Leonard Garment, Richard Nixon’s law partner, adviser, and White House Counsel during the Watergate scandal, died in New York on Saturday at the age of 89. The New York Times’ obituary emphasized Garment’s exquisite success in defending his friend-president-and-client while preserving his own integrity and reputation–a daunting task. But this 2,200 word article overlooked Garment’s essential contribution to American, Jewish, and world history in working with Daniel Patrick Moynihan to denounce the UN’s Zionism is Racism Resolution. Garment, a trial attorney, carefully sought the right word to describe Resolution 3379, which the General Assembly passed in November 1975. His ultimate choice, “obscene,” brilliantly captured how this unfair, inaccurate libel sullied us all.
A scrappy kid from Brownsville, NY, born in 1924 to a Lithuanian-born father and a Polish-born mother, Garment’s rag-to-riches tale via Brooklyn Law School included a colorful interlude in the 1940s as a jazz musician. A master clarinetist and saxophonist whose passion for culture would earn him a 2005 National Medal of Arts, he performed with musical legends like Billie Holiday and Woody Herman, and others who flourished elsewhere, including the economist Alan Greenspan. In his lyrical memoir, Crazy Rhythm, Garment would recall that Greenspan, a saxophonist-flautist, “helped with the band’s payroll (yes, the books balanced) and spent intermissions reading Ayn Rand and general economics.” Two decades later, Garment bumped into Greenspan and introduced him to his law partner, the presidential aspirant Richard Nixon.
It was this professional and personal relationship with Nixon that catapulted Garment in the 1960s from his comfortable perch as a Wall Street litigator into history. Starting with the 1968 presidential campaign, Garment, this artsy New York Jewish liberal with a soft spot for his awkward, often tormented but clearly talented political friend, became Nixon’s “emissary to alien worlds.” In the White House, Garment served as “the president’s personal representative to all things Jewish,” making his first trip to Israel at the age of 45 representing the president.
During the White House years–and subsequently–Garment often served as an important back channel, trusted by the Americans and the Israelis with delicate matters. He facilitated the delivery of Phantom jets to Israel during the War of Attrition and participated in the tense debate about resupplying Israel after the Yom Kippur War surprise attack–crediting President Nixon for ultimately approving the move. Garment also eased tensions surrounding the Jackson-Vanik amendment, blocking the Soviet Union’s Most Favored Nation trading status to compel free Soviet Jewish emigration.
After Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, President Gerald Ford chose Garment to represent the U.S. to the UN Human Rights Commission. When Ford nominated Daniel Patrick Moynihan as America’s Ambassador to the UN in 1975, Garment joined Moynihan at the UN full-time as his valued counselor too.
What Garment would call the “debasement of the language of human rights,” as part of the Soviet-manipulated rebellion of Third World dictators against the Western democracies was spreading. Garment and Moynihan, who bonded as the “house liberals” in the Nixon White House, targeted this new “totalitarian” threat.
Just weeks into Moynihan’s tenure, in August 1975, the non-aligned nations meeting in Lima blasted Western capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and racism, demanding reparations. The attack was particularly ironic because Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was preparing a generous economic package to help developing economies.
Moynihan and Garment plunged into what became a 40-hour negotiating marathon. Following the Lima format and “using identical language,” Moynihan and Garment changed “the meaning of every sentence in ways we hoped that would take time and some wit to recognize,” Moynihan recalled. The Special Session unanimously approved what Moynihan called “the broadest development program in … history” as the Third World delegates cheered.
Stymied there, the Soviet manipulators pushed Arab and African countries to single out one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, in this forum of nationalisms, and call it “racism.” Garment and Moynihan understood this as a Soviet power play against America, six months after South Vietnam fell, and a test of the UN, to see whether it would succumb to totalitarian double-think. Opposing this resolution was “just a matter of decency,” Garment would tell me when I interviewed him for my book, Moynihan’s Moment, in 2009.
Unfortunately, Moynihan, Garment, and Suzanne Weaver, Moynihan’s Harvard teaching assistant who joined him at the UN, felt alone. Amid growing post-1960s Western self-abnegation, their European allies warned them not to be too confrontational. And while Kissinger opposed the resolution, he feared that fighting it too aggressively would derail his broader diplomatic agenda.
Most of the State Department careerists staffing the US Mission distrusted Moynihan, fearing that “liberalism is draining out of American policy,” as one diplomat grumbled. But Moynihan and Garment were defending true liberalism. Moynihan considered most American diplomats unprepared for the “new cold war,” this ideological clash between the “Third World” countries who viewed themselves as “’exploited nations’ while we are a ‘guilty people.’”
Decades later, Suzanne Weaver, who subsequently married Garment, would remember her co-workers as “polite, deferential, civilized–but undermining.” Their hypocrisy and backstabbing “made me crazy,” she recalled. Garment, who was not naïve about the welcome lower middle-class Jews from Brooklyn received in elite circles, including the Nixon White House, insisted that never before had he experienced such obvious anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitism of condescension and contempt, of smirks and side-comments, of camouflage and sabotage.
With the Resolution first going to the UN Social Humanitarian and Cultural Committee, also known as the “Third Committee,” before being passed onto the General Assembly, Garment had his chance to shine. In early October, Garment called the proposed language “ominous because it treats the word racism as if it were not the name of a very real and concrete set of injustices, but merely an epithet to be flung at whoever happens to be one’s adversary. It turns an idea with a vivid and obnoxious meaning into nothing more than an ideological tool.” In words that are equally relevant today he added, “However one views the particular issues in the Middle East conflict, to equate Zionism with racism is to distort completely the history of the movement.”
Two weeks later, on October 17, 1975, Garment addressed the committee again. Speaking powerfully, eloquently, against this “supreme act of deceit,” this “massive attack on the moral realities of the world,” Garment warned “that this resolution asks us to commit one of the most grievous errors in the 30-year life of this organization.” In words that infuriated Kissinger, Garment charged the UN resolution would be “officially endorsing anti-Semitism, one of the oldest and most virulent forms of racism known to human history.” In his most controversial counterattack, he said, “I choose my words carefully when I say that this is an obscene act.”
This was one of Garment’s–and Moynihan’s—signal contributions to the debate. They argued, presciently, that the UN risked losing its way and devaluing the currency of human rights. Since World War II, through its Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its moral authority, the UN had advocated “equal and inalienable rights” for all. Now, the language of human rights was being politicized, twisted, demeaned–harming the oppressed who needed clear standards.
Los Angeles Times columnist Nick Thimmesch praised “The fine firm of Moynihan and Garment,” for providing “the tonic the United States needs at the United Nations.” Garment, revealing his own, poor-boy-made-good, New York City-steeped humor punned, “we sometimes close for altercations.”
Moynihan’s tactics–and Garment’s choice of words—offended the resolution’s supporters. Typically, the delegate from Mauritius condemned the “pressure, coercion, threats, obnoxious language and the arrogant, patronizing attitude of the representatives of some big developed countries.” He said words like “obscene” made compromise impossible.
The Resolution passed the General Assembly. But Moynihan and Garment were right. The pile-on against Israel became ritualized. The language of human rights was politicized and demeaned. The UN has yet to recover its moral authority as totalitarianism triumphed. But thanks to Moynihan’s and Garment’s heroic stand, the American people denounced the resolution. Ultimately, in 1991, the General Assembly disavowed Resolution 3379. Moreover, the Moynihan-Garment counterattacks continue to resonate.
Understanding the resolution broadly as part of the ongoing campaign to delegitimize Israel, Garment later explained why he and Moynihan called it the “Big Red Lie,” blaming the Soviet Union as “the source,” not the Arab states. Even many in the “the organized American Jewish community” doubted their analysis. Garment explained: “Americans, and other ‘decent’ societies, tend again and again to forget the existence of such deep-rooted sentiments of racial, ethnic and religious bitterness and hatred.” Arab enmity—focused on Palestine—had a logic Westerners could understand; Soviet hatred was irrational. The “conflation of targets—Jews, Zionists, Israel, America—used in varying combinations” was absurd; the result, Garment concluded, “not of specific grievances” but of “a generalized paranoia, building on “the most savage single phenomenon in all history: The hatred of Jews and the never-ending manipulation of that hatred for both rational and insane purposes.”
Recalling Garment’s first speech in the Third Committee, Moynihan would write: “This was Garment at the top of his form. Reasoning. Hopeful. Seeking to understand. A counselor. At times almost devoid of a sense of himself, yet equally, at times capable of deciding quite on his own what ought to be the position of the United States of America on a moral and political issue of the highest order.”
Even in his declining years, when I met him, Leonard Garment conveyed that sense of morality, patriotism, good judgment and mischief Moynihan prized. He always maintained that tough kid from Brooklyn’s instinctive sense of fairness and passion for justice. He spoke with the fluidity and lyricism of the improvising jazz musician he had been. He maintained the lawyer’s precision, the counselor’s wisdom, the insider’s discretion, and the iconoclast’s glint-in-the-eye. He could tell right from wrong and he never forgot who he was or where he came from. He, his vision, and his courage will be sorely missed.
Gil Troy is an American historian. He has written nine books on the presidency, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s and Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky.