Leonard Garment, Lawyer and Nixon Adviser During Watergate, Dies at 89

July 17, 2013 | Students, Uncategorized

By ERIC LICHTBLAU

July 16, 2013

Leonard Garment, a Wall Street litigator who was a top adviser to President Richard M. Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal and who went on to flourish as one of the capital’s most powerful and garrulous lawyers, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.

His daughter, Dr. Ann R. Garment, confirmed the death.

As White House counsel, Mr. Garment played a central role in some of Watergate’s highest drama, discouraging Nixon from destroying White House tapes, pushing unsuccessfully for the president’s early resignation in 1973, and recommending to his successor, Gerald R. Ford, that Nixon be pardoned.

Mr. Garment himself stepped down as Nixon’s Watergate lawyer in late 1973 once it became clear to him that the scandal was moving inexorably toward the president’s downfall.

Long after many other Watergate figures had gone to prison or faded into ignominy, Mr. Garment remained one of official Washington’s most sought-after lawyers, known for his quick puns, gift of gab and savvy media skills. He often represented powerful figures in trouble, among them Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Robert C. McFarlane, a national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

But for all his later successes, Mr. Garment remained linked in many minds to Nixon, his longtime friend and former law partner, and the scandal that was his undoing. Mr. Garment regarded Nixon as an older brother of sorts.

The two made for an odd pairing. Mr. Garment was a liberal in a Republican administration, a Democrat who voted for John F. Kennedy over Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. He was a Jew from Brooklyn working for a native Californian given to making anti-Semitic comments in private. He was a gregarious man with a talent for jazz who counseled a dour president. He was a champion of human rights in an administration that many blacks considered hostile to minority issues. And he was regarded as a voice of conscience in a White House that had lost its ethical bearings.

In later years, Mr. Garment viewed Nixon with an uneasy mixture of reverence, nostalgia, conflict and disappointment.

“My feelings about Mr. Nixon remained the same until his death — a tangle of familial echoes, affections, and curiosities never satisfied,” Mr. Garment wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “Crazy Rhythm: From Brooklyn and Jazz to Nixon’s White House, Watergate, and Beyond.”

He added: “The Nixon who was despised by millions of strangers, and who aroused powerful ambivalence in close associates because of his nasty mood swings between grandiosity and pettiness, was not the Nixon I knew. I was exposed mainly to his attractive sides — his intelligence, idealism, and generosity. Only by ‘hearsay,’ mainly tape-recorded, did I ‘see’ the fulminating stranger I was happy not to know.”

Leonard Garment was born on May 11, 1924, “on a kitchen table,” he wrote, in a three-room tenement apartment in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. His father, who owned a dress factory in Queens, had immigrated from Lithuania and his mother from Poland, and the immigrant roots in his neighborhood ran deep; Mr. Garment likened Brownsville to a semirural European shtetl, with the street peddlers hawking their wares in Yiddish.

He went to Samuel J. Tilden High School in East Flatbush, Brooklyn College and Brooklyn Law School, where he was editor of the law review and graduated first in his class in 1949. But his first brush with celebrity was not in law or politics, but in his first love — music.

Mr. Garment had taken up the clarinet at age 13 and mastered the saxophone as well. As a young man he played jazz gigs from Manhattan to the Catskills. For a time he led his own nine-piece band, enjoying a posh life that offered an escape from what he saw as the dreary confines of Brooklyn. He paid for part of his college education by playing tenor saxophone and clarinet in Woody Herman’s band, and in Henry Jerome’s band he teamed with an aspiring young economist named Alan Greenspan, also on saxophone.

(When Nixon sent Mr. Garment to the Soviet Union as his emissary in 1969, he took up a clarinet at a Moscow cabaret and led a long jam session.)

After law school, Mr. Garment signed with the New York law firm of Mudge, Stern, Williams & Tucker and became a partner in 1957, heading its litigation department and representing mainly Wall Street clients. It was the law firm that brought him together with Nixon in 1963, when the former vice president — fresh off his failed run for governor of California — joined the practice.

Despite their political differences, Mr. Garment saw Nixon as a powerful figure, a man who could help him to pump energy into a law career going stale.

“I couldn’t have cared less that Richard Nixon was the political Antichrist of eastern liberalism,” he wrote in his autobiography. “He was also an opening to a different life and the possibility of salvation.”

When Nixon looked to rehabilitate his political career in the mid-1960s, Mr. Garment joined a small nucleus of trusted advisers.

Their differences in temperament were apparent even then. After Mr. Garment helped Nixon in a triumphal round of campaigning for Congressional candidates in 1966, Nixon told him: “You’re never going to make it in politics, Len. You just don’t know how to lie.”

Mr. Garment was a key adviser in Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968, serving, by his own admission, as an “odds and ends” utility man: media consultant, policy adviser and talent scout. He recommended another law partner, John N. Mitchell, as campaign manager. Nixon later named Mr. Mitchell attorney general.

In the Nixon White House, where conservatives like Mr. Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman wielded more power, Mr. Garment was “the resident liberal conscience,” wrote William Safire, the former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for The New York Times, in his book “Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House.”

Mr. Garment was initially a special consultant on an odd assortment of issues, grouped as “civil and human rights, voluntary action and the arts.” His duties ranged from placating American Indian protesters at historic Wounded Knee in South Dakota to recruiting a new director for the National Endowment for the Arts.

But his most crucial role was in defending Nixon as White House counsel, a job he accepted only grudgingly after John W. Dean III was dismissed.

His aggressive advocacy for Nixon drew criticism. When it was disclosed, for instance, that in talking to the Justice Department he had suggested candidates for the post of special Watergate prosecutor, lawmakers were outraged.

It was Mr. Garment who went before an openly incredulous White House press corps in May 1973 to present Nixon’s first detailed defense in the Watergate affair, which began in 1972 when a White House team of burglars, the so-called plumbers, broke into the offices of the Democratic opposition at the Watergate complex during Nixon’s re-election campaign. Mr. Garment likened the news conference to “a public stoning.”

Still, he said later that he had often felt cut off from key information, like the existence and scope of the Watergate tapes that chronicled Nixon’s office conversations, and that he had increasingly been shut out of Nixon’s inner circle.

After the taping system’s existence became known and prosecutors demanded access to the Watergate tapes, it was Mr. Garment who was credited with persuading Nixon not to destroy them.

“I told him it would be an obstruction of justice,” he said in a 1987 interview. “My lawyer’s view was that it could be the first count in a bill of impeachment.”

Mr. Garment came to regret that recommendation. If he had it to do over, he wrote, he would probably have told Nixon that “the tapes will kill you,” and that “now you alone must decide what to do with them.”

In the fall of 1973 the White House was being hit by a cascade of widening investigations into allegations of a cover-up in the Watergate burglary and other illegalities. There were damaging revelations, like the discovery of the infamous “18 ½-minute gap” in a crucial White House tape. Nixon suggested to J. Fred Buzhardt, a partner to Mr. Garment on the Watergate defense team, that he fabricate a tape recording to comply with a subpoena.

The suggestion, Mr. Garment said later, “went over the line,” and it prompted him and Mr. Buzhardt to travel to Key Biscayne, Fla., where the president was vacationing, and recommend to the presidential aides Alexander M. Haig and Ron Ziegler that the president resign. General Haig delivered the recommendation to Nixon, who rejected it without seeing his lawyers. Not long after, Mr. Garment decided to phase out of the Watergate defense because, he said, he had “outlived my usefulness as the president’s lawyer.”

Mr. Garment was such an integral figure in the Watergate story that he was long rumored to have been Deep Throat, the enigmatic source used by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their Watergate coverage for The Washington Post. Mr. Garment himself wrote about the speculation in his book “In Search of Deep Throat: The Greatest Political Mystery of Our Time,” published in 2000, five years before W. Mark Felt, a former No. 2 official at the F.B.I., revealed that he had been that confidential source. (In the book Mr. Garment wrote that there was a strong case that Mr. Felt had been Deep Throat.)

Mr. Garment professed to have no lasting scars from Watergate. When he gathered with former White House colleagues in 1990 for the opening of the Nixon presidential library in Southern California, he described the scandal as a kidney stone that “worked its way out of everybody’s system a long time ago.”

“You won’t find this group wallowing in Watergate,” he said.

After leaving the White House in late 1973, he worked for the United Nations on human rights issues, then returned to private practice and a position as one of Washington’s “power lawyers.”

“If you qualify for becoming Len’s client,” Mr. McFarlane said as he faced charges in the Iran-contra affair, “you have a lot going for you already.”

Mr. Garment represented Mr. Meese when allegations of financial improprieties threatened his nomination for attorney general in 1984. (A court-appointed investigator found no basis for bringing criminal charges.) Mr. Garment’s client list also included the televangelist Oral Roberts, the fugitive financier Marc Rich and corporate giants like Toshiba and Fiat.

When Robert H. Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987, Mr. Garment took up Judge Bork’s cause as well — and contributed tens of thousands of dollars of his own money — in a failed but spirited public-relations campaign against what he saw as an unfair attack on conservative legal tenets.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Garment returned to one of his passions — promoting reforms in international human rights law to protect American citizens tortured or killed abroad.

After many years as in-demand lawyer, he made some of his last big headlines late in his career after his Philadelphia law firm slashed his pay and implicitly criticized his work.

He countered with a $1 million age-discrimination claim in 1999 and, like many clients he had represented, ended up settling.

Mr. Garment’s first wife, the former Grace Albert, a writer for the daytime soap opera “The Edge of Night,” was found dead in 1977 in a Boston hotel room. The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide. His daughter Sara Elizabeth Garment died in 2011 at 51, and a son, Paul, a professional clarinetist, died in 2012 at age 50.

Besides his daughter Ann, a physician, he is survived by his wife, the former Suzanne Bloom, a lawyer and editor, whom he married in 1980; a brother, Martin; and a grandson.

In his later years Mr. Garment helped create the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and became its chairman. He was also a frequent contributor to newspaper op-ed pages, writing about jazz, presidential politics and other subjects.

In 1999, in an essay in The Times, he reflected on the death of a former colleague.

“I got the news of John Ehrlichman’s death via phone calls from the dwindling band of Nixon White House survivors,” Mr. Garment wrote. He went on to ruminate about how aides like Mr. Ehrlichman felt that they “had to measure up” against powerful administration figures in a “show of toughness.”

“Such was and is part of the price of participating in the great presidential game — often the only game that seems worth playing to complicated men like Ehrlichman, because the consideration that aides receive in return is the ability to exercise a piece of the president’s power. It is a power far beyond what anyone could wield in private life, hard to get and even harder to give up.”

Originally published by The New York Times