The Woman Who Commanded Congress
by Fowler West
In the late 1970’s, I was a member of the professional staff of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee. In that capacity, I regularly had the privilege to be in the House Chamber during debate on the Committee’s legislative proposals. Just after graduating from Baylor University, I was hired—luckily– by my Central Texas Congressman, Representative Bob Poage, who was the chair.
I was always awed when I entered the majestic House of Representatives chamber. Many Members thought of that historic place as a unique institution of government. And none was more special than Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas.
When one of the Committee bills was nearing a vote, Representative Jordan would drop by the manager’s table on the House Floor, and–in her commanding presence and with her distinctive voice– she would greet her fellow Texan, Chairman Poage: “Bob, should I support this bill?”
“Oh, yes, Ms. Jordan!” Mr. Poage would reply while rising to show his respect. Then he would go into a detailed monologue about the legislation’s merits. Ms. Jordan, would then politely end his explanation with a smile, “Bob, you have my vote.” Mr. Poage would remain standing until she had moved on.
If I were lucky, she also would smile at me.
Though I surely had spent many hours on the House Floor, such casual moments with Representative Jordan moved me because they were different. She commanded respect–just by being Barbara Jordan.
A few years earlier, in July of 1974, Rep. Jordan was a member of the House Judiciary Committee, as that Committee prepared to vote on Articles of Impeachment of President Richard Nixon. As a junior Member of the Committee, she was one of the last Members to make her statement, which she alone, had prepared. Her solemn dignity immediately caught the attention of her fellow Committee Members, the other individuals who filled the huge committee room—and—the enormous television audience.
She began her statement: “Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble of the United States Constitution, ‘We the people.’ It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed, on the seventeenth of September in 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.’”
For almost two centuries, people such as Barbara Jordan would be left out of the Constitution. Yet, in her Judiciary Committee statement, she proclaimed: “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the destruction of the Constitution.”
She then explained the seriousness of impeachment and its implications. There is little doubt that she made an extraordinary contribution to the nation in explaining what was happening to the Presidency and to our country.
And this came from one who had not always enjoyed its protections.
She was one of the most junior Judiciary Committee Members—and the only Black. Indeed, her statement was different. No doubt many of her Judiciary Committee colleagues viewed her that way. However, Barbara Jordan felt right at home.
Then came the 1976 Democratic National Convention on July 12th in New York. Anne and I had been married two days earlier and were vacationing at Sea Island, Georgia. Since the resort had a policy of not putting their own TVs in its rooms, we rented a small black and white TV. How times have changed!
Jimmy Carter was to be nominated for President that evening, and Anne wanted to see this honor given to her fellow Georgian. I wanted badly to see my fellow Texan; Representative Jordan, give the major speech as the Democratic National Convention got underway.
Once again, Barbara Jordan’s commanding presence moved her audience. She said, “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 to 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?”
She answered that question: “I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.”
She explained that, until that moment, it “would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask a Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am. And I feel that, notwithstanding the past, that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.”
“We cannot improve on the system of government handed down to us by the founders of the Republic. There is no way to improve upon that. But what we can do is to find new ways to implement that system and realize our destiny.”
She closed with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, a Republican president: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of Democracy. Whatever differs from this to the extent of the difference, is no Democracy.”
The Congress, of that era, seems a world apart from the present incarnation. Very few political leaders—and women– serve there. So many who could rise above their colleagues on intellectual and moral grounds, choose to stay silent. Why? Could it be that that they have put their re-election above everything? Do they think speaking the truth will cost them votes on election day?
This madness of placing one’s re-election above all else has caused the Congress to deteriorate. Even after the terrible January 6 attack on the Capitol Building, scores of Members of Congress had nothing to say. Shockingly, some Members even characterized the tragedy as nothing more than typical tourist visits to the Capitol.
A few years ago, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. As he discussed his plan for healthcare coverage, one member shouted out from his seat: “You lie!”
Similarly, when the COVID crisis took hold of the nation, which gave rise for the need for masking and other protections, a junior member of Congress wore a military grade gas mask on the House floor to mock the rules.
Such actions are far more than “protests.” Years ago, the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, who served in Congress for half a century, was fond of saying, “I love this House.” How many Members would say that today?
We should ask ourselves if such disrespectful incidents would have happened if there were more Barbara Jordans.
With great respect for the Constitution and the government it created, Barbara Jordan was proud to say: “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the destruction of the Constitution.”
Mr. West consults about political and environmental issues.