NEW YORK — Leonard Garment, a Wall Street litigator who was a top adviser to President Richard M. Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal and flourished as one of the capital’s most powerful and garrulous lawyers, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.
As White House counsel, Mr. Garment played a central role in some of Watergate’s highest drama, discouraging Nixon from destroying White House tapes, pushing unsuccessfully for the president’s early resignation, and recommending to his successor, Gerald R. Ford, that Nixon be pardoned.
Mr. Garment stepped down as Nixon’s Watergate lawyer in late 1973. Yet long after many Watergate figures had gone to prison or faded into ignominy, Mr. Garment remained one of Washington’s most sought-after lawyers, known for his quick puns and savvy media skills. He often represented powerful figures in trouble, among them Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Robert McFarlane, a national security adviser to President Reagan.
But for all his later successes, Mr. Garment remained linked in many minds to Nixon, his longtime friend and former law partner, and the scandal that brought him down. Mr. Garment regarded Nixon as an older brother of sorts.
The two made for an odd pairing. Mr. Garment was a liberal in a Republican administration, a Democrat who voted for John F. 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. He was a gregarious man with a talent for jazz who counseled a dour president. He was a champion of human rights in an administration that many blacks considered hostile to minority issues. He was regarded as a voice of conscience in a White House that had lost its ethical bearings.
In later years, Mr. Garment viewed Nixon with an uneasy mixture of reverence, nostalgia, conflict, and disappointment.
“My feelings about Mr. Nixon remained the same until his death — a tangle of familial echoes, affections, and curiosities never satisfied,” Mr. Garment wrote in his 1997 autobiography, originally titled “Crazy Rhythm: My Journey From Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street to Nixon’s White House, Watergate, and Beyond.”
He added: ‘‘The Nixon who was despised by millions of strangers, and who aroused powerful ambivalence in close associates because of his nasty mood swings between grandiosity and pettiness, was not the Nixon I knew. I was exposed mainly to his attractive sides — his intelligence, idealism, and generosity. Only by ‘hearsay,’ mainly tape-recorded, did I ‘see’ the fulminating stranger I was happy not to know.”
Leonard Garment was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He went to Brooklyn College and Brooklyn Law School, where he was editor of the law review and graduated first in his class in 1949. But his first brush with celebrity was not in law or politics, but in his first love — music.
Mr. Garment had taken up the clarinet at age 13 and mastered the saxophone as well. He played jazz gigs from Manhattan to the Catskills. For a time he led his own nine-piece band, enjoying a posh life that offered an escape from what he saw as the dreary confines of Brooklyn. He paid for part of his college education by playing tenor saxophone and clarinet in Woody Herman’s band, and in Henry Jerome’s band he teamed with an aspiring young economist named Alan Greenspan, also on saxophone.
After law school, Mr. Garment joined the law firm of Mudge, Stern, Williams & Tucker and became a partner in 1957, heading its litigation department and representing mainly Wall Street clients. It was the law firm that brought him together with Nixon in 1963, when the former vice president joined the practice.
Despite their political differences, Mr. Garment saw Nixon as a powerful figure, a man who could help him to pump energy into a law career going stale.
When Nixon looked to rehabilitate his political career in the mid-1960s, Mr. Garment joined a small nucleus of trusted advisers.
Their differences in temperament were apparent. After Mr. Garment helped Nixon in a triumphal round of campaigning for congressional candidates in 1966, Nixon told him: “You’re never going to make it in politics, Len. You just don’t know how to lie.”
Mr. Garment was a key adviser in Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968, serving, by his own admission, as an “odds and ends” utility man: media consultant, policy adviser, and talent scout. He recommended another law partner, John N. Mitchell, as campaign manager. Nixon later named Mitchell attorney general.
In the Nixon White House, where conservatives like Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman wielded more power, Mr. Garment was “the resident liberal conscience,” wrote William Safire, the former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for The New York Times, in his book, “Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House.”
Mr. Garment was initially a special consultant on an odd assortment of issues, grouped as “civil and human rights, voluntary action, and the arts.” His duties ranged from placating American Indian protesters at historic Wounded Knee in South Dakota to recruiting a new director for the National Endowment for the Arts.
But his most crucial role was in defending Nixon as White House counsel, a job he accepted only grudgingly after John W. Dean III was dismissed.
His aggressive advocacy for Nixon drew criticism. When it was disclosed, for instance, that in talking to the Justice Department he had suggested candidates for the post of special Watergate prosecutor, lawmakers were outraged.
It was Mr. Garment who went before an openly incredulous White House press corps in May 1973 to present Nixon’s first detailed defense in the Watergate affair, which began in 1972 when a team of burglars broke into the offices of the Democrats at the Watergate complex during Nixon’s re-election campaign. Mr. Garment likened the news conference to “a public stoning.”
Still, he said later that he had often felt cut off from key information, like the existence and scope of the Watergate tapes that chronicled Nixon’s office conversations and that he had increasingly been shut out of Nixon’s inner circle.
After the taping system’s existence became known and prosecutors demanded access to the tapes, Mr. Garment was credited with persuading Nixon not to destroy them.
Mr. Garment came to regret that recommendation. If he had it to do over, he wrote, he would probably have told Nixon that “the tapes will kill you,” and that “now you alone must decide what to do with them.”
In the fall of 1973, amid a cascade of widening investigations, damaging revelations about a coverup of the burglary and other illegalities and the infamous “18 1/2 minute gap” in a White House tape, Nixon suggested to J. Fred Buzhardt, a partner to Mr. Garment on the Watergate defense team, that he fabricate a tape-recording to comply with a subpoena. The suggestion, Mr. Garment said later, “went over the line,” and it prompted him and Buzhardt to travel to Key Biscayne, Fla., where the president was vacationing, and recommend to aides Alexander M. Haig and Ron Ziegler that Nixon resign. Haig delivered the recommendation to Nixon, who rejected it without seeing his lawyers. Not long after, Mr. Garment decided to phase out of the Watergate defense because, he said, he had “outlived my usefulness as the president’s lawyer.”
Although he sometimes bristled at his Watergate notoriety, Mr. Garment professed no lasting scars from the episode, the biggest political scandal of the century. When he gathered with Haig and Nixon associate Bebe Rebozo in 1990 for the opening of the Nixon presidential library in Southern California, he described Watergate as a kidney stone that “worked its way out of everybody’s system a long time ago.”
After leaving the White House in late 1973, he worked for the United Nations on human rights issues, then returned to private practice and a position as one of Washington’s “power lawyers.”
Mr. Garment’s first wife, the former Grace Albert, a writer for the soap opera “Edge of Night,” was found dead in 1977 in a Boston hotel room. The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide. His daughter Sara Elizabeth Garment died in 2011, and a son, Paul, died in 2012. Besides his daughter Ann, he leaves his wife, the former Suzanne Bloom, a brother, Martin; and a grandson.
In his later years, Mr. Garment helped create the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and became its chairman. He was also a frequent contributor to newspaper op-ed pages, writing about jazz, presidential politics, and other subjects.