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 out of suburban ennui. He tells us he was bored with his life as a Seattle lawyer, was recruited to work for Nixon by his college classmate Haldeman, and accepted because being an advance man in a political campaign might be a diverting break. As he paints himself we see a person with little or no internal scaffolding save what is supplied by his Christian Science practitioner, a person whom he might have consulted more than he did. “There were things about Nixon that I didn’t like, of course,” he writes of his decision to take part in the 1968 campaign, “but by now I had an equity in his candidacy, and he was my only entrée into the big political game I had learned to play.”
It is one thing for a very important White House official to exculpate himself from crimes and other tragedies. It is another to absent himself, which is what Ehrlichman does. Note the name he chose for his opus, Witness to Power. You and I were witnesses. He was a participant, but apparently these men are not able to understand that they were not inanimate objects in these reallife dramas they write about ex post facto. A few years ago I spent several days in a Los Angeles hotel room with H. R. Haldeman. (A publisher had the peculiar idea we might collaborate on a book.) During the whole time he insisted he was not and had never been a politician. He said that, for example, he’d sat in on the meetings discussing the Cambodian invasion but had only spoken once and that was to suggest that Nixon, Kissinger, and the other conferees make up their minds so that he could crank up the machinery to get their decisions carried out. He might have been a radio operator.
By Ehrlichman’s lights also he was an organizational mechanic, an administrative technician, an apolitical aide to politicians in a sense not much different from the way that the head usher in the White House is a helpmate to the person in the Oval Office. Thus he tells us, “During the 1968 campaign, I wondered what I was doing pretending I could run Nixon’s tour; after all, I wasn’t a politician.” This from a chap who had already been working on Nixon’s campaigns and allied political endeavors for eight years.
Ehrlichman certainly isn’t a political writer. Although he makes himself out to be the staff man closest to Nixon who devotes himself to “substantive matters”—it being left to the other of the matched pair of shepherds to do the dirty stuff—Mr. E.’s thoughts on heavy political and policy questions quickly bubble to the surface and vanish in the air of conventional truisms. Where he is at his best is giving us anecdotes that, taken together, suggest something of the life and preoccupations of your White House staffer regardless of who is president. Who gets to go on trips, where does who sit on the airplane, what kind of access does who have to the boss, does who get to stay overnight at Camp David, and is who one of the blessed ones who has a chauffeured limousine supplied on visits to the capital cities of the nations of the free and not-so-free world. Matters of war and peace, wealth and poverty, are left to the experts.
We are also given a view of relations between the White House and the Cabinet secretaries which Washington operators appreciate but which people outside the city perhaps do not. Whether things are the same during the Reign of Reagan is a moot point, but up till now normality in the higher echelons of American government has been something approaching antagonism between the president who appoints them and the heads of his executive departments. Sometimes the trouble lies in the quality of the man appointed, like David Kennedy, the supine dork whom Richard Nixon made secretary of the treasury and immediately began regretting it.
Mr. Kennedy, a midwestern banker of gloriously mediocre accomplishments, didn’t have enough stuffing inside his suit to be a satisfactory butt for comedy. Melvin Laird, the secretary of defense, was a wholly different kind of cat. This feline had tiger stripes. He represents the most dangerous kind of animal a president can let into his Cabinet, that is, a man with an independent constituency either in the country at large (as with William Jennings Bryan at State under Wilson or Charles Evans Hughes under Harding) or in the Congress, as was the case with Laird.
Three things can happen with a politically independent Cabinet member. You may have a fruitful collaboration of the kind Hughes and Harding had, a messy public parting of the ways a la the Bryan-Wilson divorce, or years of intrigue and back-stabbing as with Nixon and Laird, who had been, thanks to frequent re-election from his safe Wisconsin seat, a ranking Republican in the House. Since he was a very popular man with his fellow pols, neither Democrat nor Republican was going to let those bureaucrats and coat holders in the White House thwart their boy Mel, a guy who knew how things are supposed to work.
Instead of working with him, the White House had the strategy of isolating and castrating the American secretary of defense and keeping him in ignorance of the activities of the armed forces of the United States. Melvin Laird was to know no more than the readers of the Houston Chronicle or the Pittsburgh Press about such things as the secret bombings in Laos and Cambodia. Orders for B-52 egg drops were sent around Laird to Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nevertheless the fear remained that the secretary might become privy to the nation’s military secrets via means less honorable than effective. This passage from Ehrlichman gives us an insight into the close and comradely teamwork of the Nixon administration:
At that time Camp David’s telephones went through an Army Signal Corps switchboard, not through the regular civilian “Admin Board” located in the White House. The Camp David operators were all Army enlisted men and their supervisors were Army officers. The only question was: how closely did Mel Laird monitor the President and the rest of us at Camp David when we called someone on his Army telephone system? Did he just keep track of whom we called, or did he also know what was said?
In this ambiance of intrigue, which surely must rival that of the court of the medieval popes, it turns out that not Laird but the Nixon-Ehrlichman allies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had placed a spy, a sailor/secretary named Radford, in Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council. As Ehrlichman recently told an interviewer, General Haig, then Kissinger’s assistant, “had just a violent reaction…he was very intemperate in his response.” But what to do? “Nixon said he feared that if he disciplined Moorer for conducting this espionage activity against the President and Henry, it would impair their vital ‘back channel’ to the military. And it would give Laird a whip hand over the Joint Chiefs…. Laird was a continuing problem.”
The wiretapping appears to have died out during the Ford/Carter years, although it now may have returned with the Reagan administration’s more light-hearted approach to civil liberties, for you can be sure what they will do to the populace at large, sooner or later they will do to each other. Even without electronics, relations between the White House and some of its Cabinet members in the Carter years were qualitatively about the same as with Nixon and Laird. If anything, matters between Carter and Califano were worse.
Obvious political difficulties aside, why didn’t Nixon fire naughty members of his less than affectionate official family? Ehrlichman explains this impotence on the seat of power this way:
Having watched Nixon try to fire [Secretary of the Interior] Wally Hickel and others (including me), I suspect that Nixon once again found it impossible to say the words “You are fired.” Herb Klein [White House director of communications] survived because he insisted that Nixon personally fire him, and he figured that Nixon could never do it face to face. It was not surprising that [J. Edgar] Hoover too had learned about that immunizing formula.
But that doesn’t gibe with Ehrlichman’s own description of the defenestration of Hickel:
With relatively little hemming and hawing Nixon told Wally that he had decided to ask for his resignation. I kept my head down, taking notes, not anxious to look at either of them.
Hickel asked, “Will that be effective the first of the year?”
“No,” Nixon said. “That’s effective today.”
The wee mouse in that picture is our author. For those of us who don’t like our history dry, this is a valuable book because it is one of the few documents around to sketch Nixon as a person, but the man with the pencil is ambivalent about who his subject is. At one point he writes,
As he came to know Nixon better, Haldeman realized that his political idol was far from perfect. By then Haldeman was so committed to Nixon that he was willing to draw upon his considerable personal resources to compensate for Nixon’s shortcomings. Was Nixon irresolute? Haldeman would be his backbone, hiring and firing, saying no, demanding staff performance with icy firmness. When Nixon was reticent, Haldeman persuaded him to do the necessary public things.
Yes, yes, but then elsewhere we read, “For many years each of us had relied on Richard Nixon to arrive at the wisest, most prudent and proper decision. The President ultimately would decide, and as we’d been doing for years, we would then abide.”
Aside from showing his anger and latent affection for his old chief, Ehrlichman gives us an insight into a type of personality Washington political ornithologists will recognize. The shy-bold ones. They are indescribably ill at ease in any social situation. That fits Nixon to a tee, a man who uses his staff to talk to his daughter and to maneuver his wife’s disagreeable friends out of the house because he can’t make the right moves even with those closest to him. Such people are seen frequently in politics. They may actually be drawn to politics because it places control in their hands in highly choreographed situations, in marble-columned chambers where the unexpected seldom happens and, when it does occur, it is muted and safely matted. You can tell Wally Hickel, “No, that’s effective today,” and he’s not going to look at you and tell you where you can shove your rotten Cabinet job and the Capitol dome, while you’re at it.
One can understand why John Ehrlichman would need to write his side of Watergate, what he truly did, how he has been maligned, slandered, and generally dumped on, but one wishes he had saved it for an appendix. He simply and unbelievably absolves himself: Nixon somehow gave all the dark orders himself and Ehrlichman in his ignorance tried to protect him. The best part of this book is not the turgid pages of rebuttal of John Dean, Richard Nixon, and, Lord save us, even the likes of Sally Quinn in the society pages and Dan Rather, a man only Ehrlichman takes seriously enough as a journalist to trouble to criticize. The most rewarding parts describe failed rallies in Cleveland, the ferocious hours White House staff people routinely put in, the flatulent egomania of mayors and governors, and the hysterical egomania of Henry Kissinger. “I’d never seen fingernails bitten so close to the quick as Henry’s,” Ehrlichman says, giving us new slants to the personality of the world’s most aggressive and successful gerbil:
He cared desperately what people wrote and said about him…. He was devastated by press attacks…. Henry did his best to deflect casual, personal conversation. When it appeared inescapable, he would sometimes open a chess book and a small chessboard, moving pieces and muttering to himself as if he were studying. My assigned seat on Air Force One was across a table from Henry, and I watched this charade many times….
Once when he awoke I passed him a pad with a tic-tac-toe grid on it. “I think this is more your speed, Vudchopper,” [Kissinger’s Secret Service code name was Wood-chopper] I said. The first game we played was a tie. I won the second and demanded that he sign the sheet in acknowledgement of my triumph over the Harvard mind.
This, we may suppose, is Ehrlichman at his best. Little would be gained by knowing him better at his worst—or knowing much more about him at all.
March 18, 1982