It's a thankless job, being a political aide. Your every prerogative and responsibility derives like planetary light from the combustion of your supernova, the Great Man or Woman who has brought you into his (or her!) orbit and whose gravitational field guides and sustains you. The connection isn’t fated to end in disillusion, necessarily. Every once in a while an aide survives to wrest an individual achievement from the years of secondhand glory.
Harry McPherson did it, by writing A Political Education, his enduring book about life lived in the hulking shadow of Lyndon Johnson, and so, implausibly, did the TV personality George Stephanopoulos, in a funny and self-aware account of the Clinton White House called All Too Human. And so did Leonard Garment, who died July 13 at 89.
Crazy Rhythm, published in 1997, is Garment’s memoir of his years working for Richard Nixon, first as a law partner on Wall Street in the 1960s and then as a factotum in the White House, an able and accomplished man faithfully subordinating himself as a “Nixon guy” until that last long walk to the waiting helicopter on the South Lawn in 1974. Garment’s gone, but Crazy Rhythm isn’t going anywhere, if it continues to be passed down from one generation of Washington hands to the next, as it should be.
Garment was an unlikely political animal. A child of the Depression, he had early ambitions to be a professional musician, and he was good enough to get hired as a clarinetist for Woody Herman’s wartime band. (One fellow jazzman and friend from this period was Alan Greenspan, who, Garment tells us, would duck away between sets to read Ayn Rand. As Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that Objectivist epistemology.”) Garment chucked it all for law school, and reading Crazy Rhythm you can see the blend of the musical lawyer, or the lawyerly musician. His writing has the clarity of a good legal brief decorated here and there with the twists and rhythms of good music. Not a lot of that in the Nixon White House.
Among his other gifts, Garment was an alert onlooker, as political aides always are if they’re to be of any use to Sen. Supernova. It’s unlikely that Nixon had anyone around him as observant and finely tuned as his old law partner. Here’s how Garment records his first intimate look at the great man, as Nixon worked the phones in their law office:
While lawyers, politicians, and even normal folk often shift and slide among different telephone personae, modifying their manner according to their relationship to the caller, Nixon’s telephone skills were of another order of virtuosity. The phone, I started to learn, was his favorite instrument of persuasion. It separated him from the disturbing emanations of another person’s physical presence, enabling him to concentrate on his words without having to compose his eyes and coordinate his hands to harmonize with them.
It’s all there, in three sentences: Nixon’s intelligence and ambition, his social skill and his social awkwardness, the weird no-man’s land that stood between him and everyone else, which is, I suppose, what finally did him in.
Len Garment was a large presence, and a practiced storyteller, and it’s a tribute to Nixon that a man of Garment’s abilities was willing to be subsumed in the cause of his own career. He had few and lightly held political views of his own, and as he makes clear in Crazy Rhythm, he upended his career and followed Nixon out of boredom: “I had run out of steam. Most of my small-scale ambitions had been achieved, and I had that bleak midlife feeling that I was doing what I would be doing for the rest of my life.” The point doesn’t really require explaining. If your idea of thrill-seeking is Richard Nixon, you’re in a midlife crisis by definition.
Crazy Rhythm shows that relations between politician and staffer, staffer and special pleaders, special pleaders and politicians remain as they have ever been. Many of his stories could have taken place in any period of modern Washington.
One day in the early seventies, for example, Garment found himself entreating a small-time TV station owner in Tennessee for free air time to broadcast public service ads promoting one of the administration’s pet causes. The owner obliged, on condition that Garment persuade someone at the Office of Management and Budget to approve a tiny project—a million dollars, maybe two—on the nearby Tombigbee River. Garment succeeded, the funding was approved, the ads aired, and neither he nor anyone else in the White House thought more of it. Twelve years and several appropriations later, the tiny project opened as the 234-mile Tombigbee Waterway, at a cost of nearly $5 billion (in today’s dollars). Then as now, things in Washington tend to get out of hand.
His relative seniority meant Garment’s experience wasn’t that of a typical White House aide, at least not in every instance. Parts of Garment’s experience are hard to picture anywhere but the Nixon administration. He was once appointed director of the grandly titled President’s Commission on National Goals, a make-work idea of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another Nixon aide.
“This is the kind of project modern presidents find irresistible,” Garment writes in Crazy Rhythm. “It provides an aura of vision and presidential reach, an offset to the crummy, dog-eared, day-to-day business of real politics.”
It is also safely meaningless and, if done right, will keep scores of staffers busy for months. To Garment’s misfortune, however, the commission, including Garment’s role as director, were announced in Washington just as Garment was along on a cultural junket to Moscow. The Soviets were immediately suspicious: Clearly the Commission on National Goals was a sign the capitalist Nixon administration had at last seen the errors of laissez faire and was launching a Five Year Plan in emulation of the successful Soviets—with Garment at its head.
Garment was summoned to the Kremlin to explain the new American thinking. In a roomful of chunky KGB agents pretending to be economists, led by Leonid Brezhnev’s top aide, Garment suddenly remembered a conversation with his friend Henry Kissinger, then the national security adviser.
Kissinger had mentioned to Garment that one of the administration’s foreign policy goals was to keep the Soviets off balance by intimating to them that Nixon was “slightly crazy”—a man who might do anything. Garment, as a close associate of Nixon and now the all-powerful czar of five year plans, went to work on his Kremlin audience. He launched an hour-long monologue of Marxist babble half-remembered from college: “I offered aphoristic gems like ‘All circles can be squared’ and ‘There is no such thing as contradiction, only a constrained grasp of complexity.’ ”
As for Nixon, Garment “observed with clinical cheer,” he was “a dramatically disjointed personality, capable of acts of generosity and thoughtfulness but equally capable of barbaric cruelty to those who engage him in tests of strength. He is also, I threw in, more than a little paranoid because of years of bashing at the hands of political and media enemies.”
The Russians were suitably horrified, though it’s impossible to know what effect the words of the national goals czar had on Soviet calculations.
Typically, Garment’s anecdote is many layered, and at its bottom is a pair of lessons. The first didn’t come to him until several years later, when he realized that what he had been telling the Soviets about Nixon was, inadvertently, more or less true.
As for the second lesson, he had come to expect it as an experienced political aide. The Commission on National Goals finished its work at last and released its thick report, with the marvelously banal title Toward Balanced Growth: Quantity with Quality. So far as Len could tell, it was never read by anybody.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.