The John Ehrlichman Saga.
When John was the Domestic Advisor to President Nixon it could be argued that he was one of the 5 most powerful people in the world. Then along came the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon from office. It also spelled John’s political ruin. He said, “rules in the Oval Office were different from rules anywhere else in the world.”
He was convicted in federal court of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury, and he served 18 months in the prison at Safford, Arizona.
I met John soon after he was released and we became friends. Our gallery had a book signing for his, Witness to Power (there were pickets outside our gallery), we fished the Pecos and San Juan rivers together and went to China on business once.
John and I spent many hours in conversations about his political experiences and the famous personalities he had met along the way. I found his stories fascinating, especially the one about a criminal plot to break him out of prison and hold him for ransom. He thought it was funny that the government would have to pay the ransom to get him back so they could put him in prison again
John was easy and forthcoming with an answer to any question posed by me. One day John and I were talking about his trial and it was plain to see that he felt abused. He pointed out that, with public opinion so strongly against him, there was no way he could be found not guilty. He said, “When the president of the United states asks you to do something it is very difficult to say no,” thus his perjury conviction.
To fight the boredom of long hours sitting in a courtroom John doodled. He drew portraits of the jurors, witnesses, lawyers, prosecutors, bailiffs, US Marshalls, other things, and Judge John Sirica several times. There were 102 doodles and many were drawn on White House letterheads.
What his doodles lacked in artistic deference was made up in historical importance. They showed what a very important, man on trial for serious crimes, was thinking about while his fate was being decided by a group of people he didn’t know.
Accompanying each doodle was a lengthy ink-written caption that explained the subject or provided commentary about it.
I suggested that we publish his art in a leather-bound book. To give it class we needed to gild the edges and put it in a slipcase. The plan was to sell the books, each one with a doodle tipped in. That meant printing 102 books, I knew I was going to lose a bunch of money. John agreed, and we signed a contract. I wrote the foreword for the book. John Connally signed it.
Soon after the book was printed, we had a party at my home. While thumbing through a copy, my attorney turned to me and said, “Forrest, you’re gonna be sued for a hundred million dollars.”
The comment caught me in mid sip. The small Corona beer I was half way through didn’t seem as necessary as it did when I first started drinking it.
All of a sudden, I saw my attorney as a lawyer. Although I didn’t know the difference between the two, I think that characterization was correct. He started showing why I had made a mistake by publishing the book. One aberration was the drawing of a woman’s leg.
I didn’t think that was so bad, but when my lawyer started reading other captions in the book, I balked. I had heard enough already, and I turned to John, who was standing nearby. “John, will you indemnify me for any loss I might incur as a result of what you wrote in this book?” He said “NO” with a halting abruptness that made me think it might be the only word he knew.
With concern that something might happen inimical to me, I wrote a letter to John dated May 23, 1985. It said, in part, “When the book was printed and we were ready to start advertising and distribution, you took a copy to Morton Janklow (John’s lawyer and agent in New York, whose daughter worked in our gallery). He raised the question of libel, which you relayed to me. At that time, I put a hold on the project until we could find out where we stood.”
Other things were happening that I didn’t like, so one cloudy afternoon I burned 101 beautifully bound doodle books that had gilded edges and were slip cased. With that deed done, my liability was gone. I kept one copy for my own library and that’s all. It’s an orphan.
There are a small few unbound copies of the book out there somewhere. Morton Janklow has one, my daughters each have one, and a friend in Cody has a copy.
I just hope Jill Wines doesn’t get wind of it and come looking for me.
In 1999 John died from complications of diabetes. He was 74 years old. I’m glad that chapter in my life is closed. f