Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Barbara Jordan: An Unforgettable Voice

Barbara Jordan (died 17 January 1996)

Throughout the spring and summer of 1973, while I was supposed to be studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, I had my old black-and-white TV tuned in to the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Watergate Committee. Day after day, as I was supposed to be focusing on Sidney's Astrophil and Stella or Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, I was mesmerized by a series of remarkable characters filling the 13-inch screen balanced on an old trunk in the corner of my tiny, second-floor, single-room-with-shared-bath-and-kitchen rental on   Franklin Avenue in Seattle.

But it was not until the following summer that I witnessed the most memorable of the figures who emerged out of the mire of Watergate.

On 25 July 1974, testifying on the Constitutional basis of impeachment before the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Barbara Jordan (Democrat, Texas) spoke. Her voice was electrifying, her speech eloquent, her analysis impressive, her argument devastating, and my memory of the moment ineradicable.

Barbara Jordan at the Democratic National Convention,
July 1976

"Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, 'We, the people,'" she began. She continued:
It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that 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 people.”
Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe 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. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
You can listen to Jordan's speech, in its entirety, by clicking here. The speech is included in the anthology In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century.

Two years later, in July of 1976, Barbara Jordan delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, "Who Then Will Speak for the Common Good?" She began: 
Thank you ladies and gentlemen for a very warm reception.
It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a Presidential candidate. Since that time, Democrats have continued to convene once every four years and draft a party platform and nominate a Presidential candidate. And our meeting this week is a continuation of that tradition. But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?
I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.
(The entire speech is available on YouTube, with Walter Cronkite's observations, the crowd's enthusiastic welcome, and the audience reaction at the conclusion of the speech. To begin, start by clicking here. Jordan's "Who Then Will Speak for the Common Good?" is included in the Oxford University Press anthology, Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900-1999)

Her declining health forced Barbara Jordan to retire from politics in 1976. If she had not suffered from the devastating effects of multiple sclerosis and, later, leukemia, I remain convinced she could have become the nation's first woman president, its first African-American president, and its first gay president.

Among all the other honors she has received, a first-class Barbara Jordan stamp was issued in 2011--it's a "Forever" stamp.

Today our collective memory is so short. What seems "forever" and "unforgettable" is all too often momentary and forgotten. And so today, on the anniversary of her death in 1996, take a moment to remember Barbara Jordan.

Update, 17 January 2018: With the ongoing crisis of government in Washington, and with frequent discussions of the way the depravity of the Trump administration exceeds that of Richard Nixon, discussions of impeachment fill the news. On occasion, as I listen to the news, I hear the voice again of Barbara Jordan--I would know it anywhere--and think about what might have been.

Update, 16 November 2018: A little behind in my TV viewing, I just finished the three-night, six-episode documentary on Watergate that premiered earlier this month on the History Channel. What a joy (and sorrow) to once again hear Barbara Jordan's opening statement at the House Impeachment hearing.

Update, 4 October 2019: It's great to know that Barbara Jordan is one of the "gutsy" women featured in Hillary and Chelsea Clinton's new The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience. I was listening to Rachel Maddow's interview with Clinton on Tuesday night as I was doing the dishes, and I heard Jordan's voice--it was unmistakable, even from a room a way. I had to sit down and take a deep breath . . .