A self-described “political animal,” Hamilton Jordan was among the most influential, and controversial, of U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s inner circle of political advisors. He suffered multiple bouts with cancer after leaving the White House, and thereafter distinguished himself as an effective advocate for cancer research and treatment.
William Hamilton McWhorter Jordan (pronounced “JER-dun”) was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 21, 1944, to Adelaide McWhorter and Richard L. Jordan. He was reared in a family steeped in Georgia’s political history. Hamilton McWhorter Sr., Jordan’s maternal grandfather, was president of the Georgia state senate; his uncle, Hamilton McWhorter Jr., served as secretary of the Georgia state senate; and a second cousin, Robert H. Jordan, was chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. He was also a cousin of Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farm in Americus.
Jordan’s parents moved the family from Charlotte, where his father was stationed during World War II (1941-45), to Albany shortly after his birth. Jordan excelled as an athlete during his youth, despite suffering from bowed legs as a child, but took an early interest in politics as well. He was voted “most likely to become governor” by classmates at Albany High School, and his mother, reflecting on her son’s forays in student government, later recalled, “If he didn’t win himself, he’d run his cousin.”
After completing high school, Jordan campaigned locally for Carl Sanders’s successful gubernatorial bid in 1962 before entering the University of Georgia in Athens. He graduated with a degree in political science “after five and a half unspectacular, but fun-filled years,” as Jordan described his tenure.
College internships with U.S. senator Richard B. Russell Jr. and then state senator Jimmy Carter confirmed his interest in a political career, but Jordan felt the tug of adventure after completing his degree. In 1967, when flat feet and a bad knee excluded him from military service during the Vietnam War (1964-73), Jordan joined the International Voluntary Services, a philanthropic organization that provided community development and agricultural assistance in Vietnam. After ten months in country, Jordan contracted blackwater fever and returned home, following a period of convalescence.
The Carter Years
Carter and Jordan first met in the summer of 1966, when Carter, then a state senator, gave an address before the Albany Elks Club. That chance meeting resulted in a job for Jordan; he became the youth coordinator in Carter’s unsuccessful campaign for the governorship. When Carter made a second bid for governor four years later, he hired the twenty-six year old Jordan to manage the campaign.
As governor, Carter named Jordan his executive secretary. Just prior to U.S. president Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972, Jordan and his fellow gubernatorial aides called a meeting with Carter to discuss the political road ahead. “Governor,” he said, “we’ve come to tell you what you’re going to do about your future.” Jordan then unveiled a lengthy memorandum that would remain a well-kept secret for the next four years. The document, written by Jordan himself, charted Carter’s unlikely course from the Georgia governor’s mansion to the White House.
Carter chose to follow the path charted in Jordan’s master plan—meeting with foreign leaders, pursuing leadership positions in the Democratic National Committee, and writing a book, Why Not the Best? (1975), to acquaint the larger public with his political values. In the process he acquired the national exposure and political capital necessary to make a successful run for the presidency.
Pundits hailed Jordan as a political wunderkind in the wake of Carter’s victory in 1976, dubbing him and the president’s young press secretary, fellow Georgian Jody Powell, “the gold dust twins.” He remained an influential figure during Carter’s four years in the White House, determining cabinet appointments, working with Congress to secure passage of the Panama Canal Treaty, and becoming, at the age of thirty-five, the president’s chief of staff.
Jordan was also a lightning rod for controversy. Members of the Washington, D.C., establishment bristled at his casual, unbuttoned approach to government, and allegations of personal misconduct became routine distractions for the administration. Though he unequivocally denied them, Jordan felt compelled to tender his resignation in 1978, when allegations of cocaine use became front-page news. Carter insisted he stay on, however, and a ten-month investigation conducted by the U.S. Justice Department later confirmed his innocence.
During this time Jordan and his wife, Nancy Konigsmark, who had married in 1970, divorced.
Post–White House Years
Following Carter’s 1980 reelection defeat, Jordan returned to Atlanta to teach political science at Emory University during the 1981-82 school year. In 1982 he published Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency, and thereafter undertook a variety of pursuits, including an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1986, which he lost to Wyche Fowler, and a three-year stint as the chief executive of the Association of Tennis Players. He returned briefly to politics in 1992, serving as an advisor to third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot.
In 1981 Jordan married Dorothy Henry, and they had three children, Hamilton Jr., Kathleen, and Alexander.
In 1982 Jordan and his wife, a pediatric oncology nurse, founded Camp Sunshine, a retreat in Morgan County for children suffering from cancer. The camp grew over time and by 2008 served 500 children annually. In 1985 Jordan himself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer, which he claimed was attributable to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The disease went into remission following treatment, but Jordan later struggled with skin cancer and prostate cancer, experiences he chronicles in his best-selling memoir, No Such Thing as a Bad Day (2000).
Jordan became an outspoken advocate for cancer research; he served on the boards of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the American Association of Cancer Researchers Foundation (AACRF), and in 1999 he helped to create the Georgia Cancer Coalition, an ambitious organization devoted to improving the state’s cancer control. Jordan received a number of awards for his advocacy, including the James Ewing Public Service Award from the Society of Oncology, the AACRF Public Service Award, and an honorary Ph.D. from the Medical College of Georgia (later Georgia Health Sciences University) in Augusta.
In advance of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Jordan helped found Unity08, an Internet-based project dedicated to promoting a bipartisan ticket for the election.
On May 20, 2008, after battling the disease for more than twenty years, Jordan died at his home in Atlanta of another form of cancer called mesothelioma.
His memoir A Boy from Georgia: Coming of Age in the Segregated South was published posthumously in 2015.