At night Dowling Street is one of the toughest streets in Houston. From its ramshackle bars and flophouses bursts a surging stream of sex and energy that can easily explode into violence. But during the day Dowling is one of the main thoroughfares of the Third Ward, the cultural and intellectual heart of black Houston. Black artist Edsel Cramer has lived at the corner of Dowling and Wheeler for 25 years. To this brick bungalow, nestled amid convenience stores and bars, Barbara Jordan came in the spring of 1973 to sit for a portrait. She was just beginning her first session as a member of the U.S. Congress, and her former colleagues in the Texas Senate, still flush with affection for her, had decided on the unprecedented step of commissioning her portrait to hang in the Texas Capitol alongside portraits of Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Lyndon Johnson, and Jefferson Davis. She made six visits to Cramer’s studio, always arriving precisely on time and staying exactly two hours.
Cramer has spent years studying the faces of his subjects, searching out the planes and angles, the subtleties of bone structure and coloring, that define appearance and character. He did the same with Jordan, isolating the elements of her face and putting them back together on canvas. “Studying her up close you see exactly how intense she is,” Cramer remembers. “There are fine lines etched around her eyes, the sort of lines that mean stress, hard work, and determination. Her head is like a bull’s head; across her brow is a lump of bone that stands out like the forehead of a bull. That look of bull-like strength is part of her character. But the most impressive thing about her is she is simply so big—both in size and personality. I just couldn’t paint normal scale no matter how hard I tried, even though I prefer to keep the scale of my paintings down. But her painting just kept coming out too big; I couldn’t help but make her larger than life.”
Cramer seemed to consider this some professional failure on his part, as though his hand had failed to restrain his brush. If it’s some consolation, Barbara Jordan’s images have always had a way of becoming larger than life. For example, here are some verbal portraits painted of her lately by journalists and other politicians: “a genius”; “a hero”; “the best politician of this century”; “the salvation of American politics”; “a mythic figure”; “the main inspiration for a troubled time”; “a woman of high destiny”; “a cross between Lyndon Johnson and Mahatma Gandhi.” Her reception at the Democratic National Convention in New York City this summer dwarfed that of every other politician, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter. A legitimate American hero like John Glenn was given short shrift by a crowd eager for her magic, like an audience impatient with preliminaries and ready for the main event. When her filmed introduction began, and her disembodied voice was heard saying, “If there are any patriots left in this country, then I am one,” the convention roared into life. This was the woman whose eloquent speech (“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total”) for the impeachment of Richard Nixon elevated that grave process to the level of a national rite. To a country wracked with the longest war in its history, torn by racial division, unsure of its institutions and its future, she furnished clear hope. A Southern woman from the race of slaves, she dramatically affirmed, in spite of slavery, civil war, and segregation, her faith in our original ideals. She inspires the belief that one day the burden of race may be set aside. The first black state senator since 1882, the first black congresswoman from the South, now bandied about as possibly a U.S. senator, and—who knows?—perhaps the first black president, she has established her place as the symbolic trailblazer of Texas politics.
On the other hand, she says she does not want to be a symbol, the first black this or the first black that. She wants to be seen for her performance on the playing field. “I am neither a black politician nor a female politician,” she says. “Just a politician. A professional politician.” But no amount of insisting that’s all she is seems to work. People don’t want to see her as a politician. If she were white, perhaps then they would. Then the ambition would shine clearly through the rhetoric; then the opportunism in her political alliances would be obvious; then she, not John Connally, would be seen as the true heir to Lyndon Johnson’s wheeling and dealing skills. To a good politician the symbolism of Jordan’s position—being Southern, black, and female—would be prime political capital, not to be risked on quixotic causes, but to be invested wisely for political ends. Among the greatest of political ends, of course, is personal advancement. And not only does Jordan continually remind people she is a politician, she also doesn’t make a big secret about wanting to go places. For those who believe her symbolic position as a black woman with power imposes the grave responsibility to consider issues over advancement, this personal ambition does not always sit well. “I have watched Barbara Jordan for almost ten years,” says one critic. “And I have yet to see any evidence she is interested in anything beyond the advancement of Barbara Jordan.”
Now, politicians have been accused of sacrificing principle to ambition and expediency since long before Julius Caesar. In Jordan’s case this accusation is made mostly by whites—and a few black militants—who think she isn’t doing enough for liberal causes or her people. On the other hand, even her most skeptical black constituents seem to applaud not only her performance but also her ambition. They say they are tired of political kamikaze pilots who crash and burn against the warships of the establishment. They want someone who can hold his own with