Among the things John D. Ehrlichman will not talk about these days are: what parts of his new novel are based on real Watergate events, what the truth about Watergate is in the first place, exactly what work he is doing with the Indians in New Mexico, what his relationship is with his wife (who lives 1,500 miles away) and what his next book will be about.
Which proves that it is possible to move a stonewall intact from Washington to Santa Fe.
That Ehrlichman has been replying to questions at all, even with non-answers, is to promote The Company, his contribution to the Watergate alumni’s Dirty Tricks Book Club. A typical exchange between Ehrlichman and interviewer begins:
Have you changed?
“I’ve been a changed man every day of my life from the day before. But the last year has been a good time for me, in beginning to figure out what I think is important.”
What is important?
“As I say, I’m just beginning to figure it out. Any answer that I give you, I’m afraid, would be very incomplete at this point.”
How about an incomplete answer?
“I don’t think I’d be very happy with it.”
The main question Ehrlichman waffles on is how closely his old boss Richard Nixon is meant to resemble President Richard Monckton in the book, a paranoid, vindictive egomaniac who is trying to cover up a CIA assassination plot.
“It’s a work of fiction,” Ehrlichman says. He insists that Monckton, his national security advisor Carl Tessler, who just happens to be a Jewish ex-Harvard professor, Monckton’s long-faced, bony wife and all the other characters are simply composites of people he met during his five years with Nixon. Though Ehrlichman says “I deliberately did not write myself into the book,” there is a character—Monckton’s domestic affairs advisor Carl Duncan—who Ehrlichman admits has the same job he had in real life and who is referred to as “just Monckton’s errand boy.”
The novel is ostensibly about the CIA (known to insiders as “The Company”) and its relationship to the White House, and contains a general apologia for presidential misconduct, whatever the administration. Ehrlichman says, “There’s an awful lot that goes on behind the facade in the name of national well-being that any President over the last 50 years would have done in place of any other. It’s just the necessities of the job.”
The book has been widely—if grudgingly—praised by critics. “I’m no more an admirer of the author than you are,” the New York Times’s Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said. “But let’s face it: He has written an extremely entertaining book and no one, not even the Federal Court of Appeals, can take that away from him.”
Ehrlichman is, of course, facing a possible eight years in prison for his involvement in the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and in the cover up of the Watergate break-in. But he is, as a counterpoint to the Colson-Dean school of repentant humility, appealing his conviction and maintaining his innocence. “I had a very strong instinct that I ought to leave the administration at the end of the third year and I didn’t act on that, obviously. In retrospect that was a mistake,” he says. “I made a lot of mistakes, I-should-have-stood-in-bed kinds of mistakes. I don’t think I committed any criminal offense.”
Those mistakes have already gotten him disbarred, shattered his family life and cost him close to $500,000 in legal fees. Though he says he and his wife, Jeanne, are not legally separated, she has remained in the Ehrlichman home in a Seattle suburb while he is house-sitting for friends in Santa Fe. One child lives with her, four others are working or in college.
With the publisher’s advance for The Company, reportedly $50,000, plus $75,000 for movie rights. Ehrlichman supports himself and aids his family (Jeanne has a job with the Seattle Symphony). He plans two more novels, about which he will say only that one is set in Washington and the other isn’t. He does say that at the moment he will spare the country any more Watergate memoirs because “my files and records were captured by the FBI the day I resigned, and they’re still in the custody of the government.”
Ehrlichman is also working with Indian community projects in the Santa Fe area, an endeavor he once asked the courts to substitute for prison—without success. He is again vague about what he is doing: “I’m not going to be terribly specific because the glare of publicity tends to blow these things up.”
Ehrlichman says his last conversation with Nixon was in December 1973 and he has had only fleeting contact with the other Watergate principals in recent months. In fact, other than occasional trips to see his children and hi lawyers—his legal problems also include 16 civil suits alleging various injuries caused by the Nixon administration—Ehrlichman has become something of a recluse.
He writes. He waters his lawn. He goes up into the hills around Santa Fe to sketch. He watches television. He has not seen the movie All the President’s Men. He has not read The Final Days.