Ms. Jordan’s Lessons on Civil Discourse

Many of you who pass through Austin have seen the statue of the airport’s namesake, Barbara Jordan shown below. I have on my desk with the same image and her words – “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.” The statue captures the essence of Miss Jordan – a towering intellect, the epitome of integrity, and a hero to all Texans. She also encapsulated in one person both the power of diversity and the spark and spirit which binds us together.


There is no more improbable and meteoric rise in politics as the one accomplished by Barbara Jordan. She was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress in Texas. Later in life, she became disabled and was confined to a wheelchair. Instead of this being an obstacle, this disability allowed her to gain perspective on issues facing those with a disability. Miss Jordan’s diverse background and experiences provided her both an unmatched perspective on issues facing minority groups and a unique ability to bring disparate groups together. Her differences and how she articulated them brought people together instead of driving them apart.

She is known as one of the great orators in American history. She came to prominence during Watergate as a member of the House Judiciary committee where her speech before congress is still cataloged in many lists as one of the top ten speeches in American History. In fact, the first time I came into contact with Miss Jordan was at Speech Class, a mandatory course at West Point. In Speech class, we were required to review a video of her speech along with those of JFK, Martin Luther King and others to learn the art of persuasive argument.
What I noticed in that speech were three elements that define the art of civil discourse, leveraged her unique experiences from disparate groups, and made her an American Icon.

1. She understood all angles of an issue. In particular, she could articulate the opposing views perspective often better than they could themselves.
2. She would then clarify were she agreed with their perspective to emphasize where there was common ground.
3. Only then would she respectfully bring up where she differed from the group or person’s perspective with concise arguments based on her view of the facts.

I became very familiar with this approach and had the opportunity to practice it myself with her while attending graduate school. I had the profound privilege of attending two Ethics in Government classes with Professor Jordan, my favorite teacher of all time. I also had the distinct honor of assisting her from the wheel chair to the table before each class.

We looked a bit like the odd couple if you looked only at the surface. Newly departed from the military, I still sported a buzz cut and was thought to be conservative for the LBJ School at the University of Texas. I reveled in her class, the lessons she taught, and the debates we had. Each week she would give us 500 or more pages to read from a diverse set of opinions.  We then would have class debate following Professor Jordan’s three lessons of civil debate quoted above. Unbeknownst to her, I often agreed with her but took the opposite line of argument just to match wits with her brilliant intellect and learn more. I sometimes exasperated her because I had not yet learned her three rules of civil discourse to find commonalities. Professor Jordan was known to have a deep sonorous voice – I called it the voice of God. On one occasion, when I was making one of my points a bit too spiritedly in the impossible effort to rattle her, she said with a twinkle in her eye “Don Grier, I am not sure I can take you three times a week in my class.”

The last vignette serves to show how Professor Jordan brought people together upon common ground. Each year, West Point awards the Thayer award to the person that best epitomizes its motto – Duty, Honor, and Country. It is usually given to a General or President but in 1995, three months prior to her death, it was given to my hero and mentor Barbara Jordan. An icon, her integrity, dedication to service, and ability to bring others together was honored by one of the most conservative institutions of our country. Here is a link to her remarkable acceptance speech and a picture.
To end, I try to live Miss Jordan’s rules of civil discourse each day even though sometimes I fall short.

1. Know the other side’s view at least as well as they do
2. Seek first commonalities and build on them to establish a relationship
3. Then and only then; civilly and with respect explain any differing viewpoints

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