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A Eulogy for the Kingmaker of New York

Reflecting on the legendary political strategist six months after his death

Alana Newhouse
June 05, 2015
Photo: Alana Newhouse
Photo: Alana Newhouse
Photo: Alana Newhouse
Photo: Alana Newhouse

This speech was given Thursday, June 4, at a memorial service at the Leopard, formerly the Café des Artistes, in New York City.

I haven’t taken a poll of the people in this room—mainly because David taught me to roll my eyes at polls and pollsters and any other moron who claimed to assert anything scientific about people and their motives—but I feel safe saying that most, if not all, of us share something very special in common: We’ve all been yelled at by David Garth.

As one of David’s assistants, I may have been yelled at more than some of you. Then again, I see a few clients here, and you guys got it worse than anyone—though it mostly happened behind your backs, so maybe it all evens out.

Anyway, if we start sharing stories about being yelled at by David, we’ll be here until the next mayoral election. Instead, I wanted to talk, very briefly, about David and feelings—not so much his anger, which was both his most talked-about feature and also the least interesting one. Instead I’d like to note something about David’s relationship to emotions in general, and what I think it has to do with New York.

I met David in 1995. I was a junior at Barnard, and I saw his picture in the textbook I was using for my American government and politics class. I faxed him a letter and then proceeded to call him every Friday for four months, until one day I came back to a message on my dorm room answering machine: “It’s David Garth. If I give you a job, will you stop calling me?”

That summer, I started working as David’s assistant, which involved a fair amount of accompanying him to meetings and dinners. I loved it; there isn’t enough money in the world to buy the education I got, in that corner right there, over years of George Lang’s asparagus and salmon.

I did start hearing the same stories over and over, though. My favorite was set around when I was born, in 1976, and began with David trying to convince his friend Mario Cuomo to run for mayor. “I loved Mario,” David would say. “I loved him almost from the minute I met him. And I felt in my bones that he could be the next mayor, and that it would be the best thing for this city for that to happen.” In David’s telling, he made 5 or 6 attempts at trying to convince Cuomo to run—each time getting a flat no. At some point, Congressman Ed Koch—who had unsuccessfully run for mayor in 1973—asked David to lunch. They met at The Palm and, after what David described as a shockingly not-annoying hour or so, Koch bluntly asked David if he’d represent him in what he said he knew was a long-shot run for mayor. David claimed that he replied, “Sure, why the hell not?” and shook Koch’s hand.

A week or so later, David got a giddy call from one of his other clients, Governor Hugh Carey, who was thrilled to report that guess what? He had finally convinced Mario to run for mayor. “That’s terrific,” David said. “But I can’t run his campaign. I have to work with Koch now.”

Carey was apoplectic. It seemed crazy—and dumb. Koch had no chance, and David didn’t even really know him. Here David always paused before the punchline. “You’re right,” he told Carey. “He won’t win. But I shook the guy’s hand.” The rest of the story we all know.

Anyway, one night, after hearing this tale for the sixth or seventh or eighth time, something hit me. As we left the restaurant, I turned to David and said: “I get what you want the moral of the story to be—you did the right thing, and life rewarded you for it. But I don’t believe you. I think you decided at that lunch that he had a real shot.”

His eyes lit up with that characteristic flash of fury. “Sweetheart, when I need you to fuck with my stories, I’ll let you know.” Then he smiled, and I realized that he was proud of me—I had figured something out about him.

Everyone talks about David as a political legend, a media mastermind, an innovator and an influencer of government and policy. But David was really an emotional genius, a walking nerve center of powerfully immediate, often scarily lucid intuition. Ironically, a few weeks after David’s death last December, I read about a study done by researchers at Leeds University in which they set out to prove that “gut feelings” are in fact genuine psychological phenomena. Though the value of these hunches has frequently been disregarded, the researchers analyzed a wide range of previous studies and concluded that intuition—an unarticulated, often unarticulatable, feeling that something is right or wrong—is “the brain drawing on past experiences and current external cues to make a decision; a process so rapid that the reaction is subconscious.”

“People usually experience true intuition when they are under severe time pressure or in a situation of information overload or acute danger, where conscious analysis of the situation may be impossible,” they wrote.

This idea—the notion that pressure and overload make human brains more lithe, more efficient, actually smarter—is the reason New Yorkers are the most fully actualized people on the planet. To live here, you need to be tough, it helps to be smart, and God bless you if you’re beautiful. But what this city really is about is instinct. And no one had better instincts than David Garth. Not understanding this is what united everyone who wouldn’t or couldn’t understand David’s success, from Harvard-educated smarty-pants to machine politics veterans. In many ways, David was more connected and alive to his own feelings than the most successfully analyzed sophisticates walking up and down Central Park West. Or at least, as is clearer to me every day, he was in all the ways that matter.

David liked to say that “if you’ve seen one of my campaigns, you’ve seen all of them,” and he was right. Because no matter who the candidate was, which city or country he or she was from, what the polls predicted or the media said, the beating center of every one of those experiences was the same one true thing: The complicated, maddening, hilarious, brilliant heart of David Garth. I miss him every day.


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Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.