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Shadow Warrior: Howard Rubenstein's Life in Conflict


He helped the Hasidim much more when he told the official commission investigating Crown Heights about his warning call to the mayor and gave a deposition to that effect in their civil suit. "That was an irritant," a Dinkins aide admits. Yet Rubenstein will not criticize Dinkins. "I'll just let my actions speak for me," he says.

Some Hasidim, too, still remember the events with bitterness. Isaac Abraham, spokesman for the Rosenbaum family, calls the Dinkins-Hasid summit "a well-publicized farce." A leading rabbi in Crown Heights says Rubenstein was just shutting down the noisy and embarrassing protests on behalf of more-upscale Jews. Another Jewish community leader puts Rubenstein's actions down to pure self-interest. "He sees his friend getting beaten up, so he engineers this meeting to protect his friend and project himself in the role of peacemaker and major player."

These charges infuriate Rubenstein. "I'm so serious about it," he sputters. "In the black community and in the Jewish community, I devote hours and hours. I'm chairing all kinds of events to raise money in both communities. I give hundreds of thousands of dollars away. I don't publicize it. And that's as significant to me as anything I do in my business."

And certainly, Rubenstein's immediate self-interest was not served by what happened next. Jews backed the Republican Giuliani in his race against Dinkins in unprecedented numbers.

Though nominally for Dinkins, Rubenstein wasn't far behind. In 1995, he co-hosted a cocktail party that raised $200,000 for Giuliani. "Howard succeeds because he supports winners," an ex-Dinkins aide notes dryly.

He doesn't always, though. The most publicized aspect of Rubenstein's businesses is damage control. Celebrity of any kind "is high-risk territory," Rubenstein says. His lifesaving record is quite impressive -- even if one eliminates clients who were actually handled by employees like Dan Klores, who managed many of the crises Rubenstein gets credit for (he has since started his own company; he represents New York Magazine).

Rubenstein won't discuss specifics. "They are hurt, and they're angry," he says of his scandal clients. "They've had years of adulation -- and then suddenly the applause turns to boos. I say, 'Look, we'll talk in confidence. I want you to tell me the truth. And if you don't want to tell me the truth, don't lie. Just say you're not going to discuss it.' I would say that 99 percent, maybe a little less, level with me. I like to think that a client who will tell me the truth can change his or her life around."

Strategies differ. "You make an effort to humanize the client if it's consistent with what the client usually would do. It depends on the client," he says with a laugh.

When Kathie Lee Gifford was accused of making clothes in sweatshops, Rubenstein turned the story on its head. "I don't think she had the faintest clue that the sweatshops existed," he says. "When I met with Gifford and her husband, Frank, they were willing to walk away entirely from their products. And I said, 'With your fame, you could lead a crusade against sweatshops.' So together with their lawyer, we mapped out a program that involved the union, the cardinal, the secretary of Labor. We met the governor, we met the president. They couldn't break through the media clutter to tell the story. She was the horse that they could ride to a successful attack on sweatshops."

Marv Albert hired him within 24 hours of his indictment on charges of biting and forcing oral sex on a lover. As new bombs -- three-way sex, cross-dressing, transvestites, dominatrices, and hookers -- exploded around the sportscaster, Albert gave a press conference (with his children in the front row), insisted he was innocent, and didn't say another word until after his guilty plea for biting. Then he went on a TV tour skewed toward gentle interviewers.

Rubenstein was criticized for all of that, but it was done at Albert's insistence, says someone close to the sportscaster. "He wanted to be heard," the source says. "He's a broadcaster. Marv thought he'd convince people he was right and only made it worse. He never said, 'I'm sorry, I was wrong, I have a problem.' When he came back six months later, he'd been through therapy, and he did say it." By that time, Rubenstein was out of the picture, but he expresses a grim satisfaction. "He told me it was consensual," Rubenstein says. "I believe him. I don't think he's a criminal."

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