WITNESS TO POWER by John Ehrlichman
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WITNESS TO POWER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

John Ehrlichman may have been more surprised than anyone else to see his offhand report of Nixon-Burger conversations on pending court cases become front-page news: Ehrlichman, contemptuous of Burger altogether, is merely trying to convey Nixon's doubts about his appointee's capacities--not suggesting an impropriety. (And, as commentators have noted, his vagueness leaves room for doubt.) Most of the book, indeed--from Ehrlichman's work as an advance man in the 1960 presidential campaign onward--has to do with getting around someone or something; and almost all of it is discreditable to somebody. What's almost eerie is Ehrlichman's non-reaction--along with his near-blank on anything before or outside Nixon. And he might, in some respects, be a prototype. He took up college-pal Haldeman's invitation to advance the '60 Nixon campaign because he was ""feeling an itch""; he signed on in '68--after, he says, eliciting a promise from Nixon to curb his drinking--because of boredom with his marriage and Seattle law practice and ""an eight-year investment in Nixon's political career"" (""1968 looked like the year when he might win one""). With Haldeman and other ""old campaign people,"" he became part of the government because ""loyalty, versatility and reliability were Nixon's first criteria."" He himself, he testifies, was offered the posts of Attorney General, CIA director, or chairman of the Republican National Committee (and modestly settled for White House Counselor). The first time he went to Capitol Hill, he discovered the difference between ""the Congress of the civics books. . . [and] the real Congress."" The real Congress, to Ehrlichman, is composed of egocentric goofoffs (""They recess; they junket; they arrive late and leave early""; etc., etc.). So it's not surprising to find him later detailing, at a Stockholm conference, a fight with the State Department to get the same treatment--chauffeured cars--for Nixon moneybags as for congressional delegates and other ""Government superstars."" On hearing Nixon say blacks were ""genetically inferior,"" he professes himself ""appalled but not surprised""; and he proceeds to spell out how, from his domestic-affairs bailiwick, he helped Nixon ""moderate the zeal"" of ""the Government civil rights enforcers"" (meanwhile seconding Nixon's claim to desegregation triumphs). Such a rare, knotty problem aside, much of the book--roughly chronological, but arranged by topics--is either petty gossip (about Pat Nixon, Donald Nixon, Tricia, Bebe Rebozo) or high-level gossip: about Agnew, Kissinger, and Arthur Bums, preeminently--but almost no one around escapes. On Watergate, Ehrlichman repeats his denial of responsibility for the Fielding-office break-in (which he fixes, now, on Nixon); attests that the tapes were a revelation to him (and that the transcripts are erroneous); reports that Nixon cried when he had to fire him (and that he never heard from Nixon later). Unlike Haldeman's wallpapering effort, the book isn't dull. Rather, it sadly corroborates Gary Wills' observations on the workings of extra-legel power, below.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1982
Publisher: Simon & Schuster