John Wilson, Outspoken Attorney for Nixon Aides in Watergate Hearings, Dies

Times Staff Writer

John J. Wilson, perhaps the most outspoken of Sen. Sam Ervin’s sparring partners during the Watergate hearings, is dead.

Wilson, who defended Nixon presidential aides John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman during the televised hearings, was 84 and died of a heart condition on Sunday at his Washington home.

The veteran attorney, who represented the Youngstown Sheet & Tubing Co. when President Harry S. Truman seized the steel companies during the Korean War, was responsible for one of the most heated segments of the Watergate hearings when he called an investigating senator “that little Jap.”

The insult was directed at Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaiian Democrat who had lost an arm in combat during World War II.


It fell within earshot of reporters during a recess in the hearings and came after Inouye had unsuccessfully tried to question Haldeman on his activities in the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign that Richard M. Nixon lost.

Wilson--in a backhand apology--said later he wouldn’t have minded if Inouye had called him “a little American.”

Wilson also pulled at the committee’s already frayed nerves when he relayed to the senators White House counsel J. Fred Buzhardt’s order that Haldeman should not further testify after he had admitted taking White House tapes of presidential conversations home to listen to. Ervin overruled the White House and ordered Haldeman to testify, saying that if Haldeman could take the tapes home, then they should be made available to the committee.

The tapes eventually were made available and led to Nixon’s resignation.


Throughout the 1973 hearings, Wilson took full advantage of his abrasive, outspoken style.

On the one hand he would recall minute details but then turn around and frustrate the senators by saying he simply could not recall certain other information.

“Isn’t it funny?” Wilson once said of himself. “I’m the meanie. I’m the whipping boy. I said to somebody the other day, in the egotistical way that I possess, that the one thing they don’t say about me is that I’m not smart.”

Although a lifelong Republican who was once described as politically to the right of former Republican President William McKinley, Wilson had an eclectic career.


He was a U.S. attorney in the Herbert Hoover Administration, remaining through the first two terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure. He successfully defended an assistant attorney general in Truman’s Administration soon after he successfully represented the steel firm.

And he helped conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater win a libel suit against liberal magazine publisher Ralph Ginzburg.

Wilson was one of those rare Washington residents who was born in the district.

He graduated from the old National Law School, now a part of George Washington University. After practice with a private law firm, Wilson joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington in 1931. In 1940, he joined what became Whiteford, Hart, Carmody & Wilson and, since 1977, had been a counsel to the firm.