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?
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
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?
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
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
FL: So could you talk about the job and the beginnings of the problems.
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
FL: You were talking about Nixon's complexity -- The different faces he can
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.
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?
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
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?
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?
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
FL: In conclusion--if you were someone who knew little about Dole-- what would
you tell us about Dole that's relevant?
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