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John Ehrlichman, 73, Watergate figure, dies; Nixon aide went to prison, became writer and executive


WASHINGTON -- John D. Ehrlichman, who served as President Nixon's pugnacious defender and domestic policy chief and went to prison for his role in the Watergate scandals, died Sunday at his home in Atlanta. He was 73.

Mr. Ehrlichman had been suffering from diabetes for about a year, his son Tom said yesterday.

After serving time in prison for conspiracy and other counts, Mr. Ehrlichman made a new life for himself in 1978, first as a writer living in Santa Fe, N.M., and for the past several years as a senior vice president of Law Environmental, an Atlanta engineering company engaged in handling of hazardous wastes, his son said.

Tom Ehrlichman of Seattle said his father, in his later years, continued to feel "remorse for the impact on his family" that his wrongdoing had caused, along with hope that history would recall the accomplishments of the Nixon administration, not just its crimes.

From the start of the Nixon presidency in 1969, John Daniel Ehrlichman was a central figure, first as domestic-policy chieftain in the White House and later as a participant in the Watergate cover-up.

When five men were caught during a burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington's Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, the incident at first was airily dismissed by Nixon aides as a "third-rate burglary," with no connection to the White House.

But as investigations unfolded, it was revealed that the burglars had links either to the White House or to the Nixon campaign's Committee to Re-Elect the President and were trying to fix a faulty listening device installed during an earlier break-in.

The investigations and the president's own tape recordings also disclosed that Nixon and some of his top aides had begun an effort to cover up White House involvement in the break-in almost from the start. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, rather than face impeachment and removal from office.

Dozens of Nixon aides were implicated in Watergate and related crimes, some for relatively peripheral roles. The most important case involved Mr. Ehrlichman and three other high-ranking officials: former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who died in 1988; Nixon's chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, and Robert C. Mardian, a former assistant attorney general.

After a trial lasting 2 1/2 months, all were convicted on Jan. 1, 1975, of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. They were sentenced to 2 1/2 to eight years in prison, though Mr. Mardian's conviction was overturned on appeal.

Mr. Ehrlichman's sentence was made concurrent with a term of 20 months to five years imposed for his role in the September 1971 break-in at the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dr. Fielding was a psychiatrist who had been treating Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, who had said publicly that he had given journalists a copy of a secret government study of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A covert White House unit, known as "the plumbers" and answerable to Mr. Ehrlichman, was assigned to find and plug such "leaks."

The plumbers' break-in at the psychiatrist's office, apparently in quest of material damaging to Dr. Ellsberg, did not become public until some 2 1/2 years after it was committed, and it added to White House embarrassment over the burgeoning Watergate scandal. Mr. Ehrlichman later referred to the Fielding break-in as "the seminal Watergate episode," one that set the tone for all the cover-ups to follow.

By the time Mr. Ehrlichman entered prison in Stafford, Ariz., in the fall of 1976, deciding not to wait until his appeals were exhausted, Mr. Nixon had been pardoned by President Gerald R. Ford and was trying to rehabilitate his reputation for history.

Mr. Ehrlichman had already undergone a major life change after his conviction. He had left his first wife, Jeanne, and their Seattle home and moved to Santa Fe, where he began to write.

After his release from prison, Mr. Ehrlichman returned to New Mexico to resume his writing career and to give occasional lectures. He wrote four novels and a memoir, 1982's "Witness to Power," in which he reflected on his relationship with the former president.

"I don't miss Richard Nixon very much," he wrote. "Richard Nixon probably doesn't much miss me either."

His association with Mr. Nixon began because he had known Mr. Haldeman while both were attending the University of California at Los Angeles. After graduating from Stanford University Law School, Mr. Ehrlichman joined a Los Angeles firm before starting his own law firm in Seattle.

He specialized in zoning and land-use law and made many acquaintances in politics. Mr. Haldeman recruited him to help in Mr. Nixon's 1960 campaign for the presidency and again for his unsuccessful run for governor of California in 1962.

Mr. Ehrlichman went back to practicing law in Seattle, then became a strategist in Mr. Nixon's 1968 campaign. As White House counsel and later as chief domestic-policy adviser, Mr. Ehrlichman became known as the "White House fireman," extinguishing political and bureaucratic brush fires before they became public.

Detractors referred to Mr. Ehrlichman and Mr. Haldeman together as "the Berlin wall," because they were said to shield the reclusive, occasionally paranoid president from unpleasant news and unpalatable choices.

But another perspective was offered by Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1972."

Writing before the Watergate scandal began, Mr. White said of Mr. Ehrlichman: "His shop was one of the few at the White House where ideas were seriously entertained -- good ideas, too, on energy, on land-use policy, on urbanization, on preservation of the American environment."

Mr. Ehrlichman is survived by his wife, Karen Hilliard; four sons, two daughters and his mother, Lillian.

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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