Listening to Barbara Jordan #3: “My faith in the Constitution is whole.”

The first of these two clips, from the beginning of her opening remarks at the Watergate Impeachment hearings, is undoubtedly Jordan’s best-known moment, for good reason. What makes this address so masterful is that Jordan set aside politics to get down to the business of government, to remind people that we all had a very serious job to do, a responsibility to history and to the Constitution. She never even mentioned Nixon by name.

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After Jordan’s death, PBS’s NewsHour did an interview with Molly Ivins and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Recalling the impeachment hearings, Norton said:

At the other end, though, of her gifts was this ability to weave the idealistic into the criticism that was inherent in both Watergate hearings that gave America their first sense that this is a woman who should lead us–I mean, here was a woman sitting there who could have gone at Nixon in a crassly political way and if she’d done it, he wouldn’t have been left standing, and, and, in fact, what she did was to take the low point of the Watergate hearings and raise our spirits by saying, after all, there is something bigger than what Richard Nixon has done; there is the Constitution. And we can’t let this happen, because you are letting us–you would be messing with the Constitution. And my faith in the Constitution is whole. So it, it was a wonderful blend which, in essence, made hers perhaps the only memorable remarks in the whole Watergate hearings.

The second clip is from the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Both these clips illustrate a device that Jordan often used in her speeches: calling attention to the very place in history that she was now spotlighted in, and contrasting that moment with the past, to illustrate both negative and positive aspects of American history. Ultimately, though, that great change was possible, that American history was made up of such changes, and that we, her witnesses and co-participants in that very historical moment with her, were all actors in history and could, had to even, take the courage to make change, to elect a new president, to impeach one who had grown “tyrannical and swollen with power.”

Anyone who thinks these posts, or any other mention elsewhere of Jordan’s voice, are mere re-treads of the familiar lameness of “he/she is so well-spoken” is not getting it. Jordan’s eloquence, amazing at it was, was simply an instrument for her real gifts: intelligence, power, vision, and a warrior’s confidence.

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From a public radio documentary, then-Democratic party chair Robert Strauss remembers the 1976 keynote:

“It was a dog convention. I couldn’t get people quiet in the hall, and I was worried that no one was going listen to her because they didn’t listened to John Glen or anybody else, I might add, including me, the chairman of the convention.

And just before she went up on her platform, I said, now ‘Barbara, I bet all my chips on you.’ And she turned to me and said, ‘Bob, you help me get those bad knees up that stage, and I’ll turn this place around for you.’

And when she got to her first sentence, all of a sudden, the audience got quiet and started listening, and I knew I had a successful convention.”

Audio copyright AmericanRhetoric.com.

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4 Responses

  1. I recommend Kristine Thatcher’s fine play about Barbara Jordan titled VOICE OF GOOD HOPE. As I write (late March, ’07) it is being performed in Lansing, MI, at the BoarsHead Theater under the author’s direction, and it features a rich scene between Jordan and Robert Strauss.

  2. barbara jordan was most of the the civil rights leader if im not mistaking….

  3. I was proud to have her as my Congressmember.

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