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Ex-Rep. Barbara Jordan, Eloquent Orator, Dies at 59

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barbara Jordan, the former Texas congresswoman whose ringing declaration--”My faith in the Constitution is whole”--riveted America during the 1974 Watergate impeachment hearings, died Wednesday of pneumonia. She was 59.

Jordan and Andrew Young of Georgia were the first African Americans to win seats in Congress from Southern states since Reconstruction when they were elected in 1972.

Her eloquent oratory launched her into national prominence, and she frequently was mentioned in 1984 as a possible vice presidential candidate--a post that she insisted interested her not at all.

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Political historian Theodore H. White once described her oratorical style as “a flow of Churchillian eloquence, of resonance, boom and grip so compelling as to make one forget to take notes.”

Jordan succumbed to pneumonia as a complication of leukemia in Austin, Texas, a University of Texas official said.

Max Sherman, head of the university’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs where Jordan taught policy development and political values and ethics, told reporters that she had been battling leukemia for some time and developed viral pneumonia as a result of the disease in late December.

Jordan had been in and out of the hospital since then and was readmitted for the last time late Tuesday, Sherman said. She also had battled multiple sclerosis for several years and moved about in a wheelchair or with the aid of a walker.

The daughter of a Houston Baptist minister, Jordan rose to national prominence as a member of the House Judiciary Committee--the panel that adopted articles of impeachment that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Jordan was only a freshman House member at the time, but few who watched the televised committee hearings would forget her expression of unshakable faith in the Constitution.

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When the Constitution was completed in September 1787, she said, “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 decisions, 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.”

Born Barbara Charline Jordan on Feb. 21, 1936, in Houston, she was the youngest of three sisters. Her father, Benjamin, worked at the Houston Terminal Warehouse and Cold Storage Co. before beginning his ministry in 1949.

Although her youth was spent during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the 1940s and 1950s, she did not join the marches of the early civil rights movement. Instead, Jordan joined the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and, after hearing a black woman lawyer speak to the group, decided that she too wanted to become an attorney.

She graduated from Houston’s segregated Phyllis Wheatley High School and earned an undergraduate degree from all-black Texas Southern University and a law degree from Boston University.

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The political bug bit her when she worked as a Kennedy-Johnson volunteer in the 1960 presidential campaign.

“The practice of law has never been more than a springboard for me to do other things,” she told The Times in 1979. “I was either running for public office and getting defeated or running for public office and winning. Law was meat and potatoes and money for gas. Now I probably couldn’t make enough for gas.”

In 1966, she became the first African American woman ever elected to the Texas Senate. She said she tried to make her entrance into the legislative body a drama of modest proportions.

“I didn’t carry the American flag or go in singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” she said. “I just took my seat as a fellow member of the Texas Senate, looking for no privileges and receiving none.”

As it turned out, she said, “the Capitol stayed on its foundations, and the star didn’t fall off the top.”

While serving in the Texas Senate, she co-sponsored the state’s first minimum-wage bill and a workers’ compensation bill and led opposition to legislation intended to disenfranchise blacks and Latinos by tightening voter registration requirements.

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In Jordan’s first race for Congress in 1972, former President Johnson swept into Houston in his helicopter, accompanied by Secret Service bodyguards, signaling to everyone that Jordan had made it to the big time in Texas politics.

“Barbara Jordan proves to us that black was beautiful before we knew it,” Johnson said, campaigning for Jordan. “Wherever she goes, she’s going to be at the top. And wherever Barbara goes, all of us are going to be behind her.”

After her election, she told a colleague in the Texas congressional delegation: “May I object to being called ‘gentlelady?’ ” When her colleague asked what term she preferred, she answered, “I don’t know, but I don’t like ‘gentlelady.’ ”

Four years later, at the 1976 Democratic National Convention that nominated Jimmy Carter, she delivered a stirring keynote address. But her condemnation of “both white racism and black racism” at the 1992 convention was seen by some African Americans as a ploy to bolster then-candidate Bill Clinton’s support among conservative white voters.

Jordan had challenged Democratic delegates to “be prepared to answer Rodney King’s haunting question ‘Can we all get along?’ I say we answer that question with a resounding yes.”

Early on, her congressional career had been dubbed “headed for the stars,” but Jordan bowed out of the House of Representatives in 1978 after three terms.

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Her reasons were “internal,” she said at the time, although some people speculated that she was miffed at not having been offered the attorney generalship that Jimmy Carter gave to federal judge Griffin Bell.

Her health also had become a concern, although she denied it. Her deteriorating condition became more evident as she began using a walker and later a wheelchair.

She joined the University of Texas faculty after her retirement from Congress, and her courses were so popular that students had to be chosen by lottery.

In 1988, she was rushed to a hospital in critical condition after she was found floating unconscious in a swimming pool at her home. Doctors said later that a heart rhythm disturbance most likely caused her to lose consciousness.

She fully recovered from that brush with death and was appointed to head the congressional Commission on Immigration Reform, which issued its report in September. The panel concluded, among other findings, that a properly regulated flow of immigrants is in the national interest.

Jordan is survived by her mother, Arlyne Jordan, and two sisters.

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