Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon: Newly released tapes express his resentment against the Jews. Photo by AP
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Leonard Garment. Photo by AP

In early 1970, Leonard Garment met then Prime Minister Golda Meir on the tarmac at New York’s La Guardia Airport to deliver an extraordinary secret message: President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger would be more than pleased if Meir would devote her upcoming American speaking tour to publicly slamming U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers and his Middle East peace plan.

Garment was astounded at the brazen intrigue and the Machiavellian task that Nixon had entrusted to him, but Meir was unperturbed. “Fine”, she said calmly, and shook my hand,” Garment wrote in his delightful 2001 biography Crazy Rhythm.

The American obituaries for Garment, who passed away in Manhattan on Saturday at the age of 89, are likely to dwell on his close personal relations with Nixon and on his controversial role as White House counsel in the tumultuous days of Watergate. For those who view the Watergate scandal as the biggest political crime in American history, Garment’s name will forever be tainted by his staunch defense of the embattled president.

For many Israelis and American Jews, however, Garment was “our man in the White House.” Golda Meir’s personal friend, Yitzhak Rabin’s favorite insider, the contact who could be called upon to whisper in the president’s ear, circumvent diplomatic channels, plead Israel’s case in times of need and national crises.

One such historic intervention came at the height of the War of Attrition with Egypt, in the late 1960’s. Meir asked for Garment’s help in persuading Nixon to override the objections of the Defense and State Departments and to supply the Phantom jets that his predecessor Lyndon Johnson had promised. Garment was wise enough in the labyrinth ways of the White House to take the matter up with then attorney general John Mitchell – another Watergate arch-villain – who had the president’s ear. Mitchell persuaded Nixon to release the Phantoms and the rest, as they say, was history.

Garment, an accomplished jazz musician who was described in a New York Times obituary on Monday as “one of the capital’s most powerful and garrulous lawyers” lived a typical 20th Century rags-to-riches Jewish success story. Born in near poverty in Brooklyn tenements, Garment excelled at law school while making money playing the saxophone for Jewish vacationers in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

He then joined the New York law firm of Mudge, Stern, Williams & Tucker and became its chief litigator. When Nixon came to the firm in 1963, Garment became his personal guide to the ways of Wall Street and later his campaign adviser in the 1968 elections that brought Nixon to the White House.

“The two made for an odd pairing,” Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times. “Garment was a liberal in a Republican administration, a Democrat who voted for Kennedy over Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. He was a Jew from Brooklyn working for a native Californian given to making anti-Semitic comments in private ... And he was regarded as a voice of conscience in a White House that had lost its ethical bearings.”

As special consultant to the president, Garment dealt with a wide variety of issues while serving as Nixon’s de facto liaison to the Jewish community and as his trusted go-between with Israel’s political leaders. Together with Nixon’s top Republican supporter, Max Fisher, Garment played a key role in the formulation of the 1974 Jackson-Vannik amendment that punished the Soviet Union for restricting the emigration of Soviet Jews. And he often served as a sounding board for Nixon’s more prominent Jewish aide, Henry Kissinger, including in a decidedly unflattering but recorded exchange between the two, released in 2011, in which Kissinger is heard blasting Jewish lobbyists on behalf of Soviet Jews and asking “Is there a more self-serving group of people than the Jewish community?” and Garment responding “None in the world.”

At the same time, Garment played an often-pivotal role in the Yom Kippur War, serving as a trusted conduit for appeals for urgent intervention by Israeli officials (including my father, for proper disclosure, who was DCM in Washington at the time). In his book, Garment describes the frenzied atmosphere in the White House in October 1973 as Nixon tried to deal concurrently with a disintegrating presidency and a Middle East war. Intriguingly, he ascribes Nixon’s personal decision to cut red tape, override bureaucratic objections and order the crucial American arms airlift to Israel to the president’s frustrations with the wishy-washy advice that he was receiving from lawyers, including Garment, on the Watergate mess.

“When he broke from his Mideast advisers’ suffocating restraints, he was exhilarated,” Garment wrote, “finally free to make an explosively clear cut decision, flex his muscles, exercise the full measure of presidential authority and confound the worriers and word mincers. For a glorious moment, he was the Nixon of old.”

Garment left the White House a few months before Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and went on to play a central role at the UN in the campaign against the 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution. He remained close to the Jewish community and various Israeli leaders after he left the government and went on to become a top-flight Washington lawyer as well. He served as an informal adviser on Washington politics to several Israeli prime ministers and foreign ministers and was destined to play a role in other milestones in Israeli history.

In 1985 he was recruited by the Israeli government to represent Aviem Sella, the Israeli Air Force colonel who had served as Jonathan Pollard’s contact while studying in New York University. He advised Israeli leaders, from Prime Minister Peres on down, how to approach the enraged U.S. government, but ultimately resigned his post because he did not agree to the Israeli government’s choice of tactics. He was active for a while in seeking Pollard’s release, because he thought that Pollard’s life sentence “was excessive and obtained by dubious prosecutorial tactics,” but he was not a great fan of the imprisoned Israeli spy, to say the least.

“Pollard is not a martyr,” he wrote in a withering portrayal of his 1994 prison meeting with the famous inmate, “he was and is a fantasist, He used the rhetoric of Jewish righteousness as a mask for the adolescent excitement of spying. He violated his obligations under American law and his responsibilities to other Jews. He divulged names and actions almost as soon as he was caught.”

Garment played a more constructive role in another case that he took on in 1985, when he represented Tali Griffel, the 5-year-old sole survivor of the terrorist attack at Ras Burqa in which seven Israelis were killed. Because Griffel was an American citizen, the State Department pressed the Egyptian government to negotiate a settlement with Garment on Griffel’s behalf.

Garment provides an entertaining account of his sojourn in Cairo, which included a game of wits with presidential adviser Osama al-Baz, an audience with President Mubarak in which he recounted his nasty rebukes to “that idiot” Mu’ammar Qaddaffi of Libya and an unexpected dinner with Yasser Arafat that ended in a “digestive nightmare,” as Garment describes it.

Garment finally succeeded in reaching an agreement, which, in turn, paved the way for an eventual resolution of the dispute between Israel and Egypt over the Taba salient, south of Eilat. The man who played a key role in facilitating the compensation package was none other than Marc Rich, the famous hedge fund financier who passed away two weeks ago. Garment had been representing Rich, who was wanted by U.S. authorities for tax evasion, and had convinced him to donate half a million dollars as part of the trust fund that would fund Griffel’s education and upbringing.

Which only goes to show that god sometimes works in mysterious ways, that publicly tainted people are usually more complex than their media personas, and that the real history of Israel is often played out behind the scenes by unexpected protagonists in far flung airport tarmacs, in backroom deals and in myriad ways that often remain untold.

Garment is survived by his daughter Ann and by his second wife Suzi. His first wife, Grace Albert, as well as his son and daughter from his first marriage, are all deceased.

PS – In an interesting aside that sheds ironic light on the current Snowden-NSA scandal, Garment describes how Mitchell became involved in Middle East affairs following his intervention on behalf of Golda’s Phantoms.

“His involvement became so extensive that he began getting summaries of routine intercepts of Israeli embassy phone calls. One day, after I had talked on the phone with then Ambassador Rabin, I saw Mitchell, who heckled me: “I think you’re giving Rabin bum advice, Len. Why don’t you just let him make his own mistakes?”