FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

John Ehrlichman, Environmentalist

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.

 

More articles by:

March 26, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
How ISIS’s Brutal Project in the Middle East was Finally Overthrown
Joshua Frank
To Celebrate or to Not? The Mueller Question
George Ochenski
The Fox in the Henhouse: Bernhardt at Interior
Thomas Klikauer
Corporate Bullshit
William deBuys
12 Ways to Make Sense of the Border Mess
Robert Fisk
Ardern’s Response to Christchurch has Put Other Leaders to Shame, But Not for Its Compassion Alone
Binoy Kampmark
Disinviting Jordan Peterson: the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge and Approved Ideas
James C. Kennedy
The Poisonous History of Neo-Classical Economics
Jenna Orkin
Quentin Crisp’s Posthumous Book, the Sequel
Elizabeth Keyes
My Russia Hot-Air Balloon
March 25, 2019
Jonathan Cook
Three Lessons for the Left from the Mueller Inquiry
Dave Lindorff
The TSA’s Role as Journalist Harasser and Media ‘Watchdog’
Tanya Golash-Boza – Michael Golash
Epifanio Camacho: a Militant Farmworker Brushed Out of History
Robert Fisk
Don’t Believe the Hype: Here’s Why ISIS Hasn’t Been Defeated
Jack Rasmus
The Capitulation of Jerome Powell and the Fed
Lawrence Davidson
Israel’s Moves to the Right
John Feffer
After Trump
James Ridgeway
Good Agent, Bad Agent: Robert Mueller and 9/11
Dean Baker
The Importance of Kicking Up: Changing Market Structures So the Rich Don’t Get All the Money
Lawrence Wittner
What Democratic Socialism Is and Is Not
Thomas Knapp
Suppressing Discussion Doesn’t Solve the Problem. It is the Problem.
Stephen Cooper
“I’m a Nine-Star General Now”: an Interview with Black Uhuru’s Duckie Simpson
Andrew Moss
Immigration and the Democratic Hopefuls
Weekend Edition
March 22, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
The Ghost of Fascism in the Post-Truth Era
Gabriel Rockhill
Spectacular Violence as a Weapon of War Against the Yellow Vests
H. Bruce Franklin
Trump vs. McCain: an American Horror Story
Paul Street
A Pox on the Houses of Trump and McCain, Huxleyan Media, and the Myth of “The Vietnam War”
Andrew Levine
Why Not Impeach?
Bruce E. Levine
Right-Wing Psychiatry, Love-Me Liberals and the Anti-Authoritarian Left
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Darn That (American) Dream
Charles Pierson
Rick Perry, the Saudis and a Dangerous Nuclear Deal
Moshe Adler
American Workers Should Want to Transfer Technology to China
David Rosen
Trafficking or Commercial Sex? What Recent Exposés Reveal
Nick Pemberton
The Real Parallels Between Donald Trump and George Orwell
Binoy Kampmark
Reading Manifestos: Restricting Brenton Tarrant’s The Great Replacement
Brian Cloughley
NATO’s Expensive Anniversaries
Ron Jacobs
Donald Cox: Tale of a Panther
Joseph Grosso
New York’s Hudson Yards: The Revanchist City Lives On
REZA FIYOUZAT
Is It Really So Shocking?
Bob Lord
There’s Plenty of Wealth to Go Around, But It Doesn’t
John W. Whitehead
The Growing Epidemic of Cops Shooting Family Dogs
Jeff Cohen
Let’s Not Restore or Mythologize Obama 
Christy Rodgers
Achieving Escape Velocity
Monika Zgustova
The Masculinity of the Future
Jessicah Pierre
The Real College Admissions Scandal
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail