Obituary: John Ehrlichman

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A QUARTER of a century ago, Washington was swept up in an impeachment drama far more gripping than the sorry and sordid saga which has unfolded over the last 12 months. The President of course was Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign. The crime was not the concealment of a legal sexual affair, but high conspiracy, perversion of justice and the misuse of the highest offices and agencies of American government. And a central figure in proceedings was John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic affairs adviser, confidant and fellow plotter.

Together with Bob Haldeman, the President's chief of staff, he formed what the press dubbed the "Berlin Wall" or "Prussian Guard", sealing off a frequently paranoid President from a world which all three believed was irredeemably biased against them. Ehrlichman had met Haldeman as a student at the University of California after he left the air force in 1945, and the friendship would lead him to the White House.

Their Germanic surnames were matched by the celebrated Teutonic virtues of thoroughness, organisation, loyalty and obedience of orders. They were qualities which made Ehrlichman a formidable manager of Nixon's White House campaigns in 1960 and 1968 (as well as of the ill-fated attempt to win the California governorship in 1962), and later a highly effective bureaucrat. But they proved disastrous in the scandal called Watergate, with which Ehrlichman's name will for ever be associated.

Watergate grew directly from the 1972 Nixon re-election campaign, in which the President and his aides would leave no stone, legal or illegal, unturned to win a second term in the White House. Hence the "dirty tricks", and hence the notorious "Plumbers Unit" which reported ultimately to Ehrlichman and Haldeman. The seeds of Ehrlichman's downfall were sown as early as March 1969, two months after Nixon took office, when he set up an in-house "intelligence capability" to provide "investigative support" for the White House.

The plumbers were thus loosed upon the land. Their most infamous deed, which Ehrlichman late described as "the seminal Watergate episode", was the September 1971 break-in at the California office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who two months earlier had leaked to The New York Times the government's secret history of the Vietnam war, known as the "Pentagon Papers". Ehrlichman - whose name in German means "honest man" - had broadly authorised the operation and in 1974 would be tried and convicted for the crime. Before that, however, came Watergate.

Officially the plumbers had been disbanded in early 1972, but in practice they continued to operate - with the most fateful results. On the night of 17 June 1972, five of them were arrested at the Watergate Building in downtown Washington, attempting to place listening devices in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. A "third-rate burglary" was about become America's worst political scandal of the century.

From the outset it was obvious the five were linked to the White House. Soon it would transpire that they were effectively controlled by the splendidly titled "Creep", the Committee to Re-elect the President. As the finger of suspicion pointed ever higher, Nixon was forced on 30 April 1973 to sacrifice his closest aides, requesting the resignation of both Ehrlichman and Haldeman and sacking the White House counsel John Dean. But it was too late. In August 1974 he would be forced to resign himself, after the House of Representatives had voted two articles of impeachment, and his support in the Senate, even among Republicans, collapsed.

By then Ehrlichman was mired in criminal proceedings, and on 1 January 1975 he, Haldeman and the former attorney-general John Mitchell were convicted of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice. Ehrlichman would serve 18 months in gaol. "It is a tragedy," Nixon would later write, "that John Ehrlichman went to prison, while Daniel Ellsberg walked free." In his own 1982 memoir, Witness to Power, Ehrlichman himself offered a more downbeat assessment. "I don't miss Richard Nixon very much, and Richard Nixon probably doesn't miss me." But, as the famous Oval Office tapes show, the two were as close as could be in the pursuit and maintenance of power.

The real tragedy perhaps was that, when he was not plotting dastardly deeds, John Ehrlichman could be an admirable government official. Take Theodore White, no Nixon-lover, writing in The Making of the President (1972) about Ehrlichman: "His shop was one of the few at the White House where ideas were seriously entertained - good ideas too, on land-use policy, on urbanisation and preservation of the American environment." Alas, he will be remembered not for any initiative of domestic policy, but for a couple of phrases which have entered the language of politics the world over. One was his suggestion to Nixon, caught on the tapes, that Patrick Gray, the hapless acting director of the FBI, be left "twisting slowly, slowly, in the wind". On another occasion he advised Nixon, in measuring the consequences of some initiative, to see "how it plays in Peoria".

Probably Ehrlichman was not so much dishonest, as a man convinced that his supreme duty was to serve the President, whatever it took. He conceded as much in 1977, remarking that he had brought his troubles on himself. "If I had any advice for my kids, it would be never, never, never, to defer your moral judgements to anybody: your parents, your wife, anybody."

After his release from jail, a new Ehrlichman emerged. Disbarred from returning to the law he had practised in Seattle before joining the White House, he remarried and settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The flint-faced White House enforcer had turned into a bearded and affable radio commentator and occasional television pundit. He also wrote books, publishing not only Witness to Power, but four novels about Washington politics. Finally, he moved to Atlanta where he served as vice-president of Law International, an engineering consultancy specialising in the handling of hazardous waste.

John Daniel Ehrlichman, lawyer, government official and novelist: born Tacoma, Washington 20 March 1925; counsel to President Richard Nixon 1968- 69; Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs 1969-73; married 1949 Jeanne Fisher (three sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1978 Christine McLaurine (one son; marriage dissolved), 1991 Karen Hilliard; died Atlanta, Georgia 14 February 1999.