It's not in the book, but it ought to be preserved somewhere:
When Elvis Presley called at the White House for a visit with then-president Richard Nixon, they took his little gun away and it made him feel real bad:
"Gee, Mr. President, I would never shoot you. Honest."
And even though this important vignette is left out of "Witness to Power," the author, John Ehrlichman, has put in a great deal that I consider important.
He was in town last week, fit as a fiddle, with no signs of the misery of his jail term following the Watergate cover-up. He has grown a full beard, grizzled a bit with gray. He has paid for his crime, which was never quite so black, he believes, as it appeared to many to be. He cannot practice law any more, but he makes a living as a writer, of novels and nonfiction both. He greets you like an old friend, without self-consciousness. He has seen it all shatter, he has picked up the pieces, he has put his life together anew and is afraid of nothing.
Historians will, of course, enjoy the developing portrait of Nixon himself, as seen by one of his two most prominent assistants, though Ehrlichman heard indirectly a few days ago that Nixon did not care much for the book.
Ehrlichman (the one who resembled a Prussian taking quinine, if you remember the televised Senate hearings on Watergate) said he has never heard a word from Nixon in the years since the whole Nixon government fell apart.
Not even a post card. Not even a Sorry to Hear You're in Jail note.
But the thing that surprised me (and surprised Ehrlichman, he pointed out) was the president's tendency to keep his various top aides in little compartments. Haldeman knew things Ehrlichman didn't, and vice versa. Colson knew things neither one of them did. Dean knew things none of the three of them did. Mitchell knew -- but you get the point.
He gives his own account, needless to say, of his Watergate actions. He does not portray himself as a vicious, evil man trying to bring the American republic to chaos and disaster. As various men who were involved in Watergate write books, the others get plenty of opportunities to say gee whiz, imagine that, I never knew that.
"Your book shows, here and there, you have not lost the sharp winning way we all came to love in you when you were at the White House," I observed.
He was a little hurt. Not a mean bone in his body.
"Well, you didn't have to say Mary McGrory was an 'approaching middle-aged spinster given to consuming passions who would have been a Jesuit priest if only she'd been a boy.' That's not nice."
"Well, how would you describe her?" he asked, with the innocence of a fellow who had written a straightaway account, that some yo-yo complained of.
"To get on," I said, "did J. Edgar Hoover really have tubes of colored liquid sitting around his dining room, lit from the bottom, with ectoplasm floating up to the top then dissolving and starting all over again? I can't believe that."
"He sure did," said Ehrlichman. "They were about four feet high. All different colors."
And when the blobs sailed up and down in a soft glow back of the host, and when Hoover spoke at length and in detail of the health of his good friend Clyde Tolson, and said he had his chili flown in from California (and Nixon responded that the White House flew its cottage cheese in from California), and the four of them sitting at the table (Nixon, Mitchell, Hoover and Ehrlichman), it must have been one of the amazing dinners of the decade. And later, when Hoover showed them the bar with Esquire-type pinup girls and a naked lady pasted on the lamp shade, well, that must have been fun, too. Though Ehrlichman records that Nixon was "not comfortable in this strange basement" where the bar was.
Probably (one might assume) as a Quaker he did not like pinups. But Nixon did relax enough at the Hoover dinner, Ehrlichman went on, to speak of some "little s---- at State," meaning persons employed the Department of State whose performance left something to be desired in Mr. Nixon's opinion.
The president took it into his head it would be nice if everybody wore little enamel American flags on the lapel, and soon everybody in the White House except Ehrlichman, and possibly the Irish setter, was sporting one. Ehrlichman never did like the idea of those flags. Every few days Haldeman would point out to him that he wasn't wearing his flag. He'd send over a handful, in case Ehrlichman had misplaced his. Soon Ehrlichman had "dozens" of them in his desk drawer. Never did wear the damned things. The president always looked pointedly at him, where the lapel flag ought to be, but never said anything. Then the next day another batch of flags would arrive from Haldeman.
Chief Justice Burger also had a dinner at his house. The table, as Ehrlichman recalls it, was a forest of wine glasses and candles. The chief justice, he says, had a story to go with every sip, how he found this wine in the Pyrenees in a little inn, and that wine somewhere else, and another wine was bought at auction (the bidding described in quite informative detail), and as the dinner went along the room got hotter and hotter from all the candles.
"Don't drink? Don't drink wine?" the chief justice is quoted as saying to a guest who did not drink any. Awfully good stuff, actually. And as a strict constructionist of the waste-not-want-not school, Mr. Burger reached over and drank the untouched glasses of Mrs. Ehrlichman, in proper order.
"No priest could have consumed the mass-end residue of a sacramental wine with greater religious fervor," Ehrlichman concluded.
In many such ways great figures are rendered human for the reader.
Ehrlichman says the chief justice thoughtfully kept the White House informed as to the illness and frailty of justices Harlan and Black. Like a shepherd with an eye on the flock, I gathered, and when Black resigned the chief justice, doubtless knowing this would be a grievous shock to the White House, picked up the phone before the resignation reached the president, to say, "This is it."
Since the book is called "Witness to Power," the author was asked what he thought of power, now he has witnessed it.
"It's here to stay," said Ehrlichman. He then turned to a rather gloomy topic, the sort of men who achieve the presidency.
Nobody stumbles into the job. Hardly any, at least. It takes years. It is grueling. Almost everything else has to be given up in pursuit of the goal.
"When a man becomes president he is supposed to have interests -- in things like art and so on. But how can he? He's been pushed like a race horse. You feed him only what he needs to win that race. He has not had time for years for his garden."
Well, my god, I thought when he said that. No wonder. What can be expected. A lot of them don't even spend much time with their dogs. (Once Nixon called his Irish setter when they were walking along a beach, and the mutt came bounding toward him at 72 miles an hour, and the president held his arms out, and the dog who unbeknownst to Mr. Nixon was after a sea gull flew past with the speed of light. Ehrlichman took a picture of it. No wonder Nixon doesn't send him nice little notes.)
But after Ehrlichman's own life fell on hard times (in jail he had to shave off his beard, then they relented a little and let him grow back a mustache) and his marriage ended, he felt (he was saying) quite at sea, wondering if perhaps he was such a son of a bitch as some said he was. He really didn't feel he was. But then, if everybody is after you, you begin to wonder. Some people, fortunately, were kind. In jail he got a few letters from young ladies with romantic intentions. That made him feel he was not altogether over the hill.
He got out and began to be a gardener. He has a little house of adobe. He also got married again and has a little boy (15 months, and able to reduce any known building to rubble within a week).
If you remember him from the White House (he once spoke very sharply to this reporter when I asked him a question about Watergate shortly after the break-in), you are astonished to see his posture so at ease, his eyes (which even in the worst days always gazed straight at you) so undemanding and so open.
He will be 70 when his boy is 15.
"Will you be able to take it? You know what they're like at 15."
"I won't have any problem," he said. "Because by then all you guys will have made the world so wonderful."
True. Even so, kids can be really something.
But the reader here may wonder, with a sarcasm ready, what a reporter thought of the book and the author. I would not willingly have missed either.
"The trouble is," I complained openly to him, "is that any imbecile can look at a surface of some event and see the baloney there. So you look a bit deeper, and then it's all clear. If you make the mistake of poking even a little deeper, then you lose that advantage and it's all mixed up again. You take John Dean. Whoo. What if you got to the point you couldn't refuse to shake his hand?"