A Survivor's Story

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July/August 2000


A Survivor's Story

By James Fallows


No Such Thing as a Bad Day

By Hamilton Jordan
Longstreet Press

Click on the title to buy the book
This modest book is likely to work with two different audiences. For the general public, it's the latest respectable entry in a field largely established by John Gunther, in 1949, with Death Be Not Proud, his elegiac book about his teen-aged son's battle with brain cancer. The phenomenally popular Tuesdays With Morrie is the best-known recent illustration of the genre. These are books in which the presence or possibility of death becomes the occasion for looking past the hurly-burly of daily ambition to lasting questions of family, generosity, courage, love, and purpose in life.

Hamilton Jordan, who in his early thirties was one of the two or three most influential figures in the Carter administration, had by age 50 suffered three different episodes of cancer. The first and most dire was lymphoma, diagnosed just after he turned 40; then skin cancer detected in early stages; then prostate cancer. Most of this book is the story of how Jordan learned about the diseases; the endless encounters with doctors and hospitals as he decided on experimental, high-risk treatment options; and the ways his condition made him think about his use of the years behind him and whatever years he had left.

Jordan intercuts his own pre-illness biography into this story, concentrating on two episodes: living through the civil-rights transformation of the early 1960s, when his eccentric uncle Clarence Jordan was running the multi-racial Koinonia cooperative in Georgia; and his experience as a rural development worker in Vietnam, in 1967. When wondering why he has been so sick so often, Jordan speculates that his frequent exposure to Agent Orange in his early twenties might have had some cumulative effect.

Jordan also mentions his earliest encounters with Jimmy Carter, when Carter was first deciding to run for the White House, but most of the book is about the process and consequences of the author's cancer treatments. In an unforced and convincing way, Jordan comes across as a big-hearted, brave figure who has thought seriously about his experiences and been improved by them. The high-road points he makes will sound treacly if summarized in a review. I'll simply say that I read the book in an evening, with absorption and without effort, and ended up with greatly increased admiration for the author.

This brings us to the other audience: the permanent Washington crowd that lionized Jordan when he came to town and then all but whooped with delight when he was driven out, with his beaten president, four years later. Jordan speaks briefly about his misadventures with the Washington media/social establishment and the embryonic Special Prosecutor system, sounding as if, unlike his employer President Jimmy Carter, he is genuinely beyond score-settling with them. But some of the Washington grandees who remorselessly scorned Jordan (many of whom are still around) might have an uncomfortable moment or two when reading this book.

An unstated operating assumption of the permanent D.C. establishment is that outsiders like Jordan are essentially brought into town on sufferance, for tryouts. They can adapt, "make it," and survive when their time with the administration has ended--or they can be drummed out of town and dismissed as losers. In D.C. terms, Jordan was in the latter category; he worked for a losing administration, and he didn't cut it in society. Yet this book suggests that he has become a more substantial person than most who dismissed him--and even before he went through this transformation, he was a more complicated person than the "Hannibal Jerkin" caricatured in the press. This has made me think of the damage done to other people hooted out of town. (Gary Hart?) If you're thinking of a midsummer gift for a favorite columnist or Style section writer, consider this book.

James Fallows, a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly, is the national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and is the author of six books, most recently Breaking The News.


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