Garment recruited the author to President Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign (Getty).
It is said that when the novelist John O’Hara learned of the death of his friend, composer George Gershwin, he wrote:
“They tell me George is dead, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
I feel the same way about the death of my friend Len Garment. When I learned the sad news, my first thought was not of Leonard Garment, the distinguished lawyer, fine writer, and Nixon defender during Watergate. No, I flashed back to one of our luncheons at a New York-style delicatessen in Washington, where, over artery-clogging but delicious pastrami sandwiches, we discussed art, music, literature, philosophy , religion and history, even though the ostensible topic of conversation was politics.
Len enjoyed discussing and debating issues that transcended the mind-numbing minutiae of policy and programs, and he ignored the grand visions of political strategy. I believe he saw politics not as a struggle for power, but almost as a branch of the humanities, a difficult undertaking that requires the broad and deep understanding of the human condition. He thought of politics as something too important to be left to politicians and too profound to be explained by populist sentiment or ideological rigidities.
On June 21, 1967, I took a train from Philadelphia to New York to meet a Wall Street lawyer named Leonard Garment. He had invited me for lunch to talk about a letter I had written to Richard Nixon, urging him to run for president in 1968. At the time I was a high school teacher of English who had been chosen to be part of the Master Teachers Program of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. My job at Penn was to teach and evaluate undergraduates (by observing their performances as student teachers in Philadelphia schools) who were planning to become high school teachers. I mention this only to point out that, despite my interest in politics, I had no political background worth speaking of, and (although I was blissfully ignorant of it at the time) absolutely no knowledge of politics, as it is practiced in the big leagues. I had jotted off my letter to Nixon in haste, never thinking anything would come of it.
Nixon had given my letter to Garment who, aside from his duties at the Nixon Mudge law firm, was unofficially a political talent-scout for Nixon. While Nixon had made no official announcement about running once again for president, it was clear to Garment, and other Nixon aides and friends, that the man who had been declared politically irrelevant (if not dead) in 1962, was ready to make what would prove to be the political comeback of the century.
When I got to New York, I went to the Nixon law firm and met Garment. He was ten years older than I was, fast-talking, witty, friendly, and given to puns, not at all the idea I had of an up-tight, stuffy Wall Street lawyer. (I was soon to discover that Len transcended all kind of stereotypes). He took me to Whites, a Wall Street area restaurant, and we immediately hit it off. We both loved jazz (he was an accomplished tenor sax player) and were fans of the immortal alto-sax genius, Charlie Parker. I soon found out, as we talked, that Len was a birthright Brooklyn, Jewish, non-ideological liberal. I was a recently converted Republican, an Irish street corner conservative Catholic from Jersey City, a town owned and operated by the Democratic party for decades. So Len and I were outsiders among the WASP Republican insiders. At the time we met, Len had been getting bored by his legal duties and welcomed the chance to do some political work for Nixon, a man he had come to admire. At the end of our lunch, he asked me to send him anything that came into my mind that might help Nixon –slogans, one-liners, half-baked ideas, political gimmicks, and rhetoric of all kinds. I was flattered, stunned in fact. A guy this close to Nixon was interested in what I had to say.
That meeting changed my life. I went back to my job at Penn, began to send Len bits and pieces of ideas and, in April of 1968, he called and told me Nixon wanted me to come to New York to be part of the Nixon for President team. I readily accepted. I made the 50,000 mile Nixon presidential tour and in January 1969 became one of the five original speechwriters for President Nixon.
My guess is that had it been anyone but Len who had seen my letter, I never would have been invited to make contributions to the campaign. I could write, but I had none of the usual speechwriter credentials (aside from some political satire I had written for National Review magazine), I had never worked in politics at any level (aside from ringing doorbells for Barry Goldwater in 1964), and had no organizational or personal connections to smooth my path. But all of this did not bother Len. He came at politics from an angle different from that of most of the Nixon aides and confidants. His fast-moving mind, his ready wit, and his wide-ranging interests had little to do with what we usually think of as political hard-ball. But once he had an assignment he undertook it with a lawyer’s diligence, a writer’s imagination, and good man’s heart. For some reason, he liked what he saw in my writing and was willing to give me a chance. It is inconceivable today, in an age of highly structured campaigns, to imagine that a nobody from nowhere would ever get a chance like this.
Anyone who wishes to find out how Len’s mind worked should read his great memoir, Crazy Rhythm. When I learned of his death, I read a few pages, and his voice is there, just as I remember it. We did not always agree on things, from books to politics, but I guess he always felt that anybody who liked pastrami and jazz couldn’t be all bad.
William F. Gavin is the author of Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric, and was a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, and House Minority Leader Robert Michel.