Monday, December 2, 2013

Nixon To Ehrlichman: Miss You and Haldeman, Love You, We Were RIght

by Stephen J. Gertz

Two letters from President Richard M. Nixon to John Ehrlichman, his counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, are coming to auction at Christie's-NY in its Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts Including Americana sale, December 9, 2013. One, a typed letter signed, is estimated to sell for $10,000-$15,000, the other, an autograph letter signed, for $30,000-$50,000

Both composed during the Watergate scandal and sent less than a month apart in May and June of 1973, the first is Nixon's formal acceptance of Ehrlichman's resignation, the second a hand-delivered follow-up note from Nixon's pen of a more personal nature. In both, Nixon gives thanks for Ehrlichman's service, expresses his regrets and, in the first letter, confidence in the final outcome, and,  with a tip o' the hat to Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in the second letter advises him to "keep the faith" (without the controversial Congressman's signature  tag, "baby!") and assures him that "all will be OK because we are right."

He was wrong. All would not turn out okay. It was a disaster for the President, all who closely worked with him and pledged their personal loyalty, and the country.

On April 30, 1973, President Nixon made a televised address to the nation announcing the "resignation" of three top aides, John D. Ehrlichman, H. R. Haldeman and John Dean, arguably the most powerful figures in the administration after the President.  Eighteen days later, Nixon wrote  the  Dear John letter to Ehrlichman:

May 18, 1973

Dear John:

It is with the deepest regret that I write to acknowledge your letter of resignation.

This letter will be brief, though my heart is full. I believe you know, better than I could say, just how much your loyal assistance has meant to me in the crucible of the Presidency, how deeply I respect the courage and self-sacrifice that now prompt your leaving, and how sorely missed you will be.

Since the days that I first came to the White House, you have been close adviser, companion, and friend. These have been critical years for our country -- years when decisions were made that will benefit America and the world for the rest of this century.

When our children look back on these times, they will know, just as I do now, that your contribution to building a better America has been enormous. Few men have done so much good in so short a time. And no President has ever been more grateful for that service.

Pat joins me in saying, from our hearts, that we wish only the best for you and Jeanne and your family in the time ahead -- as  you so well deserve.


[signed] RN

[post-script in holograph]:

I have every confidence in the final outcome - love you

John Erlichman.

The second letter is one of the great rarities of presidential autograph material, a Nixon autograph letter signed while President. Here, less than four weeks after accepting Ehrlichman's forced resignation, a wounded Nixon tries to be encouraging:


Dear John -

Your letter was honest, candid and direct in the Erlichman style! I appreciated it very much + will look into every item you raised.

I'm sure you know how much I miss Bob and you. No President ever had two more able + loyal advisers. I feel for you both in this difficult time. And I feel for your families - for your lovely wife for example and your fine family.

I only wish I could help.

Keep the faith - ! After reading the material you sent me I'm inclined to join up! I see and know how Bob + you have been sustained in this difficult time. All will come out OK because we are right.

We will pass over Nixon's wish; of course he couldn't help, he'd have to confess his culpability in the Watergate cover-up. I do not know what material Ehrlichman sent the President or what group Nixon was then inclined to join but, given the circumstances, his enlistment in the French Foreign Legion would have satisfied all concerned except, perhaps, for the French general staff who prefer that enlistees without a soupçon of élan working K.P. duty in the middle of the desert not be ex-U.S. Presidents. Tellement embarrassant! A stain on esprit de corps and all that.

The firing of Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Dean was intended by Nixon to staunch the political bleeding of the Watergate scandal, and to sell the idea that culpability stopped with those three aides. Neither Congress nor the public believed it, and throughout the summer of 1973 a Senate investigative committee under Senator Sam Ervin revealed an ongoing pattern of corruption and law breaking within the administration, dating from its earliest years, i.e.  the so-called “Plumbers” group under Ehrlichman, designed to plug press leaks; the compilation of an “enemy’s list” to harass political opponents with IRS audits and other such “dirty tricks.” The break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972 proved to be only one example in a pattern of lawlessness. The House Judiciary Committee, using the Oval office tapes that were disclosed by the Ervin committee, voted articles of impeachment against Nixon. With conviction in the Senate and removal from office a near certainty, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974 - the only U.S. President ever to do so.

In January 1975 a jury convicted Ehrlichman of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He served eighteen months in Federal prison in Arizona.

Near the end of his sentence, on April 12, 1978, Ehrlichman wrote a letter (included here with Nixon's hand-written note) to William Frates, his lawyer in his criminal trial. Ehrlichman was trying to find evidence of Nixon’s involvement in the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist,  Lewis J. Fielding:

Doubtless you noted the passage in Haldeman’s book...that...Nixon said he ‘might have’ personally authorized the Fielding break-in...Yesterday I was able able to establish beyond doubt that he (Nixon) said that not only to Haldeman but to others...” 

Ehrlichman remained bitter towards Nixon for not granting him a pardon before (he also petitioned Ronald Reagan for a pardon). But he came to understand the profound mistake he made by blindly following Nixon’s orders to implement break-ins and other “dirty tricks.” At around the same time Erlichman wrote this letter to Frates, he admitted to the judge in his trial that “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 - to never, ever defer your moral judgments to anybody."

Nixon did not have that advice in mind when he wrote to Ehrlichman, "When our children look back on these times, they will know, just as I do now, that your contribution to building a better America has been enormous" but Ehrlichman's advice to his kids - and by extension to all of us - is his true lasting and enormous contribution to building a better America - or anyplace else, for that matter.

I am reminded of the late Senator Bob Dole's delightfully sardonic remark characterizing a meeting among ex-Presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon:"See no evil, hear no evil - and evil!"

Only one other Nixon autograph letter as president has appeared at auction, a polite thank-you note to Gen. and Mrs. Aldrich dated December 14, 1971 which sold at Christie’s-New York Dec 19, 2002 for $24,000.

Letter images courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.

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