John Daniel Ehrlichman (/ˈɜːrlɪkmən/; March 20, 1925 – February 14, 1999) was counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Richard Nixon. He was a key figure in events leading to the Watergate break-in and the ensuing Watergate scandal, for which he was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury and served a year and a half in prison.
Ehrlichman was born in Tacoma, Washington, the son of Lillian Catherine (née Danielson) and Rudolph Irwin Ehrlichman. His family practiced Christian Science (his father was a convert from Judaism). He was an Eagle Scout and recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.
In World War II, Ehrlichman won the Distinguished Flying Cross as a lead B-17 navigator in the Eighth Air Force. In the same war, his father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and was killed in a crash in Torbay, Newfoundland (later Canada), on May 6, 1942.
Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, Ehrlichman attended the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating in 1948 with a B.A. degree in political science. After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1951, he joined a Seattle law firm, becoming a partner, practicing as a land-use lawyer, noted for his expertise in urban land use and zoning. He was active in the Municipal League, supporting its efforts to clean up Lake Washington and improve the civic infrastructure of Seattle and King County. He remained a practicing lawyer until 1969, when he entered politics full-time.
Following Nixon's victory, Ehrlichman became the White House Counsel (later replaced by John Dean). He held this post for about a year before he became the Chief Domestic Advisor for Nixon. It was then that he became a member of Nixon's inner circle. He and close friend H. R. Haldeman, whom he met at UCLA, were referred to jointly as "The Berlin Wall" by White House staffers because of their German-sounding family names and their penchant for isolating Nixon from other advisors and anyone seeking an audience with him. Ehrlichman created "The Plumbers", the group at the center of the Watergate scandal, and appointed his assistant Egil Krogh to oversee its covert operations, focusing on stopping leaks of confidential information after the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
After the start of the Watergate investigations in 1972, Ehrlichman lobbied for an intentional delay in the confirmation of L. Patrick Gray as Director of the FBI. He argued that the confirmation hearings were deflecting media attention from Watergate and that it would be better for Gray to be left "twisting, slowly, slowly in the wind."
White House Counsel John Dean cited the "Berlin Wall" of Ehrlichman and Haldeman as one of the reasons for his growing sense of alienation in the White House. This alienation led him to believe he was to become the Watergate scapegoat and then to his eventual cooperation with Watergate prosecutors. On April 30, 1973, Nixon fired Dean, and Ehrlichman and Haldeman resigned.
Ehrlichman was defended by Andrew C. Hall during the Watergate trials where he was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, perjury and other charges on January 1, 1975 (along with John N. Mitchell and Haldeman). All three men were initially sentenced to between two and a half and eight years in prison. In 1977, the sentences were commuted to one to four years. Unlike his co-defendants, Ehrlichman voluntarily entered prison before his appeals were exhausted. He was released from the Federal Correctional Institution, Safford, after serving a total of 18 months. Having been convicted of a felony, he was disbarred from the practice of law. Ehrlichman and Haldeman sought and were denied pardons by Nixon, although Nixon later regretted his decision not to grant them. Ehrlichman applied for a pardon from President Reagan in 1987.
Following his release from prison, Ehrlichman held a number of jobs, first for a quality control firm, then writer, artist and commentator. Ehrlichman wrote several novels, including The Company, which served as the basis for the 1977 television miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors. He served as the executive vice president of an Atlanta hazardous materials firm. In a 1981 interview, Ehrlichman referred to Nixon as a "very pathetic figure in American history." His experiences in the Nixon administration were published in his 1982 book, Witness To Power. The book portrays Nixon in a very negative light, and is considered to be the culmination of his frustration at not being pardoned by Nixon before his own 1974 resignation. Shortly before his death, Ehrlichman teamed with best-selling novelist Tom Clancy to write, produce, and co-host a three-hour Watergate documentary, John Ehrlichman: In the Eye of the Storm. The completed but never-broadcast documentary, along with associated papers and videotape elements (including an interview Ehrlichman did with Bob Woodward as part of the project), is housed at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.
In 1987, Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream hired Ehrlichman to do a television commercial for a light ice cream sold by the company, as part of a series of commercials featuring what the company called "unbelievable spokespeople for an unbelievable product." After complaints from consumers, the company quickly pulled the ad.
Writing for Harpers in 2016, journalist Dan Baum described a meeting he had with Ehrlichman in 1994 while researching a book about the politics of drug prohibition. Ehrlichman cut through Baum's questions and gave his story about the reason for Nixon's war on drugs:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Three former Nixon administration illegal-drugs policy officials—Jeffrey Donfeld, Jerome H. Jaffe and Robert DuPont—responded, sending a statement to The Huffington Post that opened: "The comments being attributed to John Ehrlichman in recent news coverage about the Nixon administration's efforts to combat the drug crisis of the 1960s and 1970s reflect neither our memory of John nor the administration's approach to that problem." Saying "[s]ome of us worked with John and knew him well", the statement speculated that if the quotes were accurate they may have been an example of Ehrlichman's "biting sarcasm." The Huffington Post cited other factors from the Nixon administration record that might support Ehrlichman's statement, specifically the President's racially specific and caustic language on tape -- "the 'little Negro bastards' on welfare [who] 'live like a bunch of dogs'" -- and the 'no-knock' searches initiated under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 which echoed Ehrlichman's words in Harper's about raiding the homes of blacks and hippies.
|White House Counsel
as White House Urban Affairs Advisor
|White House Domestic Affairs Advisor