In Barbara Jordan's Purse

INTERVIEWING Barbara Jordan, said Texas essayist Molly Ivins, was "a bit like grilling God."

Good try. But wrong image. Moses seems more appropriate. Like the Biblical law-conveyor, Barbara Jordan was a leader of her people whose morality-based words also inspired millions beyond the black community. Like Moses, she was a believer in the elemental, simple, guiding law. She never left home without having in her purse a well-worn copy of the US Constitution, her secular commandments.

And the voice! If Moses became eloquent only after God assured him he was capable of vocal leadership, it seems that young Barbara Charline learned early that confidence and eloquence were her birthright, whatever her cautious Baptist-minister father's doubts. She led the debating team from all-black Texas Southern University that battled polished Harvard to a draw. She graduated magna cum laude; became a lawyer. She was the first black state senator in Texas history; then the first woman and the first black elected to Congress from Texas since Reconstruction days.

She became a protegee of Lyndon Johnson, the poverty-born west Texan who had been a school teacher in Houston when she was growing up in semi-genteel poverty there. From retirement, Johnson helped her win a House Judiciary Committee seat. It was an eventful choice, for she soon achieved national prominence by lucidly casting the Watergate hearings as a test of constitutional integrity.

Although Barbara Jordan pioneered for black Americans and for women in public life, she was not a multiculturalist. Like Martin Luther King Jr., she adhered to the dream of a colorblind America, where all people would be treated equally, not separately, whatever their individuality. "The great danger America faces," she warned in her rich contralto voice, is that "we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups."

Not if we follow her cherished Constitution.

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