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Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan
Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder

A volume of stirring speeches by former US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Fifteen

March 2022
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128 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 35 b&w illus., 1 DVD |

Revered by Americans across the political spectrum, Barbara Jordan was "the most outspoken moral voice of the American political system," in the words of former President Bill Clinton, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. Throughout her career as a Texas senator, U.S. congresswoman, and distinguished professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, Barbara Jordan lived by a simple creed: "Ethical behavior means being honest, telling the truth, and doing what you said you were going to do." Her strong stand for ethics in government, civil liberties, and democratic values still provides a standard around which the nation can unite in the twenty-first century.

This volume brings together several major political speeches that articulate Barbara Jordan's most deeply held values. They include:

  • "Erosion of Civil Liberties," a commencement address delivered at Howard University on May 12, 1974, in which Jordan warned that "tyranny in America is possible"
  • "The Constitutional Basis for Impeachment," Jordan's ringing defense of the U.S. Constitution before the House Judiciary Committee investigating the Watergate break-in
  • Keynote addresses to the Democratic National Conventions of 1976 and 1992, in which Jordan set forth her vision of the Democratic Party as an advocate for the common good and a catalyst of change
  • Testimony in the U.S. Congress on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and on immigration reform
  • Meditations on faith and politics from two National Prayer Breakfasts
  • Acceptance speech for the 1995 Sylvanus Thayer Award presented by the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy, in which Jordan challenged the military to uphold the values of "duty, honor, country"

Accompanying the speeches are context-setting introductions by volume editor Max Sherman. The book concludes with the eloquent eulogy that Bill Moyers delivered at Barbara Jordan's memorial service in 1996, in which he summed up Jordan's remarkable life and career by saying, "Just when we despaired of finding a hero, she showed up, to give the sign of democracy.... This is no small thing. This, my friends, this is grace. And for it we are thankful."


The Best of the Best from the University PressesAmerican Library Association

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Biography of Barbara Jordan, with Student Comments
  • My Personal Introduction of Barbara Jordan
  • Erosion of Civil Liberties: Commencement Speech, Howard University, May 11, 1974
  • The National Political Stage
    • Rising to the Occasion: The Constitutional Basis for Impeachment, U.S. House Judiciary Committee Impeachment Hearings, July 25, 1974
    • Center Stage: Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, July 12, 1976
    • The Spotlight after Congress: Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, July 13, 1992
  • Barbara Jordan's Take on Three Twenty-First-Century Political Issues
    • Confirmation of Supreme Court Justices: Testimony in Opposition to the Nomination of Robert Bork, September 17, 1987
    • Immigration Reform: Congressional Testimony as Chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, March 29, 1995
    • Religious Faith and Politics: Prayer at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 2, 1978; Address at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 2, 1984
  • The Sylvanus Thayer Award
    • Unswerving Dedication to Principle: 1995 Sylvanus Thayer Award Citation, West Point, October 5; Barbara Jordan's Thayer Award Acceptance
  • Epilogue: Remarks of Bill Moyers at the Memorial Service for Barbara Jordan, University of Texas at Austin, January 28, 1996
  • Notes

Max Sherman is Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He was Barbara Jordan's friend and colleague for twenty-five years, first in the Texas Senate and later at the LBJ School.


I take my cue from Henry Steele Commager, one of the nation's most distinguished historians and teachers, who died in March 1998. This consummate teacher said, "What every college must do is hold up before the young the spectacle of greatness" in history, literature, and life. I would go a step further and say that all of us in public service must hold up before the young—and the public—the spectacle of greatness.

How will we do this? If I have a theme, it centers on the life of Barbara Jordan, who was my friend and colleague for twenty-five years. For most people in public life, she symbolized what ethics and values are.


In 1988 Barbara almost drowned. I was at my mother's home in the Texas Panhandle when the call came informing me of the accident. I immediately boarded a plane and came to Austin. I went from the airport to the hospital. The intensive care area was closed, but being a politician, and in my youth a door-to-door Bible salesman, I found an open door and a friendly custodian who took me through the maze of hallways to her room. Her attending physician was still there. I identified myself and he let me stay. They were not sure she would live through the night. I held her hand, but because she was unconscious, she did not know I was there.


Later, while still in the hospital and unsure of her future, Barbara invited a few people to come and spend some time with her. We did not talk about politics or policy matters, but fundamental, basic values. We even worked in a little religion.


Barbara lived for eight additional years. That near miss with death shaped the rest of her life. I am convinced that she approached her teaching, her life, and her commentary on important public events with a new intensity. She had renewed her commitment to higher moral values.


In the administration of Governor Ann Richards of Texas, Barbara Jordan served as the "Ethics Czar." She addressed and charged every new group of gubernatorial appointees on matters of ethics. One of those appointees remembers that Barbara also scared them to death by telling them that they were now "public servants" and that there is a vast difference between "public" and "private." Barbara's message was this: you will make more money in the private sector; you can conduct most of your business in secret; you do not have to tell others how you spend your money. Private activity is more efficient; there are not as many rules and regulations. In public life you will not get rich; your business will be conducted in the open; your budgets will be open to the public; it is terribly inefficient because of the many rules and regulations to ensure public accountability.


She told those public servants and all of her students that public service is the price we pay for the space we occupy on this earth. It is the highest calling. One does not enter it lightly.


I was fortunate to have a choice seat at Barbara's funeral at the Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. Luminaries and dignitaries from throughout the nation were there, as well as lines upon lines of average, ordinary people who had come to pay their respects. A nation was holding up "the spectacle of greatness" for the young and for the whole world to see.


Even now, some of the following events strike me as uncanny, even eerie.


At Christmastime in 1995, Barbara was hospitalized again. I went unannounced to her room, as I always did (because if you called ahead, the answer from hospitals, doctors, or attendants was always "no"). She was in intensive care, this time at another Austin hospital. The nurse told her I was there, and I was invited in. She was not well. While I was there, her doctor came to report some test results. I offered to leave, but she asked me to stay and asked the doctor to go ahead. It was not good news. Medically, Barbara was not given long to live. By her choice, she went home and had excellent care.


On a Tuesday morning, January 16, 1996, I went to my office, but an instinct told me to drive down to Manchaca, a few miles south of Austin, to see Barbara. Unannounced, I knocked on the door. I was invited in. The breathing machine was not working, and two nurses were trying to make it work. Two of Barbara's close friends asked me to come into another room to talk. They confided that Barbara "never thought she would die" and, consequently, had not made specific plans for her death. I left there with three tasks: to contact Bill Moyers to see if he would speak at a memorial service, to contact her lawyer and tell him Barbara was dying, and to see if a burial place could be arranged in the Texas State Cemetery.


By noon the first two tasks were completed and the third was on track. I had an appointment to meet the superintendent of the State Cemetery the next afternoon. All of us were going to meet at the lawyer's office the next morning at ten. Before we met for those appointments, just before 9:30 the next morning, Barbara's close friend called to tell me, "It's over." Barbara had just died, January 17, 1996.


We did meet later that morning. Stan, a longtime friend of Barbara's, and I were dispatched to pick a plot in the State Cemetery. The cemetery's superintendent had worked in the State Senate when Barbara and I served there. He called me "Senator Sherman" and called Barbara "Senator Jordan." He told us that because of recent renovations the old, original hill had three possible places. He picked out what he thought was the "choice" plot. The geography was perfect, but knowing Barbara's politics, we felt that the company of very conservative Texas politicians was problematic. Stan and I agreed we should look at the "second best" spot.


I should add that earlier I had asked Barbara's closest friend what we were looking for. She jokingly said, "Well, you know Barbara. It needs to be on the highest hill, and next to Stephen F. Austin [known as the 'Father of Texas']." I laughed with her, knowing that is what Barbara would have wanted, but now it appeared impossible.


Stan and I went to the spot on the back side of the hill, measured it, and looked over the adjoining graves. Stan said, "I think this is it." It was on the old hill. But I had the nagging feeling that we should see the last spot, which was considered unworkable. It had been reserved for Col. James W. Fannin, one of the early Texas heroes who was buried at Goliad. Fannin's daughter was already buried close by. But the proposed renovation plans of the State Cemetery included a separate area for "Texas Heroes." So, for the first time in more than one hundred years, this spot was available. The superintendent said, "It may not have enough space, since it was designed for little people of another era, and Senator Jordan was a big woman." I asked him to measure it anyway. "Lo and behold, Senator, it will work," he said. And that is where she was buried. Barbara's grave is at the top of the highest hill in the Texas State Cemetery, and it corners on the grave of Stephen F. Austin!


What does all of this have to do with ethics for those of us living and meeting tough challenges today?


Barbara Jordan distilled ethics down to its essence. But how? Where did this innate sense of right and wrong, of "oughtness," come from? I think it came out of her upbringing in a Baptist minister's manse, out of her education, out of her dogged determination against gender and racial barriers, out of her overcoming the frailties of the human body, out of her success as an elected public servant and her preeminence as a teacher.


This is what Barbara said in an interview given shortly before her death. It is a surprisingly simple definition:


Ethical behavior means being honest, telling the truth, and doing what you said you would do.


At an earlier, happier time, there was an all-day picnic at Barbara's riverside home to celebrate her first ten years of teaching and preparing graduate students for public service. Her students came back from Washington, D.C., and many other places across this country and abroad. One of those students, who returned to Texas for the first time in ten years in order to attend the event, said this about Professor Jordan: "Above all else, she has taught me that greatness, more than power or fame, is something you do every day."


By holding up Barbara Jordan as a "spectacle of greatness," those of us who call ourselves "public servants" take on the mantle of telling the truth, whether we be president, special counsel, judge, elected or appointed official, public employee; we are honest; we tell the truth; we protect and care for the public and public resources; and we do what we said we would do when we accepted our respective public service positions.


If we call ourselves "public servants," we should live our lives in such a way that whenever we retire, or are honored or recognized by our agency or college or public institution, or just whenever we are remembered by our colleagues, we are remembered for living and conducting our public business in the most honorable, ethical way.


Few of us will have the opportunity to be on the nation's center stage as Barbara Jordan was, but each of us should aspire to be remembered as a "spectacle of greatness" in our own small corner of this planet. Even if we cannot change the world, the state, or even our agency, we can, to borrow from Mahatma Gandhi, influence our own "zone of peace." This should be our goal.



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