Until his White House years, Ehrlichman had lived what seemed a charmed life. Born in Tacoma, Wash., he was an Eagle Scout who graduated from UCLA—where he met Haldeman—and Stanford University law school. During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps, flying 26 missions as a bomber navigator in Europe and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later, while practicing law in Seattle, he was recruited by Haldeman to work on Nixon's losing 1960 campaign for the Presidency. With Nixon's victory in 1968, Ehrlichman became White House counsel and, afterward, chief domestic policy adviser.
"Ehrlichman landed on the dark side of Richard Nixon," says Stephen Hess, now a senior fellow at a Washington, D.C., think tank, who as deputy assistant to the president for urban affairs knew Ehrlichman at first as a "pleasant, funny, accessible" man. "To me, he was certainly not the same person leaving the Nixon administration as he was entering it."
Ehrlichman's duties included overseeing the White House's so-called "plumbers" unit, a team of private operatives whose putative assignment—to trace the origin of leaks to the press—mutated into political espionage and burglary. One of the plumbers' first forays, approved by Ehrlichman, was the 1971 break-in at the office of a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who had treated Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, a former National Security Council staffer who had given the press the Pentagon Papers, shedding embarrassing light on the U.S. role in Vietnam. It was another plumbers team that bungled the June 17, 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex.
Almost from the first, Ehrlichman was deeply involved in concealing "White House ties to the plumbers. He urged Nixon to make L. Patrick Gray, then acting director of the FBI, the fall guy, with the memorably cynical advice that the G-man be left "twisting slowly, slowly in the wind." But it was Ehrlichman and Haldeman whom Nixon forced to resign in April 1973 in hopes of defusing the scandal. Three years later, Ehrlichman went to prison for 18 months after being convicted of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and perjury.
Paroled in 1978, he settled in Santa Fe. In prison he had written The Company, a thinly fictionalized account of his experience in Washington. A series of other novels followed. "Some of his books were quite good," says Washington Post editor Bob Woodward, who (with Carl Bernstein) won the paper a Pulitzer for Watergate coverage, but became friendly with Ehrlichman in the late '70s. Eventually, Ehrlichman, who had three marriages and six children, made it clear that he had little esteem left for his ex-boss. "I don't miss Richard Nixon very much," he wrote in his memoir, Witness to Power. "Richard Nixon probably doesn't much miss me either."
Ehrlichman often lamented that the scandal had permanently stamped him. "It bothered me enormously for a while, what people thought of me," he told The Washington Post in 1979. "But I made myself stop caring because I knew I couldn't do a thing about it, and I knew it was going to tear me up if I tried."
Friends tried to burnish Ehrlich-man's legacy by stressing his pre-Watergate domestic policy accomplishments. He was widely credited with helping push creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. "John was very loving, very sweet," says Atlanta resident Patricia Talmadge, who became a close friend several years after he moved to the city in 1991. "I know it bothered him that once that era happened, nothing else in his life mattered." Talmadge was with Ehrlichman on the day he died, along with a nurse and Ehrlichman's friend and business associate R.K. Sehgal. In his last hours they spoke not of Watergate, but of fishing in the blue waters off Key West.
Amy Laughinghouse in Atlanta and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.