For every opinion in Rubenstein's new York, there is an equal and opposite opinion. "He's a first-class citizen of the city," says Lew Rudin. "He's got a very high level of credibility," says Donald Trump. Rupert Murdoch calls him "a friend and a useful adviser."
Sarah, Duchess of York, calls from England to tell me that initially, Rubenstein refused to even see her, let alone represent her. But when her literary agent, Marvin Josephson, tricked Rubenstein into meeting her, he came around. "Poor man," she says, "he represents Murdoch. Why on earth would he want to represent me? Like everyone else, he believed my press." Besides burnishing her image and arranging her endorsement deal with another of his clients, Weight Watchers, Rubenstein brokered a détente with Murdoch. "The thing about Howard is, immediately people listen when you mention his name," Sarah says. "I like to be taken seriously. Howard has taken me seriously. He's like my uncle. My samurai uncle."
Rubenstein does pro bono work for many civic and charitable causes. "He's been very generous financially, and his advice is very good," says District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who was co-chairman of the Holocaust Museum with Rubenstein. "You can call him any time, day or night, and we don't pay him anything." Adds Dennis Walcott, president of the New York Urban League, "We all need brokers in our lives. He is able to put folks together and resolve issues."
Reporters and editors admire Rubenstein, too. Or at least, they're willing to take his calls. His clients "will probably get a hearing," says Joyce Purnick, Metro editor of the New York Times. "I'll listen. Will that affect our coverage? Hard to say. It shouldn't. But in a city this size, a Rubenstein can't hurt."
"He's never lied to me," adds the muckraking New York Post columnist Jack Newfield. "I call him EMS. Somebody's bleeding to death and Howard gets him to the hospital before we can kill him off. I don't always approve, but that's what P.R. people do. So I came to respect him and discovered I could separate him from his unspeakable clients."
Jack Rosenthal, the former editor of the Times editorial page, recalls how Rubenstein brokered a lively and heated breakfast meeting where the newspaper's editorial board and John Cardinal O'Connor aired their views on the subject of abortion. "No minds were changed, but both sides profited, a certain amount of good will was fostered, and I credit Howard with creating that climate," Rosenthal says.
After Rubenstein reached out to Mayor Giuliani and "made a great effort to work with" him, says Cristyne Lategano, his closest aide, even she became a fan. So, I ask, do his civic virtues outweigh his political vices for the mayor? "You can say that, sure," Lategano says. "It's simple: If you're nice, we're nice. You can't help but be friendly with the guy. If you hold grudges in this town, you won't get very far. "
It's December and Howard Rubenstein, master P.R. man, is on the telephone representing his best client -- himself -- by trying to stop a story, the very one you are reading. "People have told me you've said you're going to get me," he tells me. "I'd be upset if I thought you'd beat me up."
A few days earlier, he'd been castigated in the Daily News for leaking damaging and exaggerated gossip about the ailing New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry on team owner Steinbrenner's behalf. But we'll get back to that. "Interview around me, and then I'll give you an interview," he says abruptly. "Will you tell me who you interview?"
I'd written about Rubenstein clients before and couldn't help but be aware of the flack's presence over my shoulder. This time, that process begins with our second phone call, when he offers me the first of several lists of people he thinks I ought to talk to. This one includes two top editors of the New York Times, the owner of the Daily News, the New York Post's editor, Cardinal O'Connor, former mayor Beame, former governor Cuomo, and the police commissioner. And tucked in the middle is the name of a principal shareholder of the company that owns New York Magazine. "He sponsored me for my country club," Rubenstein says quietly.