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Shadow Warrior: Howard Rubenstein's Life in Conflict

Rubenstein denies the conversation took place and suggests I call Garth about it.

In fact, Garth confirms it. "I was so surprised to hear from him," he says. "I said, 'I'm not interested. It's not my city. I don't intend to handle people who do business with City Hall.' He says it didn't happen? Bullshit."

Though Rubenstein was nowhere near as close to Koch as he'd been to Beame, his influence lingered. "It had to do with perceptions," he says, "with people seeing my name, seeing me in the context of the municipal crisis. I was still looking at myself as a kid from Brooklyn, but I was representing the mayor. I met all the unions then. I met David Rockefeller. I met Felix Rohatyn."

Another reason his influence lingered was his new No. 1 client, Rupert Murdoch, who bought the New York Post and New York Magazine in 1976 amid swirls of suspicion and controversy. Murdoch hired Don Kummerfeld, who'd been one of Abe Beame's deputy mayors, as the president of his company in 1978. Kummerfeld in turn suggested that Murdoch hire Rubenstein. "He felt I was a newcomer and needed some help when I was getting beaten up by everyone," Murdoch says. "It didn't worry me much, but it seemed to worry everyone around me."

Ever since, clients have hoped Rubenstein could influence the Post's gleefully provocative coverage. It can seem that way when Rubenstein's clients, and the P.R. man himself, are regularly fluffed in the Neal Travis column, or when reporter Maggie Haberman, daughter of top Rubenstein exec Nancy Haberman, reviews an obscure small-press book that happens to lionize Sam Rubenstein, a book Rubenstein happens to have a stack of on his desk. "The Post carries his water," a competitor insists. But Rubenstein clients are savaged as often as they are treated civilly. Just ask Ronald Perelman. "People get attacked in the Post, they call me," says Rubenstein. "I say, 'I don't edit the Post. I didn't place that story, and I'm not calling them!' "

Still, Murdoch can do no wrong. "I've spent hours with him," Rubenstein says. "I know him intimately. He's a genius. He had a vision of communications. I've never met anybody before or since that has had that vision. And he was not motivated by money; he was motivated by communications. And he would spend a lot of time teaching me and explaining to me where he was going, and I loved him for it -- and I became very loyal to him. Nothing would break me away from Rupert Murdoch." Indeed, he stayed with Murdoch when the media magnate was forced to sell the paper in 1988. But Rubenstein introduced him to Peter Kalikow (another client), who bought it, and played a role when Murdoch got it back from Abe Hirschfeld in 1993. "He didn't need me, but I knew the players," Rubenstein says. "I helped save the paper. Did I show you the tie they both signed for me?"

David Dinkins's relationship with Rubenstein went back over twenty years, to the day when Dinkins rescued him from an angry Harlem crowd, demanding money from a client, McDonald's, in exchange for community support of its restaurants. He vowed to return the favor, and less than a year after Dinkins's election as mayor in November 1989, he got the chance. Time magazine had just run a cover story headlined the rotting of the big apple, citing rising crime, declining civility, and a black boycott of a Korean-run grocery. Rubenstein was invited to give his advice. A few months later, he was back. This time he called Dinkins.

On Monday night, August 19, 1991, a car in a rabbi's motorcade in Crown Heights struck and killed a 7-year-old black child, Gavin Cato. A riot broke out, and a Hasidic student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was killed by black youths. The situation was still out of control two mornings later when Rubenstein called the mayor to express the Jewish community's grave concern that it wasn't getting adequate protection.

In October 1992, Lemrick Nelson was acquitted in state court of Rosenbaum's murder. That night, a band of Hasidim marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in protest. A month later, a
multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit was filed by the Hasidic community against Dinkins, his police commissioner, and the city. And Rubenstein himself came under fire by a group of Jewish activists for his representation of WLIB, a black-oriented station which had been singled out as a symbol of anti-Jewish hatemongering.

That's when Rubenstein brokered a meeting between moderate Hasidic leaders and Mayor Dinkins. He invited them and Dinkins to his home while he was sitting shiva -- the Jewish mourning ritual -- for his mother, thinking it "a perfect opportunity where neither side can do something either rash or violent," he says. The Hasidim and Dinkins were proper, but stone-cold, with each other. "We sat for a good hour. I told them the hatred had gone far enough, and they are throwing gasoline on that fire if they continue the rhetoric."

Soon after, in a public display of what can best be described as mere civility, the press was in attendance when Dinkins and a group of rabbis emerged from
a follow-up meeting with everyone's spokesman Rubenstein at their side. "It wasn't really totally solved, but I think I helped," he says.