The Magazine

Nixon and All That Jazz

Leonard Garment, 1924-2013

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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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.

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