Times of political upheaval and intrigue often generate a wave of fictional portrayals of the period. As short story writer, essayist, and book reviewer Kevin Mims shows in this post, the Watergate era produced a remarkable number of thrillers that borrowed from real elements of the crisis. We’ll have to wait to see if our current era produces as many thrillers still worth talking about a half century hence. —Janet Hutchings
Whenever an American presidential administration ends, books about it come flooding forth. Usually these are memoirs by people who served the administration in one capacity or another. I tend to ignore most of these. I’m a pop-fiction fan and prefer novels to nonfiction. And that is why I consider the Nixon administration to have been the best administration of my lifetime. Oh sure, it produced a bunch of scandals and ended with the president’s resignation, but it also included in its ranks the greatest number of pop-fictioneers ever to come out of an American presidential administration.
One of the first important members of the Nixon administration to depart in a cloud of criminal indictments was vice president Spiro Agnew. Although the Nixon administration will forever be remembered for the Watergate scandal, Agnew’s crimes had nothing to do with Watergate. He took kickbacks from contractors during his years as Governor of Maryland. By the time this behavior came to light he was Nixon’s vice president. He resigned after pleading guilty to a single count of tax evasion. Not only was Agnew ahead of the curve on Nixon administration criminal activity, he also got a jump on the others when it came to producing pop fiction. In May of 1976, Agnew published his first and only novel, a political fiction called The Canfield Decision, about a sitting U.S. vice president pondering his own run for the White House. The book was not a huge critical success, but it had its champions. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, John Kenneth Galbraith, who served as an advisor to four presidents, noted that Agnew flailed a bit in the opening chapters but, “As the book proceeds, one does have the feeling that Mr. Agnew struggles less and gets better.” At any rate, the novel, published by Playboy Press in hardback, sold well enough to dig Agnew out of the financial hole his legal troubles had created for him.
Next up was William Safire, a former speechwriter for both Nixon and Agnew. Safire was that rare Nixon White House employee who left office with his honor and dignity intact. He departed in 1973 to become a political columnist for the New York Times. In January of 1977, about seven months after the publication of Agnew’s novel, Safire’s first novel was published, a political thriller called Full Disclosure. Safire’s novel is a thriller about a U.S. President who is blinded in a botched assassination effort and then finds his own cabinet members trying to remove him from office via the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. Safire was a gifted writer and Full Disclosure is a much better literary product than The Canfield Decision. Safire would go on to write three more novels including Freedom (a massive Civil War novel), Sleeper Spy (an espionage novel) and Scandalmonger (about muckraking journalists in the age of Thomas Jefferson).
Agnew’s and Safire’s books may have started the trend of former Nixon aides writing novels, but it was the Watergate scandal that really intensified it. Nixon resigned from office in disgrace on August 9, 1974. Many of the most memorable books arising from the Watergate scandal were nonfiction works, memoirs written by Nixon administration insiders who served jail time such as John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, Charles W. Colson, Jeb Stuart Magruder, John Ehrlichman, and G. Gordon Liddy. Writing about the phenomenon in his own memoir, Another Life, longtime Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda noted that, “It was said that what you needed to survive in Washington in the early seventies was a good criminal lawyer and a book contract.” I’m sure those books were all very intelligent and sober, but I didn’t read many of them because, well, because they were serious and sober and I like pop fiction.
Fortunately for me, after the tsunami of nonfiction Watergate books came a much smaller (and less well-remembered) wave of Watergate fictions, which is to say novels written by Watergate-connected figures. These included two books by the wife of John Dean. Maureen Dean—often referred to by her nickname Mo – published her first book in 1975. Predictably, it was a memoir, called Mo: A Woman’s View of Watergate. Mo never committed any crimes nor went to prison, so she followed up her memoir with a couple of novels—Washington Wives (published in 1987 and widely believed to have been ghostwritten by literary agent Lucianne Goldberg) and Capitol Secrets (a crime novel about a murdered tabloid reporter that features a U.S. Congresswoman contemplating a bid for Speaker of the House). Capitol Secrets is the better of the two, which is surprising because I can’t find any evidence online that it was ghostwritten. Also on the list are two thrillers by G. Gordon Liddy: Out of Control (1979) and The Monkey Handlers (1990). The Monkey Handlers is the better of the two and somewhat of a surprise because, in it, Liddy, an arch-conservative, sympathetically portrays the members of a PETA-like group of animal-rights activists.
The best-known fiction writer associated with Watergate is probably former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, who spent 33 months in jail for helping to plot the Watergate break-in with G. Gordon Liddy. He wrote 73 books during his lifetime, including many crime and spy novels, often using aliases such as Robert Dietrich, David St. John, Gordon Davis, and P.S. Donoghue. In 1946 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for his writing. Although Hunt didn’t write any novels about Watergate, his publishers weren’t above using his connection with the scandal to sell books. The front cover of the paperback copy of his 1973 novel Lovers Are Losers identifies the author as “The Former CIA Agent and Watergate Conspirator.”
The first member of the Nixon White House to go to prison for his Watergate involvement was Charles Colson. Known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Colson was willing to do just about anything to keep Nixon’s enemies at bay. According to Wikipedia, Colson once proposed firebombing the Brookings Institute and then pillaging its files during the ensuing chaos. Colson also was the man behind Nixon’s infamous list of enemies, a list that included such terrifying figures as actors Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Barbra Streisand, and Carol Channing. By the time he emerged from prison, Colson had become an Evangelical Christian speaker and writer. He also produced one novel, a 1995 political thriller called Gideon’s Torch, co-written with Ellen Vaughn. It is the story of a fictional pro-choice Republican President who uses a spike in crime as a pretext for shutting down the pro-life movement. It is rife with murder, terrorism, political intrigue, and other elements of the contemporary thriller. Though it can be a bit preachy and cheesy at times, the book is mildly entertaining and not horribly written.
But is “mildly entertaining and not horribly written” as good as it gets with novels written by Watergate and Watergate-adjacent figures? After all, almost all of these books are now long out of print and largely forgotten. Are any of them still worth reading all these decades later? Happily, the answer to that question is an unqualified yes. There is one Watergate conspirator whose fiction you ought to seek out if you like intelligent thrillers.
John Ehrlichman, along with his former UCLA classmate, Bob Haldeman, helped run three political campaigns for Nixon. He was there in 1960 when Nixon narrowly lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy. Two years later he helped out when Nixon ran a losing campaign for Governor of California against Pat Brown. And he was there in 1968, when Nixon once again ran for president, this time successfully. Nixon rewarded Ehrlichman’s loyalty with a job in the administration, first as White House counsel and then as chief domestic-policy advisor.
I’ve always felt a great deal of fondness for Ehrlichman because, like me, he was born in the state of Washington, later moved with his family to California, and was a Boy Scout. Sadly, that’s where the similarities end. Ehrlichman was not only a Boy Scout, but an Eagle Scout as well, the highest rank in American Scouting. Ehrlichman won the Distinguished Flying Cross for participating in 26 bombing missions over Germany during the Second World War. He graduated from UCLA in 1948 with a degree in Political Science. A few years later he graduated from Stanford Law School. Ehrlichman began his law career at a firm in Seattle, where he specialized in land use and developed a reputation as a fighter for environmental causes. Alas, once he was ensconced in the White House, Ehrlichman seemed to lose his Eagle Scout sense of Honor, Duty, and Civic Responsibility. Like his boss, he became secretive, occasionally unscrupulous, and convinced that enemies in the press and the federal bureaucracy were eager to take the administration down. But even now, nearly fifty years after the famous Watergate break-in that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, many questions remain about just how guilty men like Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and even Nixon really were. Even towards the ends of their lives, Ehrlichman and Haldeman were still insisting that the Watergate break-in was engineered not by the White House but by the Committee to Re-Elect the President and its chairman John Mitchell, Nixon’s former Attorney General. When Nixon found out about the crime, he actively participated in the cover-up, even instructing Ehrlichman to use money from an illegal slush fund to buy the silence of the Watergate burglars, which included Liddy and Hunt. Both Haldeman and Ehrlichman regretted their participation in the cover-up, which tarnished the final year of their service to the president, but in fairness to him, it should be noted that Ehrlichman did not spend his entire White House career breaking laws. In fact, as Nixon’s chief of domestic policy he fought for some important causes including workers’ rights, sovereignty for Native American tribes, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
After the Watergate scandal broke, Ehrlichman was found guilty of obstruction of justice, perjury and various other crimes. He was sentenced to a jail term of up to eight years. While waiting for the appeals process to play out, and hoping for a pardon from Nixon, Ehrlichman left his wife and five children and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he grew a bushy biker beard and set about writing a novel in the hopes of making enough money to offset the cost of his legal woes. To educate himself on the fine points of thriller writing, Ehrlichman told an interviewer for Esquire back in 1976, “I read every Travis McGee novel that John D. MacDonald ever wrote.” It seems to have paid dividends. The book Ehrlichman wrote, The Company, sold more than a million copies and was made into a twelve-and-a-half-hour, six-part ABC-TV miniseries called Washington: Behind Closed Doors. Eager to get on with his life and his new writing career, he decided to voluntarily enter prison while the appeals process was still ongoing. He served eighteen months at a low-security federal prison near Safford, Arizona. After leaving prison, Ehrlichman, now divorced, returned to Santa Fe, remarried, had a sixth child, and continued to pursue a career as a thriller writer.
While in prison, Ehrlichman began work on his second novel, The Whole Truth. This novel is, in many ways, simply a retelling of The Company. But The Whole Truth is magnitudes better than The Company. Ehrlichman clearly took his time with this book, and it shows. The characters are more fully developed, the dialog is better, and the plot is complex but still highly plausible. Ehrlichman also put his legal knowledge to use in The Whole Truth. The centerpiece of the book is a Senate hearing clearly modeled on the Watergate hearings. Presiding over the hearing is Harley Oates, a drawling Democratic Senator from the Deep South and obviously patterned after real-life Senator Sam Ervin, Jr., who presided over the Watergate hearings. The portrait is not meant to flatter Ervin. Oates is a preening phony, waxing poetic about the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution while secretly accepting bribes from the President and the Attorney General in exchange for steering the inquiry away from the White House. Ervin was indeed a Constitutional scholar. He also had a tendency to preen before the cameras. But Ervin was not a crook. And he appears to have been angered by Ehrlichman’s fictional portrait of him. Ehrlichman’s The Whole Truth was published in May of 1979. In December of 1980, Ervin came out with his own nonfiction account of Watergate and appended Ehrlichman’s title to it: The Whole Truth.
Though Ervin might not have liked it, critics mostly approved of Ehrlichman’s second novel. Kirkus Reviews’ unnamed reviewer wrote: “Ehrlichman has wrapped his basic narrative flair around scores of behind-the-scenes goodies and dozens of hints of further Nixon-era nastiness–a combination that’s likely to prove that The Company wasn’t just a first-time-lucky fluke.”
Ehrlichman’s next novel took years of research, as he traveled all across China and elsewhere to get the details right. Published in May of 1986, The China Card is Ehrlichman’s best and biggest book. It is a political thriller set against the backdrop of Nixon’s efforts to renew the American diplomatic ties to China that were terminated in 1949. This time, Ehrlichman doesn’t bother disguising his Nixon White House cronies behind aliases. Here Richard Nixon plays Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger plays Henry Kissinger and H.R. Haldeman plays H.R. Haldeman. Also appearing as themselves in this novel are Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, and Soong Ching-Ling. Ehrlichman seems to be the only novelist who understood the grand operatic nature of Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China. A year after The China Card was published, Nixon in China, an opera by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, made its debut at the Houston Grand Opera, validating Ehrlichman’s belief in the dramatic potential of the event. The opera is not based on Ehrlichman’s novel, but it covers much of the same ground. Neither the novel nor the opera was an immediate critical success. Though the opera is now considered a modern masterpiece, it received decidedly mixed reviews in its original run.
Ehrlichman’s book got the same kind of reception. Kirkus Reviews, which had enthusiastically reviewed his two earlier novels, called The China Card “padded and contrived . . . heavy with self-importance but light on originality.” Sadly, The China Card never got the kind of critical reassessment that has made a modern classic of Nixon in China.
In the 1970s, legions of young Americans were inspired by the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein to seek careers in journalism. By 1986, many of those young would-be Bernsteins and Woodwards were ensconced in the highest levels of American journalism, and they all seemed to share a contempt for Nixon and his cronies. Nicolas Kristof, of the New York Times, was one of those young journalists. At about the time that The China Card was published, Kristof wrote a piece for the Times called “The Success of the President’s Men,” which briefly reported on what the likes of Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Liddy, Hunt, Colson, and other Watergate felons were doing nearly a decade and a half after the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters. Kristof seemed saddened to learn that, for the most part, all the president’s men were doing fine, thank you. They were writing books, running businesses, traveling the lecture circuit, appearing on TV news shows and on talk radio, and basically using their former notoriety to their advantage.
It is easy to understand why Americans were angry about the crimes these men committed. But it seems downright un-American to begrudge them the fact that, having served their time in prison and rehabilitated themselves, they were now thriving. Alas, The China Card seems to have suffered as a result of Nicolas Kristof Syndrome, the tendency to want to take swipes at the men who were brought low by the great Woodward and Bernstein.
What Ehrlichman’s harshest critics couldn’t see was that his books were an ongoing condemnation of his own behavior as a White House advisor. From his prison cell, Ehrlichman sent an audio-taped statement to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in which he said: “I abdicated my moral judgments and turned them over to somebody else. And if I had any advice for my kids, it would be never, ever defer your moral judgments to anybody. I’m paying the price for that lack of willpower.” This is a lesson that every one of his fictional counterparts ends up having to learn.