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.