized? Not in the head, but from all external appearances—yes, my car, my desk, you’d say yes,” Jordan admitted.
Jordan at first generally eschewed Washington nightlife. Even before inauguration, he was aware that his newfound celebrity status was a liability. “Jody, I’ve been set up for a great big fall,” he told Powell after Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn wrote a profile headlined “The Number Two Man: Hamilton Jordan” five days before Carter took the oath.
In December 1977, however, Jordan went to a party for Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors hosted by Barbara Walters. A gossipy piece in the Washington Star about the event alleged that Jordan – seated at a table with famed humorist Art Buchwald and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – had pulled at the bodice of Madame Ashraf Gorbal, the wife of the Egyptian Ambassador, and had loudly said, “I have always wanted to see the pyramids,” before rising and following up with, “This administration has got to take a piss.”
While Madame Gorbal, Jordan, Kissinger, and Buchwald all vociferously denied that the incident had taken place, Jordan was soon in the society pages again. A Washington Post Sunday Magazine story alleged that at a popular DC bar in January 1978, Jordan had spit a drink of amaretto and cream down a woman’s blouse after she had rebuffed his advances.
When Jordan again denied the allegations, Powell told him, according to Jordan’s 1982 memoir Crisis, “We’ve got to draw the line on this stuff, Ham. I want to fight this.” The White House ultimately delivered a 33-page rebuttal of the charges, which many pundits viewed as overly defensive.
Jordan reflected on the tabloid turn of his political reputation in Crisis: “In less than a year, I had become a caricature, embodying all of the bad things — real or imagined — that the Washington establishment didn’t like about Jimmy Carter and his administration: I was seen as an arrogant, impolite rube.”
Even as Jordan’s public image suffered, he retained his power within the White House. In March 1978, Jordan helped to lead the effort to convince the Senate to ratify the Neutrality Treaty, the first of two agreements which turned the Panama Canal over to the Panamaninans. Jordan also became increasingly central to the long-gestating SALT II arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union.
“Hamilton Jordan Cleaning Up His Act,” read a November 1978 piece by Los Angeles Times Washington correspondent Jack Nelson. “I’ve tried to make the conversion to an ‘insider’ so you would quit writing about my not wearing a tie and other such things and distracting the American people from the real issues,” Jordan was quoted in the piece. “Now you want to write about my conversion and detract from the real issues.”
Even as Jordan seemingly reformed himself, however, by July 1979 the Carter administration was in real trouble. The nation was beset by 11% inflation and fear over gas and heating oil shortages brought on by the fall of Iran’s Shah. President Carter and his top aides retreated to Camp David for a ten-day domestic policy summit.
On July 15th, Carter emerged to give the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, a much-debated primetime address initially designed to focus exclusively on the energy crisis that instead morphed into a far more philosophical inquiry. Carter called for a “rebirth of the American spirit” and decried “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
Carter’s invocation of a crisis was almost immediately followed by an expected but still-dramatic reaction from his aides. Two days after the speech, 30 top officials, including the entire cabinet, offered their resignations.
Most ultimately stayed on, although several swapped roles. Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano left altogether.
Jordan, meanwhile, finally caved a day after the mass resignation offer and agreed to become Carter’s dyed-in-the-wool, official chief of staff.
“The President told members of the White House senior staff that they should no longer consider Ham Jordan as their peer and they, or we, should act on his decisions as if they were the President’s own,” Powell told the press upon Carter’s decision and Jordan’s acceptance.
On his first day, Jordan instructed cabinet secretaries to fill out 30-question surveys ranking many of their employees. In a much reported mistake, the final question asked each secretary to rank their subordinates on a scale of one to six from “naive” to “savy,” a misspelling of “savvy.” The organizationally-averse Jordan was now the bureaucratic messenger of the administration’s redesign.
The media pounced. “The Troublesome Loyalty to Ham Jordan,” read the headline of Newsday columnist Michael Medved’s withering op-ed on the choice. A cartoon by the Albany Times-Union’s Hy Rosen showed Jordan dressed as a door man in front of the White House gates, wielding a Gothic-looking ax.
When Carter held a news conference on July 25th, an early press question concerned Jordan’s “qualifications” for the chief of staff role. Carter did not mince words about the media reaction to Jordan’s appointment: “This event, my designation of Hamilton Jordan as chief of staff, has been one of the most grossly distorted of my career in politics.”
Carter argued that other members of the staff had encouraged Jordan’s elevation: “Because of Hamilton’s knowledge of me, his closeness to me, his superb leadership capabilities, the trust that other people in the White House have in him repeatedly since I’ve been President, the other top members of my staff have asked me to let Hamilton be chief of staff.”
And the President highlighted that Jordan had long refused the role, saying, “Had he been willing earlier, he would have already been chief of staff, like a year or a year and a half ago.”
By late August, however, the appointment was in jeopardy for another alleged Jordan indiscretion. Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the owners of the popular Studio 54 nightclub in Manhattan, were under indictment for tax fraud, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. They told the FBI that Jordan, during a June 1978 visit to their club after his initial spate of scandals, had snorted cocaine in the secluded basement.
Jordan virtually vanished from the public eye. Carter retained faith in his chief of staff, refusing out of hand Jordan’s offer to resign. In the midst of the scandal, Jordan went into the Oval Office to find Carter on the phone with Hollywood kingmaker and Democratic megadonor Lew Wasserman, who was updating the President on early re-election efforts. “How did Lew say we were doing in California?” Jordan asked Carter.
“Not so good,” Carter responded. “He says all people are talking about out there is the story about your using cocaine.” After Jordan blushed, apologized, and turned to depart, the President added, “Don’t let it get you down, Ham. Look what they’re saying about me.”
Jordan remained active in administration work – particularly after the Iran Hostage Crisis began in November 1979. He even flew to Panama to convince Dictator Omar Torrijos, still a friend from the Panama Treaty quest, to take in the deposed Shah.
Most in the press continued their critical tone. One exception was New York political columnist Jimmy Breslin, who wrote a supportive op-ed in September 1979 that decried the push toward hearsay-driven political scandal: “Here at the end of the 1970s, we turn palace gossip into grand jury testimony. Hamilton Jordan has proved he is an imbecile. Anybody with his job who consorts with the riffraff he does has lost the case. But when they make stupidity a crime, as they are trying to do now, I stop. Because I, among several millions of others, am next.”
The cocaine accusation led to the first ever appointment of a special prosecutor – the kind of role that was later inhabited by a special or independent counsel. A patrician New York lawyer named Arthur Christy began probing the cocaine story in November 1979, under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act that established his position.
Soon, Christy uncovered that Roy Cohn, the once-aide to anti-Communist, disgraced Senator Joseph McCarthy and a controversial New York attorney in his latter years – had paid off one of the main corroborating witnesses of Jordan’s alleged snorting, public relations man-about-town and fellow Studio 54 basement denizen Barry Landau. None of the other supposed witnesses of Jordan’s drug use were willing to testify under oath, and in May 1980 Christy recommended a Manhattan Grand Jury to vote a “No True Bill” – in other words, to bring no charges – in the case.
As Jordan waited to hear the grand jury’s decision, he recalled receiving a desperate letter from H.R. Haldeman from prison. “Hell, he thought he was innocent, too,” Jordan remembered thinking in his tense moment of waiting, according to Crisis. Then the news of the non-indictment came in, and even Carter appeared in Jordan’s office for a round of champagne in plastic cups.
Jordan continued working closely in the increasingly all-consuming attempts to free the Iranian hostages until June 1980, when he left his chief of staff role to run Carter’s ill-fated re-election campaign against Ronald Reagan.
After the loss, Jordan summed up his trials in a Washington Post post-mortem interview, offering a parting jab at the strangeness of life as Carter’s top aide: “I was never intimidated by the responsibility or by being the chief of staff. Of course, that related to this myth about all the power I have. Things in this city are exaggerated.”
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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