Hugh Holmes Norton,
Eleanor Katz, Elliott Macis,
Mary Sue Valenti,
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN EHRLICHMAN
INT: I want to take you back to the 1950s: what was it like to live in America in the 1950s - you were obviously still going to college then, but I'm thinking of how the Cold War impacted on American life, and how you saw it at the time.
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Well the first thing that I can remember, was being called back into the service, and that would've been early in that decade - the war in Korea was on, and I was married, had a child, and received orders to report to an air base, which I did. And I said, surely there's been some terrible mistake here - I'm an old married man, you don't want me; and they said, oh yes we do, there's a war on. And so they were bringing, they were bringing old-timers like me back for military duty. And then, by the throw of the dice, I didn't get called, as it happened - but I was, I was starkly confronted with the possibility of going back into the service.
INT: What view did you have on Russia as an enemy?
JOHN: I knew almost nothing about Russia in the fifties - never been there, hadn't particularly studied it, had a, had a kind of vague sense of what they were about, but I took what was printed in the news magazines and the newspapers at face value.
INT: This was the time when McCarthyism was alive and well: to what do you account for that phenomenon in the fifties in America?
JOHN: Well that was a manifestation of fear; and I can, I can recall a time during those years, when everybody was afraid that we were going to get bombed; and every, there was a lot of talk about having a bomb shelter in your back yard, and all that. The McCarthy business was all about that kind of fear; and we know now, looking back, that it was all greatly over-rated, inflated, imaginary, but at the time it was very real - and there were a lot of people who in this country, who were afraid for their well-being, thought they were going to be attacked, hurt.
INT: We have a perception of America in the 1950s, as a place where it's prosperous, advancing, there's calm and order, there's a sense that if you work hard people will get on. Is this a true perception?
JOHN: Well that was my experience. I came out of law school in the early fifties, in '51, with no resources; I had a law degree because the government put me through school, and had no prospects really. Started with another man to practice law, made a lot of money in my time, had a very very nice place to live, raised a big family of kids, and had the American dream, so to speak. It was, it was a good time from that standpoint.
INT: How would you define the American dream? Is there any sense that the American dream derives from some kind of special dispensation that God has somehow blessed America?
JOHN: Well I think you can get an argument to that effect. But the American dream, I think, as I was using the phrase, is that if you're good and honest and hard-working, that bounty will be received, that the natural reward of being an American in a free society is the ability to prosper, to have the fruits of your labor; and I did - my family and I, and our friends, had that experience.
INT: Would you say that you are a religious man in any sense?
JOHN: Well I was much more then than I am now. I was raised a Christian Scientist, and there came a time when I had a kind of crisis in my life - a small one, relatively speaking - I turned back to Christian Science, and it became my way of life. When I went through the Watergate episode I very much relied on Christian Science - got a lot of solace from it, some very good results. When I remarried, my wife was not sympathetic to that, and so I drifted away from it. I don't mean to blame it on her, it was my decision, but the fact is that it's not very much a part of my life now. The rate, the dividend of all of that was that I have some youngsters, some of my children, who are very reliant upon Christian Science, and very definitely religious in their orientation, and it's enriched their lives, and I'm grateful for that.
INT: What exactly is Christian Science?
JOHN: Well Christian Science is a religion which understands that God is good, and that the manifestation of God's goodness is health; and if you are ill, or suffer an injury, that's contrary to God's law - and it's possible to realize a healing, almost instantly, by getting your thinking straight about that situation.
INT: We come to your association with Richard Nixon: how did that begin?
JOHN: A woman that worked with me at UCLA, in the dean's office, left the university to work for Richard Nixon, at the time that he was in the United States Senate; and it was kind of my first glimmering connection. She, in turn, found a job for Bob Holderman in the 1956 campaign; and he went off, and was an advance man in the '56 campaign, when Nixon was Vice-President, and Eisenhower was President. He, in turn, recruited me four years later to work in the 1960 campaign - and that's, that's how it occurred.
INT: What was campaigning like then?
JOHN: Campaigning was like running away to the circus. My uncle had a friend in the investment business, and every, every year he would run away to the circus for two weeks, and be a clown. And it re-invigorated and regenerated him, and he owed his good sensibilities and long life to that experience. I think that going off in a presidential campaign has many of the same attributes. It's totally different than anything you do in your daily life.
INT: What was it like then - exactly what did you do?
JOHN: Well what I did - I was an advance man: what I did was go where the schedulers said the President, the candidate was going to be, two or three weeks ahead. Go in and organize committees, and arrange rooms, cars, a room in which to have the rally - all of the logistical details. And then a couple of weeks later, when the candidate came, you led him through his stop at that place - making sure he was on time for the rally, on time for the fat cat reception, where he raised money, on time for a dinner, whatever it was. Then you'd see him out to the airport, get him on his airplane, he would fly away, and you would go on to a another place, where a stop was scheduled, two or three weeks ahead.
INT: How important was television at this time, in the whole process of campaigning?
JOHN: It became very important in the 1960 election. You remember that was the year that Kennedy and Nixon debated on television, and it was the first time that viewers had a chance to compare two candidates in a, in a given form. And some people said Nixon lost the debate - some people said, well he won it if you were listening to the radio, but if you were watching him on television, he lost it. And the whole business of presenting visuals became very important. The Kennedy family put up hundreds of thousands of dollars, equipped a bus, it had film crews aboard, and they would go wherever John Kennedy was appearing, and film him; and then those films became a part of his advertising on television. It was the first time that had really been done in an effective and organized way. So it was kind of a break-through year.
INT: What was Nixon like, as a politician?
JOHN: He changed over the years. In 1959 and '60, when I first knew him, he was very stiff, very awkward, not at all comfortable with himself, and made a less than genial forthcoming appearance on television. in person, he could be very effective; he could also be very ineffective. I remember a picture that appeared in Life Magazine - he was shaking hands along an airport fence, a big crowd had come to see him; and the photographer caught him looking at his watch: you see he was shaking hands with somebody, and he was concerned about his schedule and really didn't care about the people, is what that picture said. I think that that, the problem that year was that he ran his own campaign; he decided where he would go, what his schedule would be, and so on - and he simply was not very good at that.
INT: He was regarded by many as a quintessential Cold War politician: is that true?
JOHN: I think so. I think he was very concerned about the Soviets and the Chinese, as international rivals. and he joined the, he joined the battle, he took them on, and after he became President, particularly - he spent a lot of his time in consultations with Henry Kissinger and others in the administration, about what to do about the Russians, what to do about the Chinese; and of course he decided to create a d'entente with the Chinese, as a counterbalance to the Russians - and that whole thing was a pre-occupation with him for a long time.
INT: In the 1950s he was seen as almost as the head of the posse, hunting down communists at home.
JOHN: Oh he was a hard-liner, there isn't any question, and of course at that time, Alger Hiss was working in the State Department, and then in the United Nations - or, yeah, I think the United Nations - and he was exposed as a communist spy, by Richard Nixon, and some of his cohorts. Nixon drove that very hard, for political advantage, and it appalled the Eastern establishment liberal foreign policy experts, people who had been colleagues of Hiss's; and it drew the line - it really put Richard Nixon on the, on one side of the line, and a lot of very respectable internationals on the other side of the line.
INT: What was his attitude towards Jack Kennedy?
JOHN: Well they started out as pretty good friends: they were young Congressmen together, they had mutual friends who brought them together, they spent time in the, in Florida together; and then Jack Kennedy and his father decided that he would run for President, in place of his deceased brother. at that point they parted company - and they became rivals. Richard Nixon liked Jack Kennedy, as a matter of fact, but he had no use for his brothers, he had no use for his father, and all his, all the time I knew him - from 1959 on - the Kennedy's were his sworn enemies.