John D. Ehrlichman, the top domestic policy advisor to President Nixon who went to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, died at his home in Atlanta on Sunday. He was 73.
He had suffered from diabetes, his son, Tom, said Monday in announcing the death.
Ehrlichman served 18 months in prison in the late 1970s after he was found guilty of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and perjury. Although he went on to write novels, work with Native Americans and become involved in environmental issues, his role in Watergate continued to define and haunt him.
“I think he was a victim of the Vietnam War and a tough-guy atmosphere in the Nixon White House,” Henry A. Kissinger, the secretary of State during the Nixon and Ford administrations, said Monday.
Kissinger added: “I thought he was a much gentler man than he let on and the role he played [in the Nixon administration] did not come naturally to him.”
Ehrlichman, noted for his thick eyebrows and scowling demeanor during his Washington days, was aware that his public image had been determined by the Watergate scandal.
“I was never the person everybody saw in the Watergate hearings. But I have realized that I was never going to catch up with my image. It was set in concrete. It bothered me enormously for a while, what people thought of me,” he said in a 1979 interview with the Washington Post.
“I made myself stop caring because I knew I couldn’t do a thing about it, and I knew it was going to tear me up if I tried.”
A graduate of UCLA, Ehrlichman became a Nixon aide through his college friendship with H. R. “Bob” Haldeman.
The pair first worked on two of Nixon’s political defeats--his 1960 presidential campaign and his 1962 bid for California’s governorship. The two then were key aides in Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential campaign.
Famed political journalist Theodore H. White, in his book “Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon,” wrote that Ehrlichman, like Haldeman, was “a Christian Scientist, deeply religious, who neither smoked nor drank. Affable, intelligent . . . he was also an amateur artist . . . “
But, White wrote, when Ehrlichman was recruited by Haldeman to join the ’68 campaign, he arrived at campaign headquarters in New York “anything but kindly and friendly.” Only a few weeks passed “before the earlier members of the 1968 team felt the bristle of his personality.”
Haldeman became Nixon’s White House chief of staff, and with Ehrlichman they formed what at the time many referred to as a “palace guard” around Nixon, tightly controlling those who had access to the president. In the process, they fostered the us-against-them mentality that pervaded the Nixon White House and helped lead to Watergate.
Early in Nixon’s first term, he tabbed Ehrlichman to be his chief advisor for domestic policy. Nixon wrote in his autobiography, “The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,” that Ehrlichman “had a strong creative streak and a refreshingly acerbic sense of humor.”
Nixon added: “I considered him to be the ideal choice to bring to domestic policy the same intellectually wide-ranging but organizationally disciplined approach that Kissinger had brought so successfully to foreign policy.”
Ehrlichman Was Asked to Resign
But Ehrlichman and Haldemanwere forced by Nixon to resign from their White House jobs in April 1973, after another White House aide, John W. Dean III, implicated the pair to prosecutors as participants in the efforts to cover up illegal activity.
The cover-up focused mainly on the attempt to conceal from the public the White House’s involvement almost from the start in the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington on June 17, 1972. The burglars, quickly tied to Nixon’s reelection campaign after they were caught, were trying to replace a faulty telephone bugging device installed during an earlier break-in.
Ehrlichman and Haldeman, who died in 1993, were convicted in the Watergate cover-up, along with the administration’s former attorney general, John N. Mitchell. In a separate trial, Ehrlichman was convicted for his role in the break-in by burglars connected to the White House at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Ellsberg was a former Pentagon aide who had leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, detailing U.S policy in the Vietnam War, to the New York Times in 1971.
Ehrlichman coined a phrase that became part of the political vocabulary of Watergate. During the White House efforts to keep the scandal under wraps, he advised Nixon to allow L. Patrick Gray 3rd, then acting director of the FBI, to become the fall guy for Watergate and to leave him “twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.”
Stanley Kutler, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on the White House tapes that ultimately provided firm evidence of the Watergate cover-up and forced Nixon to resign the presidency, echoed Kissinger’s description of Ehrlichman as one of the “tough guys” of the administration.
“Nixon insulated himself. . . . Ehrlichman’s responsibility was to keep all these congressmen out of his hair, keep all the interest groups out of his hair,” Kutler said.
Within recent years, Ehrlichman collaborated on a documentary--available on videotape--about his years with Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Bruce Cohn, who produced and wrote the documentary, “John Ehrlichman: In the Eye of the Storm,” said the former Nixon loyalist felt deeply betrayed by the president.
“He always felt Nixon kind of did him dirt by sacrificing him and Haldeman,” Cohn said. “The stain of Watergate was something he lived with all his life.”
Nixon Wrote of His Regrets
Nixon, in his memoirs, wrote: “I still believe that it is a tragedy of circumstances that . . . John Ehrlichman went to jail and Daniel Ellsberg went free.”
Cohn recalled that when he covered Ehrlichman as a reporter for the Public Broadcasting System during the Watergate years, “I thought he was a really bad person, a villain.”
But Cohn said that, as he got to know Ehrlichman in his later years, “I found him a really delightful gentleman--a genuinely nice guy.”
A statement released Monday by the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif., cast Ehrlichman as a casualty of the “culture wars” that engulfed the nation during the 1960s and early 1970s.
“His role in Watergate should always be viewed against the historical backdrop of the culture war over Vietnam that was raging during the Nixon years,” the release said.
A New Start After Prison
After serving his prison sentence in a minimum security federal institution in Arizona, Ehrlichman moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he began his new career as an artist, writer and commentator. He found a degree of anonymity in a town known for its art colony.
He wrote three novels--"The Company” in 1976; “The Whole Truth” in 1979; “The China Card” in 1986--and co-wrote “The Rigby File” in 1989. He also wrote a memoir that was published in 1983, “Witness to Power: The Nixon Years.”
He eventually moved to Atlanta to serve as senior vice president of Law Environmental, which owns environmental and engineering consulting companies in the United States, Europe and Africa.
Ehrlichman was born March 20, 1925, in Tacoma, Wash., to Rudolph I. and Lillian C. Ehrlichman. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he went on to graduate from Stanford Law School.
An Eagle scout, he served in the Air Force during World War II and was awarded Air Medal clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Before joining the White House, Ehrlichman was a partner in a Seattle law firm. Ehrlichman was twice divorced. He is survived by his third wife, Karen Hilliard, four sons, two daughters and his mother.
Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow and Robert Shogan, special correspondent Anthony Day and Times wire services contributed to this story.