A few days ago, May 11, marked what would have been the ninetieth birthday of Leonard Garment, who died last year. The day should not have passed unremarked upon. Len was a brilliant lawyer, a distinguished public servant and an influential figure in the arts. The lengthy obituary in The New York Times on July 15, 2013 chronicled his life and many of his accomplishments.
When Richard Nixon joined a Wall Street law firm in 1963, Len Garment was head of the firm’s litigation department, and he persuaded Nixon to argue in the Supreme Court a case that Garment had successfully brought through the New York courts. That would lead to Garment becoming an early member of Nixon’s team for the 1968 election and later to a position on Nixon’s White House staff. Many will remember Garment primarily as counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigations. He was one of the few survivors of the Nixon White House to emerge with a reputation not only unblemished but enhanced. He served Nixon with loyalty and determination but without compromising his own integrity, not always an easy task. But if Watergate was the most dramatic chapter of Len’s life, it was not the only notable one.
Before plunging into the maelstrom of Watergate, Len had been a senior adviser in the White House working, often behind the scenes, on a variety of difficult problems, notably including school desegregation and other civil rights issues. While Garment’s approach to policy issues was typically one of moderation, his personality was far from bland: he had a wide-ranging intellect, and a keen (and sometimes irrepressible) wit and he could be a passionate advocate. But he brought a perspective that was not always welcome in the Nixon White House. In the early days of the Watergate crisis, before H.R. Haldeman had resigned as Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Haldeman once remarked, dismissively and unconscious of the irony, “If we reacted in Garment’s way in other things, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
After leaving the White House, Garment served, by appointment from President Ford, as the U.S. Representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In that role he worked closely with Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan in supporting human rights and in eloquently defending Israel against reckless attacks.
Garment’s association with the arts dated back to early career as a jazz saxophonist (once playing in the same band as another young saxophonist, Alan Greenspan, whom Garment would, decades later, introduce to Richard Nixon and thus to public life.) In the White House and in later years, Len provided crucial support for the National Endowment for the Arts and spoke out for the arts in a variety of settings. In 1997, with the aid of a Congressional appropriation, he founded the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and in 2005 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Len’s 1997 memoir, Crazy Rhythm: My Journey from Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street to Nixon’s White House, Watergate, and Beyond….,was widely praised. It is a political memoir of the first rank and remains in print today. Len Garment should be remembered as one who brought to politics and public life a sense and sensibility that are all too often lacking in those arenas.