Vetting Barbara Jordan


“You low down nigger trying to show off your authority,” begins a death threat Barbara Jordan received while serving in Congress. “We are coming to Houston and beware. To shoot off your ass,” reads the handwritten letter, which the FBI dusted unsuccessfully for fingerprints, “would be a pleasure.”

The authoritative biography of former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan recently appeared, providing endless detail about the life of the most admired black woman in American history, until Oprah Winfrey. Now the Federal Bureau of Investigation has released its file on Jordan, who died of leukemia almost five years ago. Although there are long gaps in the narrative, the Bureau has come as close as her biographer (in 300 fewer pages) to capturing the spirit of the woman who was, for a time at least, political heir to President Lyndon Johnson.

The Bureau’s book opens in the mid-Seventies, during Jordan’s second term representing the 18th Congressional District. First came the anonymous death threat from Ohio, and then a Washington television station received a telephone call promising to blow up the Congresswoman. The authorities gave both “plots” the attention they deserved, which was not very much, but the incidents were nonetheless recorded in the FBI’s file on Jordan–like the American public, the Bureau had already taken notice of this well-spoken attorney from Texas. The FBI’s unofficial interest in the lady had begun as early as 1972, when Jordan, then a state senator from Houston, was spotted at a national meeting of black officials prior to the Democratic National Convention. (A young Reverend Jesse Jackson was also at the meeting, as well as, of course, an FBI informant.) “Supposedly,” wrote a skeptical federal agent, “blacks make up 20 percent of the Democratic Party.”

Official notice of Ms. Jordan’s “activities” came 10 months later when she was elected to the United States House of Representatives. “Jordan has been active in various committees and organizations dealing with civil rights and black causes,” reports an FBI memo after her election. “She was a participant in the National Black Political Convention held in March 1972. The convention reportedly was dominated by the Congress for African Peoples, which has been described as a black separatist group which advocates black unity via the revolutionary ideology of Pan-Africanism and its leadership mainly consists of black extremists.”

As with most dossiers, the FBI file reveals as much about the people keeping the record as about the subject of the investigation. The FBI’s fear of the “black menace” was, apparently, mostly based in the hysteria of the times. Within two years the Bureau hierarchy felt comfortable enough with this particular extremist to put her on a subscription list for advance copies of a Justice Department magazine. Before her Congressional service was over she was ending letters to the FBI director, “Kindest personal regards.”

In an interview late in her career Jordan said she believed in the Lyndon Baines Johnson theory of progressive politics–helping others while helping yourself. The daughter of a warehouseman and a part-time maid, Barbara Charline Jordan appeared out of Houston’s Fifth Ward at a critical time in the development of race relations in America. Coming as an alternative to black nationalists and “agitators,” Jordan’s moderation and unrepressed self-interest were greeted more warmly than black moderates had ever been welcomed before. Barbara Jordan calculated correctly that, if a very dark-skinned black female from simple roots could “make it” in American society, anyone could. Every step she took, every dollar she earned, every honorary degree she received was transformed into a victory for black America at large. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., Barbara Jordan didn’t have to march to Washington. Her arrival on a first-class ticket was just as revolutionary.

The Bureau’s interest was sporadic. More than 10 years passed after the death threats before the FBI knocked on her door again. In the meantime, Congresswoman Jordan had made her mark on the national scene, first with her passionate speech during Nixon’s impeachment proceedings, and later with a well-received keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Then, ill and tired of politics, she had left Washington. Suddenly she was being called back. “A request has been received from the Department of Justice that a security clearance investigation be conducted for the above individual,” begins a Bureau teletype in the fall of 1989, when the former Congresswoman was teaching at the University of Texas in Austin. “Jordan is being considered for a ‘TOP SECRET’ security clearance,” reads the message from the FBI director, “to determine her ‘trustworthiness’ for access to national security information. This investigation will cover a fifteen-year scope.” So began the vetting of a national hero.

Despite the subject’s national reputation, the FBI investigation would not be routine–the assignment Jordan had been asked to perform was too sensitive. The Bureau was being sued by 300 of its own agents–all Hispanics–who were tired of being assigned to minor work on what the agents themselves called the “taco circuit” in the southwestern United States. Jordan had been nominated as a special master to review the Hispanic agents’ complaints. The “Top Secret” clearance was necessary not only because agents’ caseloads and FBI operations would be scrutinized: Basically, Jordan had to be cleared to determine if she would keep the United States government’s dirty laundry out of view. The catch-all phrase was “national security.”

At the time she filled out the Government Printing Office’s “Questionnaire for Sensitive Positions,” Barbara Jordan was five feet seven-and-one-quarter inches tall and weighed a solid 190 pounds. Fifty-three years old. Hair black, eyes brown. Never married. Had never been fired from a job, and had never left a job upon threat of firing. Employed from 1973 to 1978 by the People of the 18th Congressional District; employed, at the time she was being vetted, as Lyndon Baines Johnson Centennial Professor at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs. Member of the board of directors of the Public Broadcasting Service. Never busted for any reason. Had not used alcohol “to excess” in the previous five years, or ever used marijuana, cocaine, etc. Never declared bankruptcy and not over 90 days delinquent on any loan or financial obligation. Only foreign travel listed: a two-week trip to the People’s Republic of China, in 1974.

Filling out the forms was just the beginning of the process. “Jordan should be afforded a defensive security briefing,” the instructions from the director read, “to include foreign travel and possible contact by a hostile intelligence service.” A hostile intelligence service? She had only been abroad once–but the trip nonetheless created a suspicion that the FBI could not ignore.

The Bureau focused first on Professor Jordan’s brief visit to the People’s Republic of China 15 years earlier. A Bureau interrogator visited the professor at her office. In her autobiography Barbara Jordan had written that she was sent to China because President Ford wanted her out of the country while he pardoned Richard Nixon. A more diplomatic version of that belief was what she told the FBI, which was then reported back to headquarters in Washington: “She was part of a U.S. delegation sent to the [People’s Republic of China] to promote a continuity of accords and relationships following the resignation of Former President Richard M. Nixon. Outside of limited official functions the PRC trip was primarily a sight-seeing and tourism activity in and around Beijing and Shanghai… Professor Jordan does not maintain contact with anyone residing outside the U.S. … No information was developed suggestive of exploitable vulnerabilities.” Jordan told the interrogator that a Chinese official had recently seen her on the University of Texas campus and remembered her from her visit to Beijing. “Professor Jordan did not, however,” Washington was reassured, “recall this individual by name or face.”

For the FBI a background check is like painting by the numbers: credit rating, criminal record, talking with neighbors, exploring contacts with friends living outside the United States. But there’s a rather large hole in the FBI’s investigation of Barbara Jordan’s personal history. The Bureau claims never to have looked into the former Congresswoman’s love life: money and personal relationships are, after all, the mother’s milk of treason, and sex is the most exploitable vulnerability there is. But the FBI–which withheld from disclosure two pages of Ms. Jordan’s file, because officials say the two pages did not relate directly to her–also claims, strangely, never to have intruded into Jordan’s private life, except to ask about her drinking.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation did, however, pursue other aspects of the inquiry. There were interviews with her friends and professional associates, and as if by script the agents were offered the same appraisal of her character. Max Sherman, who had served with Barbara Jordan in the Texas Senate and was later dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, “described the candidate as the ‘ultimate symbol of ethical values. She has a very high level of integrity and is considered to be one of the major moral influences of our nation at this time.'” Quote, unquote.

Her friends all assured the Bureau interviewers that Professor Jordan “has never associated with any questionable persons or organizations,” which is quite a broad denial, but was the kind of tribute Jordan attracted throughout her career. One friend even tried to convince the agents that Jordan was not a drinker–while anyone who knew her also knew she liked whisky as much as the next person, if not more. The bloodhounds stayed on the trail. “For information of the Bureau,” began an August 1989 teletype from the San Antonio FBI office to the director, “Ms. Barbara Jordan, professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs, was hospitalized with a urinary tract infection. It is estimated that she will be hospitalized for at least a one-week period. Her office is unsure when she will be available for fingerprinting and processing of the SF-86 questionnaire….” In the meantime agents kept busy. Jordan’s financial standing was the next box to be checked. “Her credit history consists of two active credit accounts both of which report excellent payment histories. No derogatory data was noted.” She had, in fact, $48,000 in one bank account alone.

While researching her birth records the agents, who apparently did not miss much, discovered that she had been misspelling her middle name all her life: She was christened Barbara Charlene with an “e,” not Charline with an “i.” The all-important fingerprinting was eventually completed, but a problem was reported back to FBI headquarters: “The Bureau should note that Professor Jordan is partially paralyzed and, as a result, her fingers are somewhat inflexible making readable prints difficult to obtain. Those forwarded are the best available.”

The professor’s multiple sclerosis had first been diagnosed when she was still in Congress, and it turned out that the fingerprints the FBI took were illegible. But the criminal records search nonetheless came back clean–Was that really a surprise?–and a November 1989 teletype from Texas to Washington officially ended the background check: “Employment verified and favorable. Neighborhood investigation conducted. References highly recommended. Law enforcement check negative. Credit history satisfactory.”

No shit. Despite the health of her urinary tract–and the inflexibility of her fingers–this was Barbara Jordan. During the Watergate hearings her speech in favor of impeachment had not only been one of the biggest nails in Richard Nixon’s coffin, but the speech was itself a work of great oratory and logic. At a time of almost complete disillusionment with government, Barbara Jordan’s name became synonymous with public integrity. More importantly, she had helped to redirect the course of 20th century black activism. Barbara Jordan did not march or confront. Instead she learned the rules of the white American establishment–and played by them.

“We have had a cooperative relationship with Congresswoman Jordan in the past,” one oblique reference notes early in her FBI file. The nature of that “cooperation” is not made clear–and in a way it really doesn’t matter. In the end Barbara Jordan got her “Top Secret” security clearance–and more. This woman was never any threat to the American way of life. She was no rabble-rouser, no bomb-thrower. In the “best tradition” of the society she was a product of, she paid her bills and kept money in the bank.

Her credit was good.

Contributing writer Lucius Lomax covers Austin on foot for the Observer. His relationship with the FBI is cordial.