Lenny, We Hardly Knew Ye
did you ever
notice that when
does get an idea
gets it all wrong
Don Marquis, archys life of mehitabel
No one really remembers Leonard Garment anymore, which I suppose was inevitable. He was never flashy and rarely in the public eye; his place in history, as he admits in this autobiography, was largely marginal and decidedly minor-key. Garment is candid about this in his 1997 autobiography, recently re-issued by Da Capo Press. Self-deprecating comments pop up every few pages or so, as if to remind us that anything he did might have gotten done anyway, or led to nothing, or were the result of luck. So who is this guy who doesn’t register on anyone’s mental Rolodex, and (more importantly) why read a book about him? Because Leonard Garment isAmerica: hard-working, confused, loyal, self-pitying, friendly, pathetic, lovable, and a little bit sad, but certainly as interesting as all hell and still up for whatever comes next.
Brief synopsis: Leonard Garment was a lawyer who, in 1963, befriended the new partner at his New York law firm, former Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon. Garment, a self-described “birthright Democrat” who had done fundraising for liberal candidates in the past, encouraged Nixon to get back into politics, and helped to get him elected in 1968. He then stayed around the White House in various capacities until Watergate brought the whole administration down around their ears. Garment raked the muck a little in 2000 with his book The Search for Deep Throat, in which he claimed that Nixon aide (and Garment recruit) John Sears was the source of Watergate leaks—everyone involved, of course, denied it. But this book details Nixon’s return to power and presidency, Garment’s place in it as a kind of “liberal” balancing force (and one of the few Jews close to Nixon), and the fall of it all. If you are a Watergate nut or interested in presidential politics, this book will at least appeal to you on that level.
But let’s back it up a little, because this is far from just being a “my political career” book. Garment spends the first two chapters of this memoir talking about his childhood in Brooklyn—these are, in some ways, the most successful chapters of the book. You can’t help but love the young Lenny Garment: a heavy, eager-to-please kid who found his way out of the biggest borough with nothing but a clarinet and a smile. And he doesn’t sugar-coat his childhood, either. His descriptions of his angry-liberal father and his sharp-tongued mother still ring with sadness and rage. His years as a jazz musician seem to be the happiest of his life; he backed up Billie Holiday for two weeks, played with obscure saxophonist Alan Greenspan, and was poor as a church mouse but happy.
Then the book changes course abruptly, and, much like Garment himself, never really gets happy again. A therapist convinces him to finish college, he bluffs his way into Brooklyn Law School, does well there, gets a job with a big law firm, marries, and has two children—all in the space of 14 pages. Before we even learn much about him as a lawyer, or as a husband or father, we’re plunged into Chapter 3: “Nixon Goes East.” For the rest of the book, Leonard Garment the man is plunged into the shadows as another Leonard Garment, one who exists merely to serve a Great Man of History, emerges.
We don’t really hear much about anything but Richard Nixon for the rest of the book: Here’s how I met Nixon. Here’s what he said to me at that one dinner party. Here’s a (small) contribution that I made to history (in my own little way). Here is how we ran the campaign, here’s us winning, here’s what we were trying to do. Don’t get me wrong: I could barely put it down. Garment’s take on Nixon’s inner circle is different than most, as it is largely personality-based (Ehrlichman good, Haldeman bad) and anecdotal to a fault. His description of Nixon’s inner circle trying to decide whether or not the candidate should attend the funeral of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is low comedy; when Garment and fellow “liberals” William Safire, Ray Price, and Dick Whalen convince Nixon that he must be there, Nixon calls John Mitchell to say “the ‘libs’ had carried the day.” But Garment, whose role in the White House was always changing and never really crucial, is able to speak with more detachment than a lot of other members of that staff who have written memoirs, so a fairly balanced portrait is achieved.
Garment is interesting when he talks about his own Jewishness. For someone who went through a period of extreme religiousness as a child, he is awfully flip about Nixon on this issue: “f you show me a Christian or for that matter a Jew who does not have some traces of anti-Semitism in his or her soul, I will show you a human being whose body contains no germs.” Oh, really? This from a man who helped Patrick Moynihan flip off the entire UN over the 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution. He never claims to have witnessed or experienced much hatred in this regard from Nixon himself…but is this just selective memory? one can’t help wondering when the author talked about Nixon’s downfall. Garment seems really puzzled and saddened about Watergate. After mouthing some very non-“lib” views about the press and their role in Nixon’s demise (and on the current state of arts and many other topics), he admits that his hero had some serious flaws. His role seems to have been as “a moderating balance to the agitators of Nixon’s darker side, who seized any opportunity to pour poison into his susceptible ears,” but he is just as able to take a step back and discuss the strategic mistakes that they all made, with of course the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. (Shoulda destroyed those tapes!)
But when Watergate has brought everything down, Garment has to go back to his so-called life . . . and the wife and family that we haven’t heard anything about for 150 pages. Why so reticent about his personal life? Well, it seems to be equal parts discretion, depression, and grief; we learn, in a harrowing passage near the end, that Grace Garment committed suicide in 1976. Garment remarries and has another daughter, but that too is dismissed in just a few pages. As always, his grand obsession remains politics—we learn more about his friendships with George H.W. Bush and “Cap” Weinberger than we do about his late-life daughter Annie.
Crazy Rhythm is a strange book, an interesting book, a book that contains a lot of American threads, good and bad. I’m not sure it’s anywhere near perfect, but it doesn’t need to be, because its author and main subject are both imperfect fascinating people. For a look at Richard Nixon, this book is crucial. But as a look at Leonard Garment, it remains maddeningly elusive.