When Barbara Jordan took the stage as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 1976, it took a few minutes before the roaring crowds fell silent. As the first African-American woman to ever deliver a keynote address to the Democratic Party’s convention, Barbara Jordan never overlooked her own historical significance. Her eloquence and unmatched brilliance radiated through every room she addressed. With each powerful, momentous speech she delivered, Jordan wasn’t just making history, she was cementing herself as one of the greatest orators to ever live.
Only Jordan’s own words will ever properly encapsulate the weight of her legacy. “There is something special about tonight. What is different? I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker,” she told the convention. “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.”
Jordan’s keynote address, in all its genius and resonance, was just one of her many trailblazing achievements. Perhaps the most memorialized moment in Jordan’s career arrived when she addressed the prestigious House Judiciary Committee, of which she was a member, during the Richard Nixon impeachment in 1974. In a 15-minute speech, Barbara Jordan delivered what elocution experts have cited as one of the greatest speeches in American history. She didn’t regurgitate political arguments Democrats had circulated at the time. Rather, she heralded the U.S. Constitution and reminded her colleagues on both sides of the aisle that the founders intended reason to anchor the process of impeachment.
As the only African-American woman, not to mention a freshman legislator, addressing the House Judiciary Committee, Jordan used logic, not political posturing, to steer her synthesized argument. “Today I am an inquisitor,” she told the committee. “A hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. 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 subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.”
Jordan’s speech on the gravity of impeachment should govern any impeachment process which proceeded it. She spoke not only of Richard Nixon’s crimes, but of the process by which elected officials are held accountable. Thus, it’s difficult to remember Jordan’s wisdom without considering where she might stand on the impeachment and the crimes committed by Donald J. Trump.
There are many key differences between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump’s impeachments. For one, Constitutional scholars have identified Trump’s crimes to be much more severe than those of Nixon. Not only that, but Richard Nixon resigned from office before the House was given the opportunity to vote on his impeachment. However, and perhaps most importantly, the unconstitutionality with which Republicans have conducted the impeachment of Donald Trump, is much more defiant and deceptive than Nixon’s party all those years ago.
We cannot suppose certainty when speculating where Barbara Jordan would fall on the impeachment of Donald Trump. However, we can continue to look to her words for guidance. The U.S. Constitution should not be considered a second-thought but rather a guiding force that we wholly trust and prioritize over political pettiness. Jordan refused to be an idle spectator, she said so herself. She refused to watch the document that has steered the American democracy through the perils of history and the progress of society, to be overlooked when it is least convenient for a political party. As we watch Republicans and allies of the president mold the U.S. Constitution to baselessly substantiate their corruption of our elections, we must remember Barbara Jordan’s unyielding commitment to our democracy and to the truth.
“Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this [impeachment] process for petty reasons,” Jordan told her colleagues on the Judiciary committee. “Congress has a lot to do: Appropriations, Tax Reform, Health Insurance, Campaign Finance Reform, Housing, Environmental Protection, Energy Sufficiency, Mass Transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big, because the task we have before us is a big one.”
Although the president will most likely be exonerated for his high crimes and misdemeanors, despite his evidenced guilt, we cannot lose faith in our government. Barbara Jordan fought for her place in history, and her values and brilliance and allegiance to the American experiment steered her throughout the way. We cannot throw our hands up and accept this failure willingly. As patriots, we must fight against injustice and corruption, especially if the source of malfeasance lies within the American government.