His roots were in the Deep South, his kinfolk gentry, but William Hamilton McWhorter Jordan rumbled into Washington with the finesse of a Sherman tank. Jordan’s political brashness was already well documented in his prescient 72-page memo in 1972 outlining the audacious strategy that helped land a Georgia peanut farmer on Pennsylvania Avenue. But Jimmy Carter’s trusted aide and eventual chief of staff also showed a cocky disregard for Washington ways. He tromped through the White House in hiking boots and khaki pants, and spent too much time after hours drinking and partying with Georgia buddies (nude swimming at pollster Pat Caddell’s house was a favorite) and not enough at the right black-tie dinners. Since leaving the White House, Jordan, 38, has been a distinguished visiting fellow at Atlanta ‘s Emory University, and now he’s an author. His first book, Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $16.95), detailing his role as a secret negotiator during the Iranian hostage crisis, has already earned him a substantial sum in TV movie rights. On the eve of publication, a much more circumspect Jordan settled down with his second wife, Dorothy Henry, 26, a nurse, in their home in Lawrenceville, Ga. to discuss Crisis with Andrea Chambers of PEOPLE.
Why was a self-described “political hack” from Georgia negotiating for the release of the hostages?
I got involved largely through a series of accidents. I knew Panama’s Gen. Omar Torrijos from working on the Canal treaties. When it turned out in December 1979 that Panama was the only country, except Egypt, that would take in the Shah of Iran, I went down there to make the arrangements. The Iranians were impressed by the way we moved the Shah to Panama without any public attention, and to my surprise they focused on me as the way to make contact with the United States.
Why didn’t the Iranians work through the State Department?
I was told that it was because they believed the State Department was controlled by Kissinger and David Rockefeller, which was absurd.
Who were your contacts?
Hector Villalón, an Argentine political exile, and Christian Bourguet, a human rights activist and lawyer. Both were living in Paris. They traveled frequently to Iran and met with all the leaders, including the Revolutionary Council.
When and where were these meetings?
Between January and April 1980, we met in the home of an American diplomat in London; at the White House; at one of Torrijos’ homes in Panama; and at the Hotel Bellevue Palace in Bern, Switzerland, where I checked in under my assumed name, Ralph Thompson. Usually I was accompanied by Hal Saunders, an Assistant Secretary of State, and Henry Precht, the State Department’s Director of Iranian Affairs.
Through Villalón and Bourguet, you were introduced to Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the Iranian Foreign Minister, who was executed on Sept. 15 by a firing squad in Tehran. What happened?
Ghotbzadeh wanted only me, Christian, Hector and an interpreter at the meetings—specifically not Hal. He said he didn’t want to be in the same city with anyone who had been a part of the “Rockefeller-Kissinger cabal.” We met on two occasions at Hector’s Paris apartment. The fine china, crystal goblets and ornate silver on the table and the candlelight made it seem more a setting for lovers than for two men whose countries were sliding toward armed conflict.
Were the sessions productive?
I wanted to talk about the hostages, but Ghotbzadeh mainly wanted to rail against the Shah. I thought, “Here we go again, the same old anti-American Islamic crap.” At one point he said the whole thing could be resolved at once if the CIA would give the Shah a fatal injection or something and make it look like a natural death. In the end he hinted the hostages might be released in a few weeks—an empty statement, as it turned out.
Did you feel you were in over your head?
I worried at the time. To be sneaking around the world, drafting language and meeting people—well, it was kind of scary. But after a certain point I developed confidence in myself.
What was your opinion of the Shah?
We first met at the White House during his 1977 visit, then twice at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas after he was exiled. At one meeting in Texas, the Shahanshah, King of Kings and descendant of Darius the Great, was seated on a vinyl couch in a room that could easily have been a $75-a-day Holiday Inn “suite” in Peoria. He seemed to me an insecure, weak man, but not an evil one. If you made a list of the top 10 or 25 despots of this century, I’m not sure he’d be on the list.
What did you think of the Shah’s wife?
She was strong and devoted, a stronger influence on him than people thought. In Panama, she loved the outdoors and the sun and often swam topless. The Panamanian frogmen, guarding the Shah against a possible commando attack by sea, went gaga.
In your book, you say that a Panamanian doctor was offered $1 million if he would see to it that the Shah’s surgery was “not successful.” Who offered the bribe?
The Iranians. The doctor rejected the bribe, but the Shah must have guessed it. I’m sure he figured: “If I were in their shoes, I’d knock him off.”
Why did you take a disguise kit with you on some of your secret trips?
In case I encountered a member of the press or had to get out of a building fast. So I asked a CIA man who works in disguises to meet me in the White House barbershop on a Wednesday, when it was closed. He gave me a graying-black wig and gold-rimmed, tinted sunglasses and showed me how to stick on this mustache with special CIA glue that doesn’t hurt when you pull it off. I looked like a sleazy Latin businessman. I carried the disguise around in a little green kit and put it on only once—as a joke—right before my meeting with Ghotbzadeh.
How did you travel?
Mostly on the Concorde so that I could show my face around the White House all day, take a plane, and be back 24 hours later without arousing suspicion.
President Carter was notoriously frugal. Did he know you took the Concorde?
Hell, no. He would have wanted me to take a banana boat.
Why was it so important to keep your role in the negotiations secret?
If I had been John Q. Public, I would have expected that Cy Vance or Zbig Brzezinski was involved. In fact, the State Department knew every single thing we did. But the idea that it was me—who was seen as an arrogant, impolite rube—instead of someone with foreign policy experience would have been difficult for Carter to defend.
Speaking of being impolite, you were once accused of tugging at the low-cut dress of the Egyptian Ambassador’s wife at a dinner and telling her you always wanted to see the pyramids. Is that true?
It was total fiction. And if I lied in denying it, then everybody at that table—Henry Kissinger, Art Buchwald and the Ambassador’s wife—all lied. Anyway, I’ve seen the pyramids. Twice.
What about the story that you spat Amaretto and cream—Jordan’s Lotion, it was later called—at a woman in a bar?
I’ve never even had that drink. I like Kahlua and ice cream as a dessert. The President was supportive about the whole affair. He told me that if I could really spit like that, I should quit government and go into the circus.
What was someone so close to the President doing at a discotheque like Manhattan’s Studio 54, which was then widely associated with drug use? You yourself were accused—and later cleared—of using cocaine there.
I didn’t know at the time that it was associated with drugs. I had been at a big Democratic dinner and then a cocktail party beforehand and was told that Studio 54 was one of the “in” places in New York. I put myself in a vulnerable position by going there and paid a big price afterward.
Did you feel contempt for Washington?
No, but the political establishment thought I was being contemptuous because I didn’t go to cocktail parties every night. I didn’t work for Jimmy Carter all those years to go to cocktail parties. I was there as a political adviser, a short-order cook, to work on topical matters.
Who will win the presidential elections in 1984?
Reagan will be very difficult to beat. People are in love with the Kennedy myth, but they aren’t anxious to have Ted Kennedy in the Oval Office. He’s got the same trouble I do: an image problem. The Democrats will have to come up with someone different, a different voice, a different image. Hell, I don’t know what that is. I’m sitting down here in Lawrenceville, Ga.
What are your long-term plans?
I used to worry about what would happen five or 10 years from now, but I don’t anymore. I thought about going to medical school because that has always interested me, but decided against it. I’m working now on a second book, a political novel. Jerry Rafshoon, who was the President’s media adviser, is developing a miniseries for CBS on the hostage crisis. It’s based on my book and other research, and I’ll be a consultant.
How would you cast this movie?
Omar Sharif for the Shah and perhaps a younger Katharine Hepburn for Rosalynn Carter. Maybe Dan Aykroyd for the President.
And who would play you?
I think Robert Redford, of course, but my wife says Dustin Hoffman. Rafshoon suggested Buddy Hackett, but, well, he’s too dignified to play me.