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The Big Week in Washington

July 8: History was crowding in, but the heat numbed men’s reactions. Pulsing under a debilitating sun, the Washington Monument seemed to detach itself gently from its base and hang there, waiting. Despite 90-degree temperature at 8 AM, hundreds of young people were found waiting at the Supreme Court, veterans of this long, drenched weekend of the Fourth. They had patiently sorted out questions of precedence, seniority, and merit; turning in their own report card for admission, working out their tables of rotation. It was participatory democracy come to witness the working of judicial authority, calling the big marble temple to account, hoping it could call the President back to accountability—an iffy bet; the hard money held off, waiting.

Still other people, also mainly young, were waiting Monday morning, just across Capitol Hill, for the first appearance of John Ehrlichman in his own defense at the “Ellsberg break-in trial.” But the marathon waiters were those newsmen who stood, as they have for weeks, outside the House Judiciary Committee’s waiting room, begging like puppy dogs for scraps of testimony to print, so they could be excoriated by the White House for “selective” presentation of the evidence—as if they had a wide range of material from which they could select.

This morning they must piece together the testimony of Fred LaRue, called by Mr. St. Clair and questioned while he spoke at the Supreme Court. St. Clair hopes to prove that hush money to E. Howard Hunt was authorized by phone before John Dean met the President on March 21. At best that would indicate when Mr. Nixon joined the cover-up, not that he did anything to prevent it. But LaRue seems not to have contributed much, either way. The White House scored points last week, in the euphoric afterglow of Moscow, when some of St. Clair’s witnesses were disallowed. It looked as if the Committee was trying to head off a St. Clair triumph. At last the chairman caught on, and gave St. Clair his witnesses—like giving him enough rope.

The journalists’ rut, worn outside the Committee room, is a dreary beat. As one says: “I’ve got so used to it now, I go home and stand around in the middle of the living room. Then my wife comes in and speaks to me—but she sounds like Peter Rodino, so I go to sleep.” Another draws a Snoopy hanging over his doghouse, with the bubbles-of-thought up to this balloon: “Being a witness to history gets to be a bore.”

Washington is currently bored with great events, and narcotized by stimulants. Estragon doubts and Vladimir hopings reduce everyone to passive expectation. The capital is waiting, but afraid of what it waits for—which should be enough to make that “something” never come. But already unwilled things have happened, large and barely discernible, but there. The proof of that lies in the mere concentration of business around the Capitol—in both House and Senate, and in courtrooms that form the other axis of the Hill; even in outposts like the Doar group camped over in the old Congressional Hotel. St. Clair is running from one court to another, one committee to another; and the lawyers and spectators stand in line here, back where our government was supposed to occur. That is already a momentous shift of emphasis.

The layout of power in Washington resembles a dumbbell—no pun intended—with Pennsylvania Avenue as the bar between weights. But in recent years one end, the west one, has become so overweighted that the thing could not be lifted in a balanced way. The White House, with its clusters of agencies and departments, was the real center of government. Money for projects might be authorized on the Hill, but it was spend down the street. The placement of the Treasury was a terrible first omen—then the bloating of agencies, and the spread across the Potomac of defense and intelligence additions.

It was not meant to be that way. In a swampy city, with no good landing below old Georgetown’s, the government had been perched on the highest point—Jenkin’s Hill. From that spot L’Enfant made the principal streets radiate—to it they must converge. Here the President was expected to come, in performance of his mandated duties—reports on the state of the union, grants of war power, advice and consent on treaties. “The President’s House,” as it was first known, was just that—a private residence, like the governor’s mansion in a state capital, or the president’s house on a campus; removed somewhat from the man’s official duties to give his family privacy. Not, certainly, a seat of government. The President’s House was put on a comparative rise in the swampy area because of a Southern tradition that a mansion must have a river landing. (The President’s landing was not on the Potomac itself, but on Tiber Creek, now dried and drained off but running at first along Constitution Avenue.) Around this house, land ran quickly down to various foggy bottoms—a concentration of power there defied nature as well as the Constitution.

Of course, when this private residence became the de facto seat of government, it was necessary to escape from it for privacy—to Camp David, in the first place; then, as air travel put presidential homes within reach, to Gettysburg, to Hyannis Port, to the Pedernales. Nixon finds it necessary to vacation in a range of homes-away-from-home: Camp David, San Clemente, Key Biscayne, Grand Cay, and Moscow. He is briefly back from one, and on his way to another, this week. But no one cares. Even Henry Kissinger will bustle down to the Hill when he comes back from vital meetings with Princess Grace and the Pope. The astonishing thing is not that Mr. St. Clair is doing such a good job delaying, confusing, and counter-attacking all over the Hill and its environs, but that he has to give any accounting at all—to the courts, or to Congress. This is a change in the very order of things, novus ordo seclorum. The Congress is so surprised, it cannot make sense of the power thrust upon it; and even the Court does not seem comfortable. If anyone could avoid this situation, they would. It is unavoidable.

A sense of where the power was made the line at the Supreme Court even longer than those Sam Ervin’s committee had occasioned last summer. People were looking to the Court to get Congress off the hook, by placing Nixon squarely on it. Various interested parties were let in—Mr. Haldeman to sit uneasily by Mrs. Jaworski. Journalists perched on folding chairs behind the pillars—only court regulars could tell, from their voices, which of the judges was asking a question. The crowd outside had to check its boos for the villainous brilliance of St. Clair, its cheers for Jaworski’s dull honesty, as they came and went. St. Clair had argued well, for a man with his hands tied behind him by his client—forced to affront the Court’s sense of its own importance by dodging any commitment to abide by its ruling, something that made his very pleas before this bar a mockery.

While St. Clair implied at the Court that Presidents are above the law, John Ehrlichman was arguing at his own trial that the President’s men are above it too. He came into the courtroom cocky with an assurance that had grown from the trial’s first stage, when David Young proved to be an unimpressive witness for the prosecution. On the stand, Ehrlichman suffered a momentary catch of nervousness in his throat—and put that rebellious member in its place. Ostentatiously, he poured water and drank, ran it around his mouth, swallowed, drew his top lip up, ran tongue across teeth, adjusted his jaw line back and forth to the proper firmness, then raised his eyebrows at the jurors—a whole toilette in ten seconds. Here, clearly, was a man in charge.

After trying to get the trial moved out of the District because any representative jury here would be mainly black, Ehrlichman made two of his four lawyers blacks. William Merrill, for the prosecution, did all the questioning and arguing; but the blacks on the defense team would be all-too-obvious tokens if at least one was not given a real assignment. William Frates, the main defense lawyer, saved tricky cross-examination for himself, and let one of the blacks, Henry Jones, take Ehrlichman through his direct testimony. But Jones did such a poor job of it that the judge had to send the jury out and lecture him on how to ask a question. Jones tried to bull his way through, just angering Judge Gesell further. Frates, Bebe Rebozo’s Florida lawyer, tried to smooth things over, but Gesell had told him beforehand he would deal with only one lawyer from each team at any one time. In desperation, Frates finally tried to get standing as an amicus curiae.

Jones wanted to put before the jury a series of instructions from the President to Ehrlichman. Gesell called them irrelevant, since the prosecution was not claiming (here) that the President ordered the break-in of Dr. Fielding’s office. The judge said he realized that Mr. Jones wanted to impress the jury with his client’s importance. “That was not my purpose, Your Honor.” “Of course it is your purpose—part of it anyway.” His expression said the man would be a jackass not to work that angle—but that he better find an admissible way of doing it. He never did.

After the lecture, Jones gave up; and cross-examination began. It revealed the picture of a man too efficient to be burdened with a good memory. In order to function, Ehrlichman explained to the jurors, he had to develop his capacity to forget nonessentials. He had a burn-bag in his brain. The President had called this man one of the finest public servants he knew; the sequestered jury is spared the revelation, on Monday, of Mr. Nixon’s standards in this matter.

The House Judiciary Committee just released its undoctored version of eight tapes included in Mr. Nixon’s huge release of transcript material last April. In a section Nixon himself had excised from the vital March 22 talk, he says: “That’s what Eisenhower—that’s all he cared about. He only cared about—Christ, ‘Be sure he was clean.’ Both in the fund thing and the Adams thing. But I don’t look at it that way. And I just—that’s the thing I am really concerned with. We’re going to protect our people, if we can.” John Ehrlichman’s presence in this courtroom shows he could not protect his people—and maybe not even himself. What Ehrlichman is saying shows how little concern Nixon had that his people be “clean.”

The released tapes record Nixon saying, “I don’t give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else, if it’ll save it—save the plan.” The plan referred to is clearly that mentioned earlier in this conversation (pp. 84-85 of the Committee’s 131-page comparison of transcripts): “All that John Mitchell is arguing, then, is that now we, we use flexibility…in order to get on with the coverup plan.” In the White House, conversations of that sort are called “exploring the options”—as in the March 21 order: “Well, for Christ’s sake, get it [the hush money].” Included in the Committee’s version of the transcripts is a fascinating question that might have eased the jurors’ task of weighing Ehrlichman’s guilt (not that they seemed to have much trouble taking the first unanimous vote on that matter): John Dean and the President are talking about the things Hunt might have to say if he were not paid off. The President asks: “Including Ehrlichman’s use of Hunt on the other deal?” The other deal is clearly the Fielding break-in; so the President is casually acknowledging, about his favored public servant, just what the prosecution has charged in this trial.

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