Nav Bar
Nav Bar

John Ehrlichman, Domestic Policy Advisor and Special Assistant to President Nixon

Interviewed May 28, 1996


FL: How did Dole emerge as head of the Republican National Committee?

EHRLICHMAN:

I'm not quite sure what brought him to Richard Nixon's attention in the first place. But Nixon spotted him as cutting edge. Someone who would speak out forcefully, in sound bites so to speak, so that the media would pick it up and so he had him marked as somebody to use, somebody to work with in the Senate. Goodness knows, our leadership in the Senate wouldn't do it. We had Hugh Scott, Pennsylvania, who was the Republican leader in the Senate in those days. He was very liberal. He was not on the President's team. It was always a struggle to get him to carry the President's legislation. So we fell back on Bob Griffin from Michigan who was not a particularly forceful individual. And that wasn't a good working arrangement. So the President was looking for somebody else. He relied heavily on Bryce Harlow, his legislative liaison advisor to recruit somebody basically. And whether Harlow came up with Dole or whether Nixon found his way to Dole some other way, I really don't know.

FL: Go through chronologically. Talk a little bit about what that job was all about.

EHRLICHMAN:

In the early '70's, coming off the '68 election, the Republican National Committee wasn't much. The Nixon presidential race in '68 had soaked up a lot of the money and a lot of the talent so that the national committee itself was not much of a political engine. There was a vacancy as Chairman of the National Committee and theoretically, the Chairman is selected by the national committee man and committee woman from each state gathering in solemn conclave and voting. But when you have the President of that party in the White House he pretty much calls the tune as to who it will be, and the National Committee people follow along.

So when there was a vacancy in 1970, the President had to decide who he wanted to take that job and the job was basically to rebuild the national committee into a political force to elect Senators and Congressmen and to help with the President's reelection in 1972. And we had quite a list passed around the White House of prospects. Bob Finch, the Secretary of HEW, was considered a close ally of the President's. But he'd been involved in school desegregation in the South and wouldn't have been acceptable to the Southern states. There was John Mitchell, there was Clark McGregor, the former Congressman. It was quite a list and Bob Dole was on that list of people who were considered. The prospects were passed around so to speak. I think the White House staff felt pretty strongly that Bob Dole would not have been first choice, and they advised the President so when he asked. But the President was fixed on Dole. He was pretty sure that he wanted Dole so he got him.

FL: Could you talk about the reservations that the staff had about Dole?

EHRLICHMAN:

Well, Bob Dole was a clever critic. And he would never attack the President personally. But he roughed up the White House staff pretty good. There was some trip to Kansas that Dole goofed up, but he blamed it on the White House staff and so there was a lot running in the press about Dole's criticism of these dopes who were on the President's staff and so on. And people had taken their lumps from Dole over the preceding two years we'd been in office. So he was not the poster boy of the White House staff, far from it. But the President overrode that and said that's the fella that he wanted.

FL: He referred to him as a divisive figure, not an inclusive figure. Talk about that.

EHRLICHMAN:

I think it was pretty generally accepted by the White House staff that Dole was a tough enemy and his speeches were often divisive, rather than unifying. He was a critic and he was pretty clever with his criticism, pretty sharp with his criticism. And everybody had a few scars to show for it. So one of the reasons that White House staff people opposed him is that he had been pretty free with his ad hominem attacks on Bob Haldeman, on me, on Mitchell, on a lot of people.

FL: So could you talk about the job and the beginnings of the problems.

EHRLICHMAN:

Dole's job, as we saw it, was to carry the President's legislative program and to defend the President on the floor of the Senate in speeches which were generously provided by the President's speech writers. So there was a lot of mail going from our house with pre-written speeches and they advocated all kinds of things that the President cared a lot about. And for a while the President would say, "Oh get Dole to make a speech about that." And they would shoot a speech up there.

But he got a little independent and wouldn't give some of the speeches. Pat Buchanan was one of our speech writers and he hasn't changed much in 25 years and the kind of stuff he was sending up to Dole was pretty powerful and not always tasteful. Dole, I think, exercised some pretty good judgment in turning down some of the stuff that was sent up, but when the President said, "When are we going to hear Dole speak out on Vietnam?", for instance, Haldeman would have to report, "Well he isn't going to. He won't give that speech." And that didn't sit well.

FL: Give us the flavor of some of the speeches Buchanan and Colson wanted to give.

EHRLICHMAN: Well, the speeches that were sent to Dole I suspect, were quite a bit like the speeches that Agnew eventually made about nattering nabobs and negativism, and all of that kind of things. In some cases clever, in some cases sharp, but very cutting and very condemnatory of the President's foes, of his opposition. And, well, some of that would be perfectly in character for Bob Dole. I think he and his staff felt that some of them crossed the line and were just too much. As we got closer to 1972 and the President's reelection, the Democrats were going through the convention process and the nomination of George McGovern. And a lot of it was very pointed rhetoric aimed at McGovern's direction.

FL: What would be the focus?

EHRLICHMAN:Well, our strategy in the '72 election, dictated by the President, was to move McGovern as far to the left as possible. It's not dissimilar with what they're up to with Clinton these days. Clinton is desperately trying to occupy the center on political issues. We were doing the same thing. We were all over the place in the center. And the field that was left to McGovern was the extreme left. I suspect that Dole was asked to give speeches painting McGovern as commie, pinko, radical, whatever the rhetoric was in those days. But to paint him as a far out leftist.

FL: And Kennedy, he was another one that would be focused on.

EHRLICHMAN:

Ted Kennedy was a perennial focus for our White House. And the President was always looking for opportunities to counter punch Kennedy's position on any given issue. So Dole would have been called upon to take up that cudgel and smite Teddy Kennedy about the head and ears on any issue that came along.

FL: Now Dole began to resist some of the more intemperate orders, some of them coming from Colson. Describe a little bit about that charged relationship between Dole and Colson.

EHRLICHMAN:

Charles Colson was the President's alter ego. I've written about him as the dark side of the moon. And he and Nixon had a curious negative chemistry that resulted in dirty tricks, it resulted in political assassination of one kind or another. And I have no doubt that Colson was a willing conduit of the President's in passing along attack instructions to Dole. In fact, I noticed in Bob Haldeman's diaries, that Dole called Colson to say that Colson was his last remaining friend on the White House staff, Dole having been outraged by Haldeman and me and everybody else around. So that there was some kind of liaison there apparently from that diary entry. I never observed it 'cause I wasn't that much involved in what Colson was doing.

FL: Just when did the time of Dole as Nixon's hatchet man occur? When did that phrase sort of originate and why?

EHRLICHMAN:

I don't know when people started describing Dole as Nixon's hatchet man. Certainly that was the role he was selected for. He was expected to carry out the President's desires on the floor of the Senate and in speeches around the country as chairman of the Republican Party. I don't know who first characterized him that way, but he would have been hard pressed to deny it, I would think.

FL: So in this period, when Dole began to resist some of his instructions and assert his independence, did matters come to a head?

EHRLICHMAN:

Well, there came a time when Richard Nixon came to realize that he was going to be reelected by a very large plurality and he began thinking about changing his government, changing his staff, changing the Republican National Committee. And began talking about replacing Bob Dole, along with a lot of other people that had been in the first four years. As soon as the election results were known, Nixon took a few of us up to Camp David and we basically based there for two months, weekends and holidays, we were just sequestered. One of the people that was invited to Camp David to have his head cut off was Bob Dole. The President had decided that Dole was not doing what he had originally wanted him to do in the Senate to his satisfaction so he was going to replace him.

FL: Now that's something he strongly resisted?

EHRLICHMAN:

Dole resisted being replaced. One of the first things that he did when he got wind of the fact that he was being invited to Camp David was to announce to the press that he wasn't leaving, that he was going to remain as Chairman of the National Committee. That finesse didn't work, but it made it doubly difficult to replace him. They finally resorted to an artifice, this all got dumped in Haldeman's lap eventually, the President decided that he wanted George Bush to replace Dole. Bush eventually said he would take the job even though he really wanted to be Under Secretary of State, and so then Dole came up to Camp David and announced that he wasn't going to leave. That it would hurt him politically. That people in Kansas would know that he had been dumped by the President. Had not been thanked properly for his efforts as National Committee Chairman, and he just wasn't going to go. Typically the President stopped talking and said, "Well, work it out with Haldeman."

And there ensued a pretty elaborate Kabuki performance where eventually Dole was induced by the President agreeing to do some fund-raisers for him when he ran for reelection in the Senate and they deferred installing Bush for a month so that Dole wasn't immediately relieved of his responsibilities. And eventually, after the Inauguration, they eventually made the switch and Bush took over.

FL: Now it's true isn't it, that represents the quintessential Nixon cruelty, that Dole was asked to feel his successor out, he was supposed to approach Bush and see if he would want the job, when in fact Bush had already been approached and agreed to it?

EHRLICHMAN:

The President was very inadept at firing people, notoriously inadept. And I've always thought of it as someone killing a chicken with a spoon. Just really stretched it out and made it twice as painful as it ordinarily would be. When Dole indicated that he didn't want to change jobs, that he didn't want to leave the National Committee, Nixon floundered around a bit and suggested that Dole talk to George Bush. And Nixon had already recruited George Bush, but he suggested to Dole that maybe Dole could be helpful in recruiting Bush, kind of dig his own grave, which was unnecessarily difficult for Dole. Bush had already agreed to take the job. Haldeman and Mitchell turned to and began working on Dole to persuade him to be gracious about all this and to accept the inevitable and eventually he did and left the National Committee under reasonably genial circumstances in spite of the way the thing had been handled.

FL: You said that in one of your encounters with Dole that he was one of the meanest men you had ever met. What did that come out of?

EHRLICHMAN:

There were several people on the Hill, mostly Senators but a few Congressmen, who figured out that the way you attack Richard Nixon is not directly but indirectly. And you go around and attack his staff, or you attack his family, or something of this kind. And Dole was one of those who launched a number of leaks, a number of criticisms directed at us on the White House staff rather than out boss with whom he had the real difference of opinion. Some of them cut pretty deeply and I felt like I had my scars along with other people on the staff as a result of Dole's really kind of cruel remarks.

FL: Now Dole would say that he was increasingly frustrated trying to get to Nixon. That Haldeman was keeping him away from Mr. Nixon.

EHRLICHMAN:

There are apocryphal stories around about how people were kept away from Richard Nixon. I'm sure that history hopes that eventually those recordings, those tapes in the White House office will be heard by an objective public because Nixon will be heard refusing to see people. It's very seldom that Haldeman or I, or other people on the staff, Kissinger, would keep people away from Nixon. Certainly not if he wanted to see them. But on many occasions we'll be heard to argue, "You really ought to see this guy, he is after all your ambassador to England. Or he is, after all your Chairman of the State of Arizona." Or whatever.

Nixon would turn us down. He'd say, "You handle it. You tell him I'm not available." Or, you tell him I'm busy. Or, you tell him it can't be done. But I doubt seriously that anyone would say to Dole the only way you can see the President is on the evening news. I think that's something that he might have thought up.

FL: Let's talk about their relationship, what each man saw in the other.

EHRLICHMAN:

I've never talked to Richard Nixon about what he saw in Bob Dole. But it had occurred to me early on and it persists that they are remarkably similar in some ways. Richard Nixon could be very emotional. And I have seen him in tears. They both find it very difficult to be free and easy and smile with people. Now I'm going back 25 years and describing the fellow that I knew then. He may be a hail fellow well met these days, I don't know. But certainly my impression of the two of them back in those days was they were cut out of the same piece of cloth.

In thinking about Bob Dole, the person that he was before he went off to war, he had very much the same kind of background that Richard Nixon had. The small town. Not a lot of money in the family. Worked his way along. And but for the war wounds, quite a similar educational process. I think there are a lot of parallels. So that when Richard Nixon looked at Bob Dole, up there in the Senate as a junior Senator, he really saw himself in many, many ways. And I don't think he was mistaken in that. In seeing the two of them together your struck with the similarity of approach to a common problem. A single- mindedness, a self-centeredness. Bob Dole was asked to step down as National Chairman and saw that it was inevitable, that he would have to yield to the President. But he got his price for stepping down. He got campaign money. He got concessions. It's the sort of thing that I'd seen Richard Nixon do a number of times in realistically facing a situation. I think certainly Nixon was a bitter man in some ways at the snubs. He talked to me a number of times about how he'd applied to be an FBI agent and been turned down. Something that stayed with him. He never forgot. He'd been snubbed by the rich kids in college. Stuck with him. He'd been relegated to sitting on the bench when he went out for football, something he frequently talked about. Those adolescent slights played a big part in his make up. I should suspect without knowing that Dole's war experience, and those wounds and the disfigurement must have been equally, if not more, difficult to bear. And certainly they play a part in his life, even today.

FL: What do you think? Dole has described Nixon as a mentor, as a teacher. What do you think those lessons were?

EHRLICHMAN:

I can't speak to the importance of Richard Nixon in Dole's life except if you put yourself in Bob Dole's situation as a junior Senator, as Nixon is on the ascendancy, there were certainly a lot of lessons to be learned. Dole's a smart man and I have no doubt that he learned a lot of them. Then when Nixon called on him to come out of the Senate, so to speak, and take the Chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, Dole certainly saw that as the fast track that was going to separate him from his contemporaries in the Senate. And it did. It accelerated his political career. There's no doubt of it. And he had Richard Nixon to thank for that.

FL: Were there some lessons of pragmatism?

EHRLICHMAN:

I think Dole could see in the way Nixon handled the first four years of his Presidency, that it was possible to be liberal at times, as well as very conservative at times. When affirmative action came along, Nixon embraced it and put a lot of resources behind it. And it was a smart political move to make at the time. Dole, if he was watching, saw that to be doctrinaire -- it isn't always the way to succeed in Washington. And certainly we've seen him as Majority Leader taking positions across the spectrum. Some of them come back to haunt him now when he campaigns as a conservative. But you have to realize in Washington you can't always be doctrinaire and arch-conservative and succeed. So the Richard Nixon lesson, I think was learned well by Dole.

FL: Go back to that single-mindedness.

EHRLICHMAN:

One sees in American politicians of today a single-mindedness that excludes from their lives the ordinary interests of mankind. Music and gardening, and art and things of that kind. The Presidency becomes the goal and they'll spend years and years devoted to that goal. George Bush did. Ronald Reagan did. You can look back down the line. Nixon was that way. And actually, looking at Richard Nixon socially, he's a pretty dull fellow in those days. He was only interested in a few things. Primary thing being electoral politics.

We went to somebody's island in the Bahamas. There was the most gorgeous sandy beach. And he and I were standing out in water up to our necks and there were little silver fish swimming around us, and he was talking to me about the politics of suburban Cleveland. And that's all he wanted to talk about. A terrible waste of natural resources and beauty. I have a sense seeing pictures of Bob Dole in his short pants on his verandah at his condominium in Florida, that we've got a kind of clone. But it's not limited to Bob Dole and Richard Nixon. They're all like that. They're hybrids. Our system, our selection system makes us breed hybrids that are pretty far from real people. Gerry Ford once told me he was away from home over 250 nights a year, out doing county Republican dinners and rallies and things of that kind. It's like a form of genetic selection and we make focused politicians out of these people and that's the way they get this office. I have a hunch that Bill Clinton is very much the same way. That his interests lie in a very narrow band of subjects. It's too bad. I think we ought to try for a little liberality in the kinds of people that we select. But the darn system works against that.

FL: You said that over time as you think about Nixon he becomes even more complex in your understanding of him. Could you talk about that complexity and what if you think is complex about Bob Dole.

EHRLICHMAN:

Compared to the average guy on the street, Richard Nixon was enormously complex. He had tremendous powers of recall, great powers of concentration. He was a consummate politician, up to one point in his life where he kind of lost it. But that complexity is a cross current, was a cross current of things within a narrow band of life. All consumed with politics and elocution and government. I would like to feel that Mr. Dole was less complex and less focused, but I don't see it. He looks like the consummate Washington insider. And it seems to me it's an invidious comparison. And he's got to break out of that if he's going to be successful in appealing to the majority of the American electorate.

FL: You were talking about Nixon's complexity -- The different faces he can present.

EHRLICHMAN:

Richard Nixon, really heartily disliked confrontation. We would prepare briefing papers for him so that he knew quite a lot about anybody that was coming to see him. And by the time that visitor got there he was ready to present a face to that person that was the most agreeable, the most confident that it could be. And with the next person that came along, he could be entirely different. I used to call him the man of a thousand facets because he would turn toward you, and the manner of speaking and acting was very different than he would present to the next visitor. I don't know about Dole in that regard. When I knew him a long time ago, and very briefly, he played everything very close to the chest. Very guarded. And I always had the feeling that I wasn't reaching him, that I wasn't seeing the individual. I probably would have had the same feeling about Richard Nixon if I had had a casual meeting with him. That he would be giving me only what he wanted to give me in the way of his own personality and his own response to things. But, and this may be fairly typical of American politicians today, that they're very guarded with strangers and very reluctant to be free and easy and open until they know you pretty well and have confidence in you.

FL: Your phrase, that has been used frequently for Bob Dole, and for Nixon as well, is the dark Bob Dole and the dark Richard Nixon.

EHRLICHMAN:

There's no question about it. There was a dark side to Richard Nixon. But he didn't always present that side to people. He presented it to Chuck Colson. He would not present it to Liddy Dole if she came in. She used to work for him. She used to work for me. He would be courtly and gentlemanly and strictly by the book with somebody that he didn't know well. I think it was like the moon. On one side the moon is bright and reflective. On the other side, dark and unexplored. And Nixon had that side. And the people that ventured on that side were Chuck Colson and a handful of other people who kind of thrived in that atmosphere. But Nixon could reduce himself, as you've heard on the tapes, he could reduce himself to talking about bribes and talking about misusing the CIA and this kind of thing.

And I have no doubt that other Presidents had had dark sides. I just hadn't known them. I think to survive in the world which is a very cruel place for some people in some contexts--perhaps you have to have more than just a shiny happy place. It tests the mettle of people who take that office to come up with the resources, the inner strength that it takes to meet the challenges in the world of cruelty and treachery and ambition and greed and so on. So I would think that one would look for that, some vestige of that in virtually every Presidential candidate. Even Jimmy Carter.

FL: Talk about the dark side of Dole. To what extent is it similar to the dark side of Nixon?

EHRLICHMAN:

I have no doubt that Bob Dole has an inner strength and he probably has his dark side. Although I saw very briefly and only in terms of his personal ambition 25 years ago. The one mitigating aspect of Bob Dole's character is the fact that Liddy Dole loves him. This is a great lady and somebody that I grew to admire very much during the days that she worked on the White House staff. I confess I don't understand that marriage. But he certainly got a great lady and she's obviously very loyal to him. So that's one point for Bob Dole.

FL: A recent article in The New Yorker described the relationship between Dole and Nixon...Nixon described it as love and hate and very charged. Could you respond to that?

EHRLICHMAN:

I think Richard Nixon had high expectations when he recruited Dole to be his spokesman in the Senate. I think throughout his political career, Nixon was always looking for that magic person who would take up his cudgel and fight for him. In some cases he found him and in other cases he was very disappointed. But at the outset, he fought for Dole. He wanted Dole to be Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Against the advice of his staff, against the advice of Hugh Scott, the Republican leader and so on.

I think he was disappointed. I know he was disappointed in Dole's performance because Dole was independent. He wasn't giving his heart and soul to Richard Nixon as a sacrifice. And that brought about their parting of the ways under circumstances which I think probably were very hurtful to Dole at the time. I think they reconciled later and Dole was a loyal soldier to the Administration in the Senate, up to a point, from then on. And he defended Richard Nixon during Watergate to some extent, but never really got his feet wet in the ways that some other Senators did. He never was the 100% advocate that Nixon hoped that he would be.

FL: The Dole that would be in a limousine weeping as he read a letter from Nixon, Dole weeping at Nixon's funeral. Dole reached out to Nixon when he was in disgrace. What's that all about?

ERLICHMAN:

I watched the Nixon funeral on television and I was struck by Dole's emotionalism, but I have to confess it went through my mind that this was Dole grieving for himself. There was a piece of Bob Dole in that casket. And I think he identified very closely with Richard Nixon at that moment. That's the way it felt to me. They were alike in a lot of ways. And it must have been very difficult to eulogize a man so similar to himself. That's the way I saw those tears.

FL: In conclusion--if you were someone who knew little about Dole-- what would you tell us about Dole that's relevant?

EHRLICHMAN:

I measured Bob Dole from a brief acquaintance 25 years ago. Certainly in the years that have gone by he has performed a function in the Senate, as leader, which was almost Presidential. If I were a voter totally unacquainted with Bob Dole, I would be attracted to that record. To his performance, not on a specific piece of legislation, but the fact that he was in effect running the Senate. He's been running it since the Republicans took over and he was in a very powerful position as Minority Leader before that. So that draws my attention. I see him performing in the Senate very much as Richard Nixon might have performed if he had been leader of the Republicans in the Senate. And I, in spite of all the bad stuff that went down in the Nixon years, I have to admire the accomplishments of Richard Nixon. Not only on the foreign side, but on the domestic side where I had a chance to observe it closely. He built coalitions in the Congress. He got his legislation through. Even though both houses were opposed to him, party. There was no gridlock. There was a lot of leadership. A lot of forward motion. And if one analogizes from Richard Nixon to Bob Dole, I would be hopeful that Bob Dole as President could perform equally well, if not better. Profiting by the unfortunate lesson of the Nixon scandals.

stories of bill | stories of bob | interact | photo gallery | four colloquies | readings | reactions | tapes & transcripts | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS