Modified, Limited Hangout
"LET US BEGIN by committing ourselves to the truth—to see it like it is, and tell it like it is—to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth. " ... Richard Nixon, accepting the G.O.P. presidential nomination in 1968
As nearly everyone in the U.S. knows, John Ehrlichman was one of President Nixon's chief aides. Since Watergate he has avoided jail (without benefit of pardon), settled in New Mexico, and is still appealing convictions on charges that range from two counts of perjury to conspiracy to obstruct justice.
He has also written this novel. And why not? Even in the old days, Ehrlichman had a way with words. It was he, for instance, who came up with the phrase "modified, limited hangout," a memorable locution, which in practice was roughly translatable as "admit as little truth as possible and try to put the whole blame on John Mitchell." So successful were the President's men at concealing truth that despite all the reports, books and films since Watergate, Ehrlichman's novel is sure to be grasped by his still frustrated countrymen in hopes of gathering a few more shards of information about the political hecatomb that was the Nixon White House.
On that account prospective buyers of The Company should beware. A Washington roman à clef it is; a full-scale Watergate book it is not. Ehrlichman is clearly using fiction as an extension of politics by other means; but his novel ends with word that a member of the White House staff has just been caught breaking into the headquarters of a Democratic candidate. The Company, in fact, bears the same relation to the final drama of Watergate that successive Shakespearean history plays bear to one another. There is some overlap. Dark deeds and blood feuds of the past rise up to haunt or thwart the heir apparent, whether he be Richard III of York, or Richard I of Whittier, Calif.
Pluperfect Egomaniac. The Company of the title, naturally, is the CIA, a political genie that Congress is even now trying to stuff back into some sort of legislative bottle. As the book develops, dynastic rivalries between Presidents and parties are less fierce than continuing an almost mortal combat between the White House and the CIA. The dark deed that makes the plot boil, in fact, is a political murder, secretly ordered by Democratic President William Arthur Curry and carried out by the CIA on a Latin American beachhead (here called Rio de Muerte) easily identifiable as the Bay of Pigs.
President Curry, described as a rich man's son, a Yaleman and a "handsome weakling," dies before completing his term. His Democratic successor makes William Martin, the CIA agent who saw to the murder, boss of The Company. Why? Because the new President is aware of the secret order and of Martin's guilt. Armed with that knowledge, he tries to indulge in a little friendly blackmail to get CIA files for use in the next election. This President, Esker Scott Anderson, is portrayed as a vast, salty-tongued, womanizing hick and a "pluperfect egomaniac" who dotes on the appointments of the presidential plane. (Even the candy wrappers aboard, Ehrlichman writes, come emblazoned with the words Air Force One.)
Ehrlichman, alas, serves up a minibiography as each minor character appears ("His age was hard to peg," etc.). He is afflicted by compulsive total recall of menus (at CIA headquarters dessert is austere "melon and cookies"; the G Street Club offers "a perfect, soft Brie"). But his prose, often better than serviceable, is sometimes very cutting indeed. (The political career of a Democratic Vice President is summed up as "a lackluster, snail creep to seniority.") By the time the reader gets to President No. 3, Richard Monckton, he is meant to accept Ehrlichman's jungle view of life in the nation's capital. U.S. Presidents generally, one is encouraged to assume, should be placed only a few points to the right of pit vipers on the lovability scale. In such a context, Richard Monckton's somber and tormented meanness, his attempts to subvert the FBI and the CIA and demolish all political enemies seem par for the presidential curse—and almost human.
A roman à clef was once a cosy affair. But one touch of TV makes the whole world kin. Readers will have no difficulty in making out the shaggy outlines of Presidents J.F.K., L.B.J., R.M.N., not to mention Henry Kissinger (Carl Tessler in the book), J. Edgar Hoover (Elmer Morse) and others, including, eventually, E. Howard Hunt (Lars Haglund), who (yes, indeed) is planted on President Monckton by the CIA.
Part of the admittedly partisan fun here is observing just how harsh a fictional portrait of his old boss Ehrlichman permits himself. Ehrlichman's Monckton is capable of deep concentration but prey to near collapse from sporadic bouts of depression and drink. He regularly invokes national security as a cover for dirty politics and runs on about "those fags at State." Once in office he sets the plumbers in motion.
Damp Handshake. He campaigns with an awkward, mechanical passion. "Monckton never thought of handshaking as a personal contact with the electors," Ehrlichman writes. "He was doing all that crap on autopilot." At one point the politically smiling candidate escapes from a crowd at the Waldorf by retreating to an elevator filled with his own staff. Once inside, "his face changed as though he had suddenly broken out of a trance; his smile collapsed, his eyes darkened as if a light had been extinguished."
So familiar is some of the portraiture that the intrigued reader finds himself wondering which physical details Ehrlichman has changed to keep his fictional license legal. Did this leader of the free world, as he writes, often emerge from the lavatory to greet foreign dignitaries with a slightly damp hand shake? Nixon, like Monckton, scorned hat and gloves. Was it really to preserve a macho image or to copy John F. Kennedy? And what of Carl Tessler, guttural-voiced escapee from Vienna and Harvard who serves as Monckton's foreign policy expert and chief of the National Security Council? As NSC chief, Kissinger had an influence over the President that Ehrlichman resented. In The Company Tessler is described as an egotistical coward whose mouth was "small, almost cherubic," with "fat cheeks and three layers of chins," and "yellowing teeth." On his hands "all the fingernails had been torn away again and again by his teeth . . . the middle knuckles of his third fingers were red from constant, nervous chewing."* footnote
Ehrlichman has been widely reported as being nearly $500,000 in debt to his lawyers, a plight with which many Americans can sympathize. The tendency these days is to assume that it does not matter what kind of book you write for money. Yet The Company, for all its diverting tidbits, should not be accepted (or dismissed) as good, dirty fun. In it, using a mask of fiction, the author continues with great tenacity and skill a campaign begun by the White House to vilify past Presidents and, indeed, American political institutions, so that Richard Nixon's behavior would seem less reprehensible by contrast. With that in view Nixon tried to declassify material to blacken Kennedy and Johnson.
With that in view, one recalls, E. Howard Hunt (Lars Haglund) once forged a cable linking Kennedy personally to the political murder of Viet Nam President Ngo Dinh Diem. How much more convenient to revive a similar charge in fiction, transferring it to Rio de Muerte — and to imply that through a tortuous trail of Democratic cover-up and CIA blackmail, the road came back to Watergate.
*Kissinger chews his nails, but not his knuckles. back to text