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Leonard Garment: Lawyer who forged an unlikely friendship with President Richard Nixon

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Few of Richard Nixon’s senior aides emerged from the Watergate debacle with their reputations intact, but Leonard Garment was one – even though he had served as the president’s top lawyer for 12 months at the very height of the scandal. A greater mystery, at first glance at least, was how he arrived in the White House in the first place.

Outwardly, the two men had next to nothing in common. Nixon was a conservative and a Republican, devious, secretive and uncomfortable in company, wont in private to spew out anti-Semitic invective. Garment was a son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who described himself as a “birthright Democrat and lifelong liberal”.

He was a gregarious and artistic man, who in an earlier existence had played jazz clarinet and tenor saxophone professionally to help pay for his university education, working with the likes of Woody Herman and Billie Holiday (as well as another young saxophonist and promising economist named Alan Greenspan). The paths of the pair crossed when the future president, fresh from the 1962 defeat in the California governor’s election that seemingly ended his political career, joined the elite Wall Street law firm of Mudge, Stern, Williams and Tucker, where Garment had been a partner since 1957. Nixon was 11 years older and the two struck up something of a father-son relationship.

However improbable, the friendship was genuine and lasting. Garment was attracted first and foremost to Nixon’s “spacious, immense intelligence”, as he put it in an interview about his entertaining 1997 memoir Crazy Rhythm: From Brooklyn And Jazz To Nixon’s White House, Watergate, And Beyond. In it, he wrote how he had been “exposed mainly to his [Nixon’s] attractive sides… Only by hearsay, mainly tape-recorded, did I ‘see’ the fulminating stranger I was happy not to know.”

Nixon, his ambitions undimmed despite the California loss, also offered a way out of a law career of which Garment was becoming bored. So he signed on as a close adviser, first on the 1966 Congressional elections in which Nixon worked tirelessly and Republicans made big gains, and then on the victorious White House campaign of 1968. Garment followed Nixon to Washington, where he became what the speechwriter, and later columnist, William Safire called the “resident liberal conscience” at the White House, focussing on issues like the arts, desegregation and human rights but, perhaps providentially, having few direct dealings with the boss.

Then came Watergate. In April 1973 Nixon named Garment White House counsel to succeed John Dean, who had become a target of the investigation and was already co-operating with prosecutors. His was a baptism of fire, a press conference in May 1973 to present Nixon’s first detailed defence in the scandal, an experience Garment likened to “a public stoning”.

Even then he was not part of Nixon’s innermost circle. But some of his interventions were crucial – not least his advice to Nixon not to burn the crucial tapes of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations (which Garment later said had been legally correct, but a mistake politically). At the same time he developed the “executive privilege” strategy to prevent the tapes’ release. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the argument, sealing Nixon’s fate.

He also managed to stop Nixon fabricating a missing tape that prosecutors were demanding, a step Garment told him was “going over the line”. The episode prompted him to travel in November 1973 to Florida, where the president was on holiday, to urge Nixon to resign. At that stage however, the idea was a non-starter; the president refused even to see his lawyer.

In effect sidelined, Garment more or less withdrew from Nixon’s legal team and scarcely heard from him until 7 August 1974, the very eve of resignation. “I’m sorry I let you down, Len,” the president said, hanging up the phone before his old friend could reply.

Garment briefly stayed on at the White House under Gerald Ford, advising the new president to pardon Nixon – a step now generally praised, but which was hugely unpopular at the time and contributed to Ford’s defeat two years later. He then moved back to New York as the US representative on the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, where he fought in vain against the General Assembly’s infamous 1975 “Zionism is Racism” resolution, which Garment described as “obscene”.

Thereafter he morphed seamlessly into that unique and enduring creature, the Washington superlawyer, representing such clients as Robert McFarlane, President Reagan’s former national Security adviser enmeshed in the Iran/Contra affair, and the thwarted Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, as well as the fugitive financier Marc Rich. But Garment was above all associated with Nixon and the scandal that destroyed him. In 2000 he wrote a second book, In Search of Deep Throat, regarding the mysterious Watergate source for the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (and who many suspected might be Garment himself).

In the event, the book guessed wrongly that it was another Nixon aide, John Sears. Only in 2005 did Mark Felt, former deputy director of the FBI, admit to being the most famous journalistic source in history.

Leonard Garment, lawyer and US government official: born Brooklyn, New York 11 May 1924; White House Counsel 1973-74; US Representative, UN Human Rights Commission 1974-77; married firstly Grace Albert (deceased; one son, and one daughter deceased), secondly Suzanne Bloom (one daughter); died Manhattan 12 July 2013.