Crazy Rhythm: My Journey from Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street to Nixon’s White House
by Leonard Garment
Times Books. 448 pp. $27.50
Leonard Garment spent six years as a high-ranking staffer in the White House of his former law partner, Richard Nixon, from early in the first term (1968-72) to the bitter and truncated end of the second. After Nixon’s decapitation, Garment resolved in 1975 to leave Washington for good and return to the practice of law in New York. But Abe Fortas, the former Supreme Court Justice and all-purpose political sachem, had other ideas. Over lunch, he tried to entice Garment into staying by offering him a job as his law partner.
“I told him I was honored, pleased, and tempted,” Garment recalls, “but I had had enough.”
“You’ll return,” Fortas said. “Washington is just too much fun.”
Of course Fortas was right. Garment did return to Washington; he has been back for fifteen-plus years, practicing a specialization—“political litigation”—not widely available outside the capital city. He is a fixture—and fixer—of some standing in his adopted hometown, and now, at seventy-five, he has published a memoir, beautifully written, sharply observed, and full of gossip, humor, and charm. As is true of all books of distinction, this one will offer different things to different readers. For anyone enamored of politics, Crazy Rhythm is above all the story of how one man caught the political bug and never quite recovered—and never regretted not recovering.
Garment was not always a political animal. He grew up in a fractious Jewish household in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. His father, a manufacturer of ready-to-wear dresses, had come through Ellis Island from Lithuania, his mother, at thirteen, from Poland. The family’s “adaptation to American surroundings,” Garment writes, was “relatively orderly”; their adaptation to one another was more difficult, owing largely to the father’s titanic rages and obsession with work. Around the table at dinner there were “no Joe Kennedy civic lessons, no Judge Hardy morality lectures, no talk about the great issues of the day. In point of fact there was never much talk at all.”
As a budding saxophonist, young Len Garment escaped into the world of jazz. With typical self-deprecation, he writes:
My ear was less than first-rate, and I had zero education in music theory. But I had mimetic skills, a good sound, a strong sense of time, and lots of musical energy. Through a kind of aesthetic chutzpah, the whole of my playing was better than its parts, and at times I achieved a form of inspired mediocrity.
His playing was good enough, at any rate, to bring him a brief stint in the wartime band of the great Woody Herman and the professional acquaintance of such later legends as Stan Levey and Gerry Mulligan (not to mention a fellow saxophonist named Alan Greenspan, who read Ayn Rand during breaks).
Garment discovered his vocation at Brooklyn Law School after the war. “Though my ear was not good enough to allow me to reproduce the sound of Charlie Parker, I could manage a pretty good imitation of judicial prose.” By the mid-1960’s, Garment was a partner in a high-toned firm, “one of a handful of Jews in my generation who squeezed through the keyhole of the tightly closed Gentile fraternity of Wall Street lawyers.” It was perhaps only natural, then, that he would be drawn to Richard Nixon, another partner who considered himself an outsider to the blue-blood world.
Garment had begun to sour on his work when Nixon joined the firm. “I had that bleak midlife feeling that I was doing what I would be doing for the rest of my life. . . . Trapped.” As for Nixon, after his disastrous run for governor of California in 1962, he had moved east looking for a way station and launching site for further adventures in electoral politics. Like so many enduring political friendships, theirs was built on the solid ground of mutual exploitation. Garment could walk Nixon through the intersection of Wall Street and the Eastern legal establishment. And Nixon, for Garment, “was an opening to a different life and the possibility of salvation.”
Though Garment was a Democrat, there were no ideological qualms on either side:
I had no strong feelings about political issues, except a general sympathy for the underdog. My real politics consisted of (a) a fervent belief in hard, focused work, and (b) a conviction that there were no solutions, only useful compromises. Nixon did violence to neither of these precepts.
The reason why, of course, was that Nixon had no fixed political ideas, either. For both men, as for most professionals in the game, politics was about something other than ideas.
It was thus not difficult for the vaguely liberal Garment to fit into the ideologically amorphous government that Nixon formed upon his election in 1968. He became a “special consultant” to the President, creating for himself a varied portfolio of mostly second-tier issues. He worked on the administration’s desegregation and affirmative-action efforts, encouraged the expansion of the government’s role in the arts, mollified the newly radicalized leaders of the American Indian movement, and served as a back-channel liaison with Israel—the last-named mission enabling him to tell fascinating tales here of encounters with Israeli leaders and of Henry Kissinger’s Machiavellian maneuverings in the Middle East.
With the exception of his involvement with Israel, the cumulative effect of Garment’s work was to move the administration to the Left of its Republican base. As it happens, he was merely reinforcing the natural tendency of all government to self-inflate when it is unchecked by a countervailing ideological restraint. The Nixon administration offered none.
This had practical consequences which Nixon would come to rue. His administration spent a great deal of energy courting the favor of people who would never be active supporters: environmentalists, civil-rights professionals, and welfare statists. But this ideological faithlessness meant that Nixon’s political base, while wide, was never deep. When his political enemies began to coalesce around the issue of Watergate, there were no “Nixonites” on whose support Nixon could unfailingly rely.
Thanks to his immersion in “peripheral” issues, Garment was far from the action when Nixon, John Mitchell (another of Garment’s law partners), Bob Haldeman, and others were cooking up the bouillabaisse of scandals that we know as Watergate. When it boiled over, he was brought in as the unsullied counsel to the President, in charge of what in the next decade would be called damage control. It was a hopeless cause.
By late 1973, a full eight months before Nixon left office, Garment was advising the President to resign. His account of those days, as revelation piled upon revelation, is harrowing, even claustrophobia-inducing, and his picture of Nixon being slowly consumed by his petty dissembling and sly obfuscations is one of the most intimate and reliable we are ever likely to have.
And yet there is much more to Crazy Rhythm than this. The memoir shows the range of an author with highly developed literary gifts. Garment writes with perfect control about the most wrenching personal tragedies (his first wife’s suicide) and with broad strokes about the comic imbecilities of political life. No one who reads it will forget his account of the fate of Charlie Wick, the head of USIA under Ronald Reagan, who was caught recording his own phone calls—an illegal act in quite a few states. Garment, now Wick’s attorney, advised him personally to apologize to everyone he had taped, including Jimmy Carter, and Wick obediently went to a phone booth to call the former President:
After about ten minutes, Charlie still hadn’t returned. I went to the phone booth to see what was happening and found Charlie on his knees in the booth: Carter wanted the two of them to pray together telephonically, and Charlie was obliging him.
“Washington is too much fun,” Fortas had said. Actually, to judge by this book, not to mention by reality, the moments of fun in Washington can be few and far between. Nor has Garment’s been altogether a fun life. But Crazy Rhythm, which has so many stories to tell, and which tells them so well, truly does offer fun of a high and engaging sort. And by providing so ample a picture of how exertion and ambition combine to make for power and success on what Garment calls “Main Chance Farm,” it offers a great deal else besides.