Being the Voice

The feminine counterpart of “avuncular,” meaning “like an uncle,” is “materteral,” but if you were watching Barbara Jordan on your living-room set July 25, 1974, the large, hunched-over black woman easily improvising her comments in the Richard Nixon Inquisition did not look or sound like a perfumed, delicate auntie sharing somber news about “the misconduct of public men” right before bedtime. Cloaked in thick black-rimmed glasses and an orange blot of material blanketing what you could see of her rounded arms and shoulders, the junior Congresswoman from Texas seemed beneficent and concerned for the republic’s well-being, certainly, but her accusations against the president were

From her remarks in the televised U.S. House Judiciary Committee Impeachment Hearings surrounding the Watergate break-in:

“Today, I am an inquisitor. And hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

While all of America suffered anxiety and apprehension about holding the executive branch accountable for unconstitutional behavior, Jordan reassured us that we could not compromise on accountability. She seemed so steady, and … avuncular.  

Perhaps it was that voice — the product of studying Saalfield’s Standard Vest Pocket Webster’s Pronouncing Dictionary, of Texas Southern University’s debate team, of being the daughter of a Baptist preacher from Houston’s Fifth Ward (made notorious in the ’90s by the Geto Boys). Where the word “again” for you and me might be country and smothered in gravy and become the dunce’s “uh-gin,” for Jordan, it would become the regal and moralizing “ay-gain.” Her voice would suit an Old Testament prophet, the Houston Chronicle wrote in her 1996 obituary.

“I looked down to see if she were reading from stone tablets,” said the late Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen of her impeachment speech.

Her voice was as clear as her “Constitution-as-living-document” point of view. Like the preacher who emphasizes Jesus on the cross dying for your sins, in her speeches Jordan stressed America’s origins and its Framers, who may have had their eyes squeezed tight, praying for perfection while the ink dried on the Constitution. But it is modern America’s duty to protect and improve upon our foundations, Jordan said throughout her years in the Texas Senate, from 1967-73, and in the U.S. House, from 1973-79, and later as a professor at UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Affairs.

“‘We the people’ — it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that ‘We the people,’” Jordan said at the hearings that resulted in a vote to impeach Nixon. “I felt for many years that somehow George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in ‘We the

A perfect storm gives us reason to review Jordan’s political speeches, a selected group of which appear in this year’s Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder (UT Press), a slim book with companion DVD including Jordan’s keynote addresses at the 1976 and 1992 Democratic national conventions. Jordan’s birthday was February 21, she would’ve been 71 if she had survived complications from leukemia. And, of course, the curtain is closing on Black History Month, an opportunity to salute America’s “first black everything,” as Jordan’s been called for her many achievements, not the least of which was becoming the beneficiary of a Texas redistricting that sent the first black Texan to Congress.

Another reason to study “the most outspoken moral voice of the American political system,” as former President Bill Clinton called her, has to do with resurrected evils loitering around the White House West Mall.

Speaking Truth’s editor, Max Sherman, Jordan’s LBJ school colleague and friend, attempts modern correlations in the chapter introductions. In 1974 Jordan warned Howard University’s graduating class not to give up civil liberties to obtain a little safety, and today we have the USA Patriot Act, unconstitutional government wiretapping, and a plague of secrecy in government, Sherman says. Because tyranny in America is possible, as Jordan said, Speaking Truth should serve as a call to protect civil liberties and counter unchecked powers of executive privilege yet “ay-gain.”

But this is the new Washington, and lawmakers are comfortably living with the ghosts of Abu Ghraib, the unquestioned governance of Guantanamo, the domestic surveillance abuses no one has answered for. The Democratic takeover in November promised a different presence on the Capitol Hill East Mall. But there is no modern equivalent to Jordan and her fervor for accountability and exposure, at least not from Texas (see our Silvestre Reyes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who says he prefers not to look backwards and investigate the misuse of intelligence that led to America’s invasion of Iraq).

To read about Barbara Jordan today —  post-WMD war lies, post the U.K. intelligence known as the “Downing Street Memo” — and after all the past and current War on Terror tyrannies that no congressmember has subpoenaed the Bush Administration to explain, leaves one feeling that the legislative branch needs a self-help library filled with the daring words of predecessors like Jordan, and even the late Gerald Ford, who, as a representative in 1970, said that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” Send a GQ magazine subscription to that congressional library, too. The March issue lays out a good case for the impeachment of Vice President Richard B. Cheney.  


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