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Jewish World Review May 26, 2000 / 21 Iyar, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Hamilton Jordan, the outsider -- Washington is a mousetrap for outsiders. The new arrival is greeted with an alert. Either you genuflect at the political, social and journalistic receiving lines or you're seen to the door. Either you kiss the right rings or you're hunted down as an outlaw.

Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's top campaign aide, refused to do either and paid for it. Almost a quarter of a century later, it is his punishment that most people remember.

The Washington Post delivered the first blow. After calling him the capital's "second most important man," it ran an item that suggested this country boy from Georgia didn't deserve that status. It had the president's No. 1 man looking down the dress of the Egyptian ambassador and saying, "I have always wanted to see the pyramids."

A more deadly accusation followed. A pair of New York nightclub owners, spotting their prey, told police that Jordan had snorted cocaine at Studio 54, then a popular Manhattan disco. Their lawyer was the nefarious Roy Cohn, the late dirt-balling, long-ago chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Exonerated by a unanimous 24-to-0 grand jury decision, the Carter aide found himself with his hell-raiser's reputation notched up menacingly high.

"At least there was a grand jury for Roy Cohn," Jordan says.

He gives a fatalistic sigh.

"There wasn't a grand jury for the pyramid story. To the extent that I cared about my public reputation — and at some level, I certainly did — I knew that it would be forever tainted by these silly accusations. These things stick to you, and they're there forever."

Jordan says he accepts some blame for letting a "highly unattractive image" of himself take form here, one that Roy Cohn types could use to hurt him. "I had never been a public person and had trouble thinking of myself as one," he writes in his new book.

The book is about survival of another kind. Titled "No Such Thing as a Bad Day," it is Hamilton Jordan's first-person account of his three-time bout with cancer — lymphoma, skin and prostate — all before age 50.


Like others who have left high-level politics to face more authentic, personal crises — Chuck Colson's trip to federal prison comes to mind — Jordan found the experience morally edifying.

"There's a lot of politics today that's artificial. It certainly looks that way from the outside today, and when I think back to my days in politics, it's almost surreal. It's almost like it never happened."

More surreal is Jordan's ghastly account of his nocturnal visit down the hall of the National Cancer Institute here, where Roy Cohn was dying of AIDS.

"I stood there with my head poked inside the door for a few seconds, unable to enjoy his plight, seeing only another human being wasted by disease."

I will skip his chilling description of the figure lying on the bed.

That was about the time I was asked my opinion of Jordan by one of his severest critics, my then boss Tip O'Neill (who was known to call the top Carter aide "Hannibal Jerkin").

"He was good with the troops and he looked at you as part of the establishment," I told him.

While Tip O'Neill didn't want to hear that, not from one of his people, I'm always glad I said it. First, because it was true. Second, because a guy like Hamilton, who's suffered the cancer of politics as well as the real thing, deserves defenders as tough as his enemies.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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