Richard Nixon would tell President Clinton to find a way to tell the truth, said Nixon’s former friend and adviser Leonard Garment.
Or Clinton should tread carefully for the next several months and hope the public continues not to care much about the White House sex scandal.
“Richard Nixon would say the rules of the game have changed,” Garment said, doing a Nixon impression as he ate breakfast in Coeur d’Alene on Saturday and prepared to address the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.
“Now you could be in the midst of a world crisis, and if there’s some personal strangeness, some indiscretion, it would be chewed up, become late night fodder,” the lawyer turned author said.
Still, Nixon would advise that it’s best to be straightforward and let it play out.
“You try and bottle it up, and you get into criminal trouble,” Garment said in Nixon’s voice.
Addressing the make-believe Clinton, he said, “You made a terrible mistake, going on national television, looking everybody in the eye and saying you weren’t involved in a sexual relationship.
“Some fathead that didn’t know what he was doing must have told you to deny it,” Garment-as-Nixon added.
Garment, a 73-year-old Washington, D.C., lawyer, knows the Nixon character well. And its Watergate battle scars.
He first met the future president in 1963, when Nixon joined the New York City law firm where Garment worked.
Nixon was rehabilitating his political career after losing the California governor’s race. Garment, a liberal Democrat, son of Jewish immigrants, became a close friend.
Garment later wrote about it in his book “Crazy Rhythm.” In one chapter, he tells how, after Nixon won the White House in 1968, he joined his staff as a special assistant.
It was a vague job at first, but a change Garment needed after growing tired of lawyering.
“I tell people I was in charge of arts and riots until we got into Watergate,” Garment said. That included expanding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and handling things like the takeover of Alcatraz by Native Americans.
The seeds of today’s White House crisis, Garment said, were sown by Watergate.
Garment proffers a guest opinion he published in the Los Angeles Times last week. It’s a spoof, the script of an imaginary seance with Nixon. Garment is described as the “last living unindicted survivor of the Nixon conspiracy.”
Garment adopted Nixon’s voice and relates his imaginary conversation from the seance.
“Do this for me, Len. Get word to Clinton that Nixon, the real Nixon, knows what’s going on and deeply sympathizes,” Garment-as-Nixon said. “You can also tell Clinton that Nixon owes him an apology for undermining the presidential privacy with the tapes screw-up.”
Garment blames the U.S. Supreme Court for a small breach of presidential privacy - ordering the Watergate tapes delivered to Judge John J. Sirica - that created a deluge of media, prosecutorial and congressional voyeurism into presidential privacy.
That has been followed by a more recent Supreme Court decision, allowing the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit to go forward while Clinton is in office.
So what does Clinton do, in the experienced eyes of someone who has watched the presidency self-destruct?
If Clinton is careful and people continue to think he’s guilty but don’t care, the president may be able to stay his course, Garment said.
“The alternative is to finally belch it all the way out in some complex way,” he said, adding, “People will forget.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo