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The Dangers of Narrowing History

John Ehrlichman, Environmentalist

by PATRICIA NELSON LIMERICK

When I was young, I never imagined I would one day stand in front of 250 people and say something nice about John Ehrlichman.

And yet, as a PowerPoint image of him appeared behind me on a stage last November, there I was saying, "In the Nixon White House, the most consistent advocate of environmental causes was John Ehrlichman."

I had barely started my sentence when someone in the Boulder, Colo., audience let loose a loud hiss.

And I said the first thing that came to mind, which turned out to be, "Don’t do that."

A rush of anxiety followed. Ehrlichman was, after all, Richard Nixon’s ally in the wicked schemes of Watergate. Moreover, wasn’t my membership in the American Civil Liberties Union still current, and hadn’t I just violated the requirements of membership by squashing free speech?

But even as an archetypal late-1960s liberal in today’s unhappily polarized times, I had come to recognize Ehrlichman’s right to be seen as a complicated human being whose full story cannot be properly acknowledged by either a hiss or a cheer.

The chain of events leading to this began with the suggestion of a friend, Jim Martin, director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado. He said it would be interesting to bring together the former secretaries of the Interior. The result was a series of public interviews hosted by the university’s Center of the American West and conducted by colleague Charles Wilkinson and me.

At the first, in September, former Secretary Stewart Udall charmed and moved the audience. On several occasions, Udall praised Republicans in Congress who had been his allies in supporting funding for the Interior Department and aiding the passage of new environmental laws.

Then, in October, former Secretary Walter Hickel charmed and moved us, too, with the stories of his forceful response to the Santa Barbara oil spill and of his spirited opposition to President Nixon’s treatment of anti-war protesters.

Hickel’s successor, Rogers Morton, died in 1979, so we invited his undersecretary, John Whitaker. Before he moved to Interior, Whitaker was Nixon’s principal adviser on the environment, and he played a key part in the administration’s support for the most important environmental legislation of the 20th century. In that enterprise, Whitaker found John Ehrlichman to be his steady ally.

It was Ehrlichman’s idea to create the White House post of environmental coordinator and to put Whitaker in that influential job. Ehrlichman helped Nixon see the political value in signing the National Environmental Protection Act. On other occasions, Ehrlichman exhorted the president to take actions that would "keep you out in front on the environmental issue."

Five minutes in his company will convince anyone that John Whitaker is a fine human being. He does not try to conceal or dismiss the bad behavior that produced Watergate. But his testimony asks us to realize that if we devote ourselves to shuddering over Watergate, we will fail to attend to the achievements of the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws of that time. If we narrow Ehrlichman and Nixon’s heritage to Watergate, we do a considerable disservice to history.

So I asked an audience to forgo the pleasure of simple condemnation of John Ehrlichman, a man who had surprised me — and surely would have surprised himself — by assuming the status of the friend of my friend.

By casting Democrats as "pro-environment" and Republicans as "anti-environment," we have written off history, simplified a much more complicated world and forfeited innumerable chances for productive problem-solving.

On the left wing as much as the right wing, self-righteousness and an exaggerated sense of purity become our ball and chain, a force that constrains us and holds us in place. I’m grateful to have had John Whitaker’s — and John Ehrlichman’s — help in gaining my freedom in such a public way.

PATRICIA NELSON LIMERICK leads the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she teaches history and environmental studies. Author of several books, including "The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West," she is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute, Salina, Kan.