An outsider in the capital

WASHINGTON -- This city is a mousetrap for outsiders. The new arrival is greeted with an alert. Either you genuflect at the political, social and journalistic receiving lines or you're seen to the door. Either you kiss the right rings or you're hunted down as an outlaw.

Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's top campaign aide, refused to do either and paid for it. Almost a quarter of a century later, it is his punishment that most still remember.

The Washington Post delivered the first blow. After calling him the capital's "second most important man," it ran an item that suggested this country boy from Georgia didn't deserve that status. It had the president's No. 1 man looking down the dress of the Egyptian ambassador and saying, "I have always wanted to see the pyramids."

A more deadly accusation followed. A pair of New York nightclub owners, spotting their prey, told police that Jordan had snorted cocaine at Studio 54, then a popular Manhattan disco. Their lawyer was the nefarious Roy Cohn, the dirt-balling, long-ago chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Exonerated by a unanimous, 24-to-0 grand-jury decision, the Carter aide found himself with his hell-raiser's reputation notched up menacingly high.

"At least there was a grand jury for Roy Cohn," Jordan gives off a fatalistic sigh. "There wasn't a grand jury for the pyramid story.

"To the extent that I cared about my public reputation -- and at some level, I certainly did -- I knew that it would be forever tainted by these silly accusations. These things stick to you, and they're there forever."

Jordan says he accepts some blame for letting a "highly unattractive image" of himself take form here, one that Roy Cohn types could use to hurt him. "I had never been a public person and had trouble thinking of myself as one," he writes in his new book.

The book is about survival of another kind. Titled "No Such Thing as a Bad Day," it is Hamilton Jordan's first-person account of his three-time bout with cancer -- lymphoma, skin and prostate -- all before age 50.

Like others who have left high-level politics to face more authentic, personal crises -- Chuck Colson's trip to federal prison comes to mind -- Jordan found the experience morally edifying.

"There's a lot of politics today that's artificial. It certainly looks that way from the outside today, and when I think back to my days in politics, it's almost surreal. It's almost like it never happened." More surreal is Jordan's ghastly account of his nocturnal visit down the hall of the National Cancer Institute here, where Roy Cohn was dying of AIDS.

"I stood there with my head poked inside the door for a few seconds, unable to enjoy his plight, seeing only another human being wasted by disease."

I will leave his chilling description of the figure lying on the bed to those who buy the book.

About that time I was asked my opinion of Hamilton by one of his severest critics, my old boss Tip O'Neill (who was known to call the top Carter aide "Hannibal Jerkin"). "He was good with the troops and he looked at you as part of the establishment," I told him.

While Tip O'Neill didn't want to hear that, not from one of his people, I'm always glad I said it. First, because it was true. Second, because a guy like Hamilton, who's suffered the cancer of politics as well as the real thing, deserves to have his defenders be as tough as his enemies.

(Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC and MSNBC cable channels. The 1999 edition of "Hardball" has been recently published by Touchstone Books.)


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