There are these two quite terrific stories about David Garth -- whose name is usually followed in print by such descriptions as "tough-talking, cigar-smoking, media wizard":
During John Lindsay's ill-fated bid for the presidency in 1972, a Lindsay aide pulled Garth's ads off the air during the Wisconsin primary. Garth, the incensed, plowed through a New York blizzard, caught the first available plane to Milwaukee, stormed into Lindsay headquarters, then, still wearing coat and hat, grabbed the aide, shouted "F--- you!" turned around and caught a plane back to New York.
The second story deals with a time when he and Lindsay had a falling out and weren't speaking -- which made things a little rocky since they both lived in the same building. ("I got him in the goddamn building," says Garth, to make sure everyone knows who was there first.) According to legend, Garth told the elevator operator never to stop on Lindsay's floor when Garth was on board.
And now Garth, the consummate New York chutzpah king, has forsaken Manhattan for Washington, trying to help get his third-man candidate, John Anderson, elected president. Forsaken New York in body if not soul. Washington, he says witheringly, "is a nice place to leave ."
In his office, at Anderson's K Street headquarters, Garth quickly sets about piercing the stuff of legend. Neither story is true, he says. Then he sees the reporter's face. And he knows what sells, what myth-making can do for a client, for a story, for himself. "Look, it's a good story. You can use it if you want. Be my guest." Chuckle. "I've done worse things than that."
Garth clearly enjoys his image. The enraged Garth Vader who calls reporters at 3 a.m. and bawls them out, for example. He maintains this keeps the press in line: "I've only had to make those calls maybe 10 times -- but it's devastatingly effective. Saved me making another 200."
And the aggressive political media consultant in action. "I think it [his image] can be used effectively," he says, standing back and surveying.
"Part of the culture shock is the myth of Garth versus the reality of Garth. It's advantageous, 'the no screwing around, we're coming into town and that's it,' image. From a distance it is very helpful. I've used it. It's part of the myth -- and it works." He likes slamming down the phone to display a certain discontent. "I enjoy it. I feel better. I have no trouble sleeping."
Sunday night is D-day for Anderson. How he handles the Great-Debates-Minus-Carter is crucial in these waning days to lift him past 15 percent in the polls; to convince enough people that a vote for him is not wasted or will simply help propel Reagan into the White House, to convince voters that a third man truly has a chance. No one knows this better than Garth, who gives few hints to the press on his candidate's game plan, either for the debate or these final days in a campaign hardly burdened with money for media hits.
"You think I'll ever tell you!" he says with practiced brashness. "You gotta be smoking something you haven't shared." The Pitch and the Hustle
Garth is a pure New York product.Wise-guy answers. A certain defensive challenge to each sentence from a guy nurtured on the Manhattan hustle -- where even a compliment can sound like an insult.
Garth's fierce determination also seems born of a most peculiar childhood. He spent five years of his life in bed with rheumatic fever, from age 5 to 10. hHe once overheard a doctor telling his mother he would not live to the age of 15. When he got well, Garth was propelled by a ferocious rage to live and succeed. He once wanted to be an analyst, and Garth today seems to enjoy self-analysis: "I never, never do anything halfway, whether it's a game of tennis or a campaign. Maybe it was the childhood."
Such steamroller tactics have not always endeared Garth to people. Even those in his business who respect Garth's work sniff that he became an overrated sensation in the New York press after he helped Hugh Carey, and then Ed Koch, get elected. He insists on total control of the campaign process, follows a formula ad, which is long on statistical facts, and is a dedicated zealot for whomever he is trying to get elected. "He is frenetic -- like anyone who is any good in this business," says opponent Bob Squier, magnanimous in victory -- he had Elizabeth Holtzman, Garth had Bess Myerson in the New York senate primary battle.
At 50, Garth is into jogging and dresses neatly, like an aging preppie -- tan slacks, blue blazer, thin rep tie, tassle loafers. He has a round face and brown eyes that miss little and thin cigars he flourishes during his staccato comebacks. He interrupts before a question is barely out of the starting gate. His sentences begin in a slight stutter, as if he is jump-starting his thoughts. Taking Aim at Carter
Sunday's debate will not show Anderson verbally beating up on Carter, predicts Garth; it serves no purpose to "take cheap shots on a guy who's not there."
Garth himself has plenty of shots for Carter -- a "brilliant politician" and a "disaster as a president. A very bad president. He came in on a promise of tomorrow. There was that moralistic, religious overtone to his campaign that bothered the hell out of me. There was the 'I'll never lie to you.' If you're not a liar then you don't go around saying you're not a liar. yPolls repeatedly show that people think he's a nice guy -- but he savaged Cy Vance when he left and he wasn't so nice to Kennedy. Those 'family' ads were nasty.
"Carter had a great phrase about the energy fight being the moral equivalent of war -- and he didn't do a damn thing about it for two years. You have to fight, to believe in something. In his commercials he's now coming off like General Beauregard and the military might -- the bombs, the planes, but I notice he doesn't have a helicopter in it." His reference to the botched helicopter mission to save the American hostages in Iran has Garth off and running on Carter's spring exit from the Rose Garden after saying the hostage problem was more "manageable." "I think that's the biggest management of news I've ever seen. The greatest selling job including Camel cigarettes. Some day there'll be a 'sobriety test' or something based on it: 'the hostages are still there -- does that make things more manageable? Answer yes or no.'"
The image of Anderson as a "spoiler," who can muddy the waters but not win, persists. What if Garth helped Anderson get more votes than ever expected but not enough to win and in so doing took votes from Carter and helped elect Reagan? Would Garth feel bad? He implies there would be no sense of guilt at aiding that historical course.
"All my liberal friends ask me that -- and most of my friends are liberal. But I can't stand either one [Reagan or Carter]. I have a horrible feeling about Carter being back in the White House, too. I think they'd both make lousy presidents." The Ego & the Expectations
Garth stresses pragmatism over unswerving ideology. "Ideology right and left I'm not terribly impressed with. I want pragmatic production ." He pushes his client with vigor -- "Carter's sort of given it a bad name, but there is an integrity to Anderson." And he identifies with his candidate: Garth talks not only of Anderson losing, but "If or when I lose." Ego is always on the line in this business.
He talks in media terms -- getting Anderson exposure on the European trip, "visibility" and "visuals." Picking Pat Lucey as vice president was a "two-day story," presenting the platform was a "one and a half-day story," and the debate squabble "a six-day story."
Says Garth, "If Anderson gets the stark difference between his platform and Reagan's across [in the first debate] that is of basic importance. Reagan and Carter are probably closer than Reagan and Anderson or Carter and Anderson." The pitch goes on -- persuasive long shots at the art of the possible. "The other two haven't broken 50 percent. This is a volatile, wild year. Something could happen."
Then comes the tamping down -- the cover-your-bases caveats. "I'm not saying it is going to -- but it could ." He was just coming out of his whopping defeat of Myerson to Holtzman in the New York senatorial primary. (Some New York politicos say that Garth deserted, turning Myerson over to underlings while he hit the high-visibility Anderson trail.) He says he will give no excuses for the defeat, then proceeds to give a number of them. When candidates lose, like Lindsay did in 1972, and Myerson this year, Garth manages to indicate that he never thought they had a chance but stayed with them out of friendship, loyalty and belief in a cause. Says Garth, "I begged Bess not to run."
His campaigns are based on throwing a lot of facts into each ad and throwing the ads at the public in blitz fashion. That costs money and Garth himself does not come cheap -- about $25,000 a month to the client. He makes a quarter of a million a year. Anderson's struggles for money, with election rules skewed to favor the two major party candidates, is fodder for Garth's joke that Anderson's ad efforts will be "down to a sound track."
But he is also on a high over the favorable publicity on Anderson's platform and says the challenge is still to get Anderson across to enough people. "We now have so much content our campaign may sink of its own content weight. But on issues that matter -- defense, economy, environment, women -- we're way out front. But TV's problem is they need 30 seconds, a minute; media necessitates a relatively 'quick fix.' Anderson does not really work in 'quick fixes' -- and the problems aren't solvable in 'quick fixes.' Now comes the job of communicating -- and that's where the debates come in, and the major speeches."
Garth, the ingenuous, insists often and self-righteously that he is in this game more out of belief than out of a desire to further enhance his national reputation, or for the money. "I don't think I have to climb Kilimanjaro, but I think every campaign has some of that aspect to it. I think it's important to live, to be involved in the game. There are two kinds of people." The distaste comes through in the emphasis. "The 'smart' people, the 'cool' people, the 'shrewd' people. The ones who sit around the table and kind of examine life. And then there are other people -- who run for public office, and some of the idiots like myself who just are in there fighting. I'm much more comfortable being an activist." Defeat Denied
Garth, the analyst, points to his childhood survival struggle as the core to all his motivations, drives, ambitions. His mother's answer to the doctor who said he would not live was, "'That's not true.' Just total denial. My parents never accepted defeat. They were the kind of people who said, 'You just don't give up. You get knocked down, you get up, you fight; you're going to be a perfectly normal kid.'"
His dreams were not of glory but of survival. "Being able to play football, to walk through leaves. I wasn't thinking of heroically conquering the world, I wanted to be able to walk . And when I got all better, it was like letting out a caged animal.
"When I started to walk again I used to throw marbles and pencils on the floor and trained myself by picking them up with my toes. A kind of prehensile ability which entertains nobody but myself late at night."
Garth warms to his history of personal strife; one media opponent who has heard it before sighs and says in jest, "I have such suspicions of and admiration for Garth I wouldn't put it past him to make up the whole story."
For those five bedridden years, Garth was often too sick to read. It was the late 1930s, the radio era, and much of the world came to him through radio. "I heard Haile Selassie's speech to the League of Nations, H.B. Kaltenborn, Edward R. Murrow. When you're forced to live through that medium and your parents were interested in politics, it was almost a constant flow."
His is the familiar litany of immigrant Jewish parents fervent about liberal causes. "My mother was born in New York across the street from Bloomingdale's. My father was a tailor. Came to this country at the age of 7 by himself to Ellis Island from Russia. He went to live in a little town in northern New York with two great uncles who started as back peddlers. By the time my father got there they had built the first department store in Vermont. Coming from a little Russian shtetl, he really thought the streets were paved with gold." His father became a wealthy manufacturer and his mother a force in local Democratic politics.
"My parents were the kind of people who used to go to lectures by Oliver Wendell Holmes. The biggest fights in our house, which happened every day, were over Walter Lippmann. Everyone was quite verbal. Either you verbalized or you perished."
Action, and an element of danger, meant much to Garth after his illness. He lived on a border kibbutz during the Israeli war of independence, and later "loved being in the Army" during the Korean war. Then came a passive phase, studying to be a clinical analyst at Columbia University's graduate program in psychology. When he went into analysis, "I walked in laughing -- and ran out crying. You don't change any of your patterns but you understand yourself better. Family and analysis is 75 percent of me."
Garrulous Garth undoubtedly could never have listened well enough to help anyone else with their problems. "I found the repetition quite boring. I would have been a lousy analyst."
He then moved with more than a little hustle into becoming a television producer broadcasting high school football games. The station assumed he already had the high school's agreement, but he didn't. The bluff got him started.
At 30, he put together a volunteer draft Adlai Stevenson movement. Eleanor Roosevelt joined up, a million signatures got Stevenson to the 1960 Democratic convention and Garth organized the floor fight. Since then he's combined politics and media; getting invaluable exposure when he handled John Lindsay's campaign ads for his successful 1965 run for New York mayor.
His wins include Lindsay, Koch, Carey, Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso, New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz, and Venezuelan President Luis Herrera. Garth is a nut on detail -- using his own stable to poll, produce ads, define themes. He investigates the records and facts about a candidate to make sure he's telling the truth. Garth "suggests" that Anderson lighten the self-righteousness, tells Ed Koch to lose weight. To avoid the bumbling-along style of some campaigns, he insists on coordination -- press aides don't say something different from the ad, the ads don't say something different from the candidate . . . and so on. The Video Bosses
"When the party bosses went into decline, the media masters filled the vacuum with television commercials. They became the new power brokers. The shift from the clubhouse to the video cassette, from Carmine DeSapio to David Garth, was especially rapid in New York City . . . In politics, the Garth style is New York."
So writes Sidney Blumenthal in "The Permanent Campaign."
Garth was on the ground floor and the man and the myths about him have moved along with the times. So has the praise and criticism. Jeff Greenfield, a former colleague, calls him a "first-rate political analyst." Garth himself claims a talent for finding the potential in relative unknowns like Ed Koch. Jack Newfield of Village Voice and a former friend calls Garth a "hater," and has said, "He has no political beliefs that interfere with a well-paying client." It was the kind of remark guaranteed to hit the jugular. Garth gets immediately testy when anyone infers he is a media "manipulator"; he does protest a lot about purity of deed in presenting a true image of the candidate.
In the incestuous, insular world of New York writing and politics, the Newfield-Garth feud was nourished. Garth discusses it in the injured tones of eighth-grade sandlot grudges. "He said that about never letting principle stand in the way of money and I said, 'Jack, that's total bull----, you know that's not true.' And Jack said, 'Yeah,' and I said, 'Why did you say it?' and he said, 'Well, you wouldn't be my friend . . .'"
Others in the field complain that Garth's ads are in a rut and "all the ads look alike." Jimmy Breslin, in a recent column after Myerson lost, savaged Garth's "dreary" commercials: " . . . right under the candidate's chin comes this printed matter. As the candidate talks the printed matter gives you the candidate's name, Social Security number, high school attended and stands on all issues from free transfers on bus routes to the rent farmers should get for missile silos on the acreage. The viewer at first feels he is being shown something aimed primarily at the deaf.He then is struck with the ludicrousness of it all . . . Perhaps 'Gone With the Wind' would have been better if they had printed across Clark Gable's chest: 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.'"
Some Garth opponents, while chuckling all the way, hit this as Breslinesque hyperbole and say that the ads are effective, "and he buys the hell out of it, overloading you with the spot." aThe commercials are not without some intellectual arrogance as they throw the kitchen sink at the viewer.
Garth defends: "The average commercial, the first time viewers see it, they absorb it, they understand it. But every time you see a commercial of ours, I would hope you'd see something different. We've done polls. At first, you get a kind of annoyance, they're mad because they didn't get it all. But there's a kind of challenge. Each time they see more. If you have enough time to get it across it has much more than a cosmetic, facial impact of the candidate. Maybe it's a crazy theory but it seems to have worked more times than it hasn't." The Toil and the Toll
Garth has a cadre of well-respected professionals that he keeps by paying them well during the off season. They are, he emphasizes, his friends. But initial encounters with Garth reveal no soft edges, no traces of warmth. Politics takes a tremendous toll on your private life, admits Garth. He is divorced once and is now separated from his second wife. He has no children. His life, he says, is his work. Private thoughts are guarded. "I don't like to be crowded," he says.
"For years I tried to live the dual life -- what I really loved doing, which was all-consuming, and being Mr. Right Guy too, in a sense. I either gave up or surrendered to the conflict. No one held a gun to my head. This gives me a sense of contribution."
In "real life," come November, he will relax some. He likes clients like the Venezuelan president -- "where you can get a suntan while you're shooting commercials. I love to travel. It's a narcotic. The idea of just being able to take off."
But for now it is round-the-clock Anderson. "I came down here because part of the problems I caused. Like the fact I let the media budget be decimated -- but that was a decision I concurred with. I think it was the right decision. I mean, we're supposed to be media people.
"You know, I think most people do what makes them comfortable -- even if it appears to others to make them uncomfortable. This," says Garth, giving a sweeping look at a dingy office where he will be working late into the night, "is a pain in the neck to me, but somebody said, 'You look so happy.' It's what I like to do."