Obituary: Leonard Garment / Lawyer was Nixon adviser at height of Watergate

May 11, 1924 - July 13, 2013


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Leonard Garment, a Wall Street litigator who was a top adviser to President Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal and who went on to flourish as one of Washington, D.C.'s most powerful and garrulous lawyers, died Saturday at his home in New York City. He was 89.

His daughter Ann 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 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 Watergate figures had gone to prison or faded into ignominy, Mr. Garment remained one of the nation's capital's most sought-after lawyers, known for his quick puns, a gift of gab and savvy media skills. He often represented powerful figures in trouble, among them Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Robert 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 brought the president down. Mr. Garment regarded Nixon as an older brother of sorts.

Yet the two made for an odd pairing. Mr. Garment was a liberal in a Republican administration, a Democrat who voted for John Kennedy over Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. He was a Jew from New York City 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, originally titled "Crazy Rhythm: My Journey From Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street 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.

He went to 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.

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 the governor's seat in California -- joined the practice.

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

In the Nixon 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 Dean 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.

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.

In the fall of 1973, amid a cascade of widening investigations, damaging revelations about a cover-up of the Watergate burglary and other illegalities and the infamous "181/2 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 Buzhardt, who died in 1978, to travel to Key Biscayne, Fla., where the president was vacationing, and recommend to the presidential aides Alexander Haig and Ronald Ziegler that the president resign. 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."

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."

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