What Jordan Knew
How Clinton's buddy is now trying to protect himself
By Eric Pooley
(TIME, March 2) -- The best game in Washington this year hasn't been watching Bill Clinton try to skate free of scandal. It has been watching one member of the "permanent government" of lawyers and lobbyists try to decide whom it's more important to protect--the President or himself. Presidents come and go, after all, but the superlawyer at the heart of this game, Vernon Jordan, likes to think he's forever. So when the game got serious last week with (of course) a series of careful leaks from a lawyer close to Jordan, guess who came out on top?
Legendarily deft, Jordan was trying to pull off some of the fanciest footwork of his career--dancing out of the box he put himself in last month when he called a press conference to say he had helped Monica Lewinsky find a job solely out of the goodness of his heart and that she had assured him there was no sexual relationship between her and Clinton.
The problem is, Jordan's efforts on Lewinsky's behalf were prodigious--four meetings and seven phone calls with her, plus contact with three companies. And Lewinsky has indicated to prosecutors that she may be willing to testify that she did tell Jordan that her relationship with Clinton was sexual. Jordan needed to create some wiggle room--even if doing so meant there would be less for Clinton. So he leaked word that he had discussed the relationship with Clinton and that the President had personally assured him it was not sexual. The leak was meant to preserve what might be called Jordan's plausible probity--the idea that he might have been an unwitting agent of the President. But it contained damaging charges that Jordan gave Clinton regular updates about his efforts to find Lewinsky a job, and that Clinton for weeks didn't tell Jordan about the sexual allegations or the fact that Lewinsky had been called as a possible witness in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit. By making it appear that Clinton was using Jordan without his knowledge to ensure Lewinsky's cooperation in the suit, the leak looked like the work of a man out to save his own skin no matter what happened to Clinton's. As Jordan has said, according to a friend who quoted him to the New York Times, "I know what loyalty is, and I'm not a fool."
Jordan's story, as leaked to the Times over the weekend, goes like this: When Jordan began trying to help Lewinsky last Dec. 8, he knew she was important to Clinton but didn't know why. He wasn't told about the alleged affair. He learned of it on Dec. 19, when Lewinsky showed up at his office saying she had been subpoenaed by Jones. He asked her if she'd had an affair with Clinton, and she said, "Never." Lewinsky has contradicted that, telling Kenneth Starr's lawyers she did confess the relationship to Jordan. Whichever version is true, Jordan knew the subpoena meant that "this is a whole new ball game" with higher stakes than he had imagined. (Had Jordan known about the sexual allegations before, White House sources told TIME, he might have conducted the job search in a way that left no fingerprints. "Jordan may be sloppy, but not that sloppy," said a Clinton aide.)
Feeling burned, Jordan went to the White House and confronted Clinton, who reportedly said he had "never, no way" had sex with Lewinsky. And with the specter of the Jones case now making it clearer why Clinton wanted Lewinsky parked in a New York City job, Jordan began moving mountains in search of one. It took him a month, but he finally placed her at Revlon. By then Lewinsky had signed an affidavit for the Jones case denying any affair with Clinton--which she has now indicated was untrue. (Lewinsky says Jordan helped her with it; he denies it.) Soon after, White House sources told TIME, Jordan began agitating for Clinton to settle with Jones. But Linda Tripp had given Lewinsky's tape-recorded conversations to Starr. It was too late.
Jordan could be pulling a sly supporting move, sliding away from Clinton in hopes that the distance gives him more credibility. He hasn't broken with Clinton on the crucial point: he still says Lewinsky denied the affair to him, preserving the case's he-said-she-said quality. Jordan almost told his story to Starr's grand jury last week, but the session was postponed, lawyers involved in the case believe, because Starr is still compiling evidence of Jordan's role.
This week Starr's prosecutors must decode Jordan's leak, looking for clues about his game plan. As for the President, he is often accused of sacrificing friends to save his neck. Now he may be in a position to learn what it feels like to have a friend sacrifice him.
--Reported by Margaret Carlson, John F. Dickerson and Michael Weisskopf/Washington