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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS

The Unlikeliest of the President's Men : CRAZY RHYTHM: My Journey From Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street, to Nixon's White House, and Beyond by Leonard Garment; Times Books $27.50, 448 pages

March 19, 1997|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Nixon has spawned a great many books, including several of his own, but none of them approaches the memoirs of Leonard Garment, "Crazy Rhythm," for candor or color or sheer chutzpah. Nixon was the ultimate square, but Garment--Nixon's lawyer and confidant during the hottest days of the Watergate scandal--comes across as a closet hipster.

As we learn from the book's discursive subtitle, Garment boiled up out of a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, reinvented himself several times over as a jazz musician and then a Wall Street lawyer, and finally landed in the White House as the ultimate insider. Garment describes himself as "a birthright Democrat and lifelong liberal," and concedes that he was the unlikeliest of men to become not only Nixon's mouthpiece but his friend, too.

"Could it be anything more than opportunism," he asks with characteristic self-scrutiny, "with a touch of adventurism thrown in?"

Garment proceeds to answer his own question by explaining how he escaped from a troubled home in Brooklyn, spent some very happy but not very successful years in pursuit of a music career, and ended up as one of handful of Jewish lawyers in "the genteel, Gentile world of a famous old New York law firm." He found himself beguiled by Richard Nixon when the twice-defeated politician joined the firm.

"It was clear to me from the time of my first conversation with Nixon in 1963 that he had not the slightest intention of abandoning the profession of politics," Garment writes. "As we all came to know, Richard Nixon loved to do the unexpected."

Here Garment gives us a clue to why he bonded so tightly to Nixon. Both of them were outsiders--Nixon was a Quaker from Whittier, Garment was a Jew from Brooklyn, and neither of them quite belonged with the bluebloods of Wall Street. Then, too, Garment saw in Nixon an opportunity to break out of the lock-step of corporate law.

"I couldn't have cared less that Richard Nixon was the political Antichrist of eastern liberalism," allows Garment. "He was also an opening to a different life and the possibility of salvation."

Nixon, whose best friends were not Jewish, valued Garment's street smarts and political savvy. Garment savored the thrill of working at the innermost circle of power. So Garment played a crucial if mostly invisible role in the political resurrection of the "new" Nixon--recruiting speech writers and political operatives for the 1968 presidential campaign--and then followed Nixon to the White House.

Garment became "the Clark Clifford of the Republican Party," as Nixon himself put it, an insider who counseled the president and all the president's men on matters of domestic policy and foreign affairs. Eventually, Garment was the man Nixon called upon to rescue him from the rising tide of Watergate by serving as the president's own lawyer. So tight and urgent was the bond between them that the phone would sometimes ring even when Garment was stretched out on his psychoanalyst's couch.

" 'It's the president. Shall I step outside?' " his shrink would ask. "But there was no need for that. My shrink was CIA-cleared."

At the best moments of "Crazy Rhythm," Garment works himself up into a kind of ragtime, pausing in his recollections about momentous issues of law and policy to gossip about a White House aide named Diane Sawyer--"a schleppy-looking, nearsighted Polish girl asking to be overlooked," now with ABC--or to speculate on what might have happened if Nixon had not broken off his secret visits to a psychiatrist during his vice presidential years.

"Had Nixon experienced even the highest-quality psychotherapy," concludes Garment, "it probably would have interfered with the mysterious concoction of character and personality that propels men like him to great achievements."

"Crazy Rhythm" is a memoir of a rich, colorful and eventful life that was colored but not tainted by Garment's association with the Darth Vader of American politics: "Everything," Garment writes, "is shadowed by Richard Nixon." Of course, the same can be said of American history in the second half of the 20th century--and that's why "Crazy Rhythm" is not only a compelling memoir but an important one, too.

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