The Fly on Nixon’s Wall

Witness to Power: The Nixon Years

by John Ehrlichman
Simon and Schuster, 432 pp., $17.50

John Ehrlichman
John Ehrlichman; drawing by David Levine

Even when, during the period of their power, they called the author and his chief collaborator, H. R. Haldeman, “the German shepherds,” it was bruited about that Ehrlichman was the nice one who might give you two sniffs and a lick. He was the one of this pair of guardians who sat and panted at Richard Nixon’s feet, was seen to smile and heard to make the jocose sally.

The likable person, who was suspected to exist behind the not always grim expression John Ehrlichman carried around during the Nixon years, manifests himself in this book. In the first half Ehrlichman speaks with an entertaining, chatty, gossipy voice that one could grow to be fond of, but the voice is intermittent and all but disappears in the second half, which breaks down into rationalization, legalistical self-defense, bewilderment at the rhythms of history, and recrimination—chiefly against that “bottom-dwelling slug” as Joseph Alsop once so justly called John Dean. As a disgraced politician and a disbarred lawyer, Ehrlichman approaches pen and paper as a man who writes books only because no one will let him do more honorable work. Thus, being indifferent to literature, he ignores its forms, and therefore what might have been a memoir or an autobiography or a polemic degenerates into a tedious hodgepodge brightened occasionally with flashes of self-pity.

Too bad. When he’s not distracted by his grudges and by the need to explain abstruse points in his own prosecution, Ehrlichman is more than a halfway-decent literary fly on the wall. His vignette of our pompous Chief Justice trying to put on the Continental dog in his tract house dining room for his English counterpart, the Lord Chief Justice, reveals that our author has the ability to be wickedly vivid. He gives us a picture of the little room, overheated from the flames coming from the rented silver candelabras; and allows us to enjoy the predicament of the great white-haired one, who has violated his parsimonious soul to serve expensive wine which one of the teetotaling guests has not so much as sipped. The apologetic lady says she is sure the wine must be excellent:

“Indeed it is,” crooned the Chief, making a very long reach for her first wine. “Don’t drink? Don’t drink wine?” One after another, in the order of their arrival, Burger drank the untouched wines, then polished off the Champagne as Mrs. Burger tried to gather the ladies for a retreat to the parlor. No priest could have consumed the Mass-end residue of a sacramental wine with greater religious fervor.

The language may not be fresh but the picture he draws is.

With more of the self-discipline needed to write a good book, Ehrlichman might have done so, but then he depicts himself in his work as a tepid man, attracted to politics not out of any fixed convictions or aspirating desire but…

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