How to Be Bad
Our best Republican novelist—and I’m not forgetting William F. Buckley or Spiro Agnew—now seems to be John Ehrlichman, whose book THE COMPANY (Simon and Schuster, $8.95) has just been published. Its first surprise is the deftness with which Ehrlichman tells his tale.
The second surprise in this book, a roman a clef of life in the Nixon Administration, is the extent of Ehrliehman’s vindictiveness toward his former boss, who appears here as “President Richard Monckton,” Ehrlichman portrays a man whose hatred and selfdoubt leave him little time for anything but self-protective rituals and campaigns against his imagined enemies. Sanctimonious in public, he is cynical and brutal in private, priggish but slyly prurient, obsessed with meaningless detail, dependent on liquor and pills. I suppose you could say. on hearing this. “What else is new?” And it’s true that some of the freshness has been robbed from Ehrlichman’s fictive account by recent disclosures about the former President’s difficulties of personality. But there’s something remarkable about the unremitting hostility of Ehrlichman. whose loyalty to Nixon was for so many years undoubted. No redeeming qualities soften his portrait, no childhood trauma, no tragic flaws, no trips to China. Ehrlichman has a servant’s cold eye for the weakness and cruelty of his master. After talking to his mother on the night of his election (“Fine, Richard. Be my good boy, now.” “Good night, Mother”). Monckton slams down the receiver: “Monckton always ended telephone calls with a smash, even when he wasn’t angry or upset. . . . Somehow, the harder one slammed down telephones at the end of a conversation, the better it felt.”
Following his own “resignation” from the Administration that would soon collapse anyway, John Ehrlichman moved to Santa Fe, grew a beard, wrote this novel. A new life. He himself has spoken of “the greening of John Ehrlichman.” Being a bearded writer, though, and living in a fashionably remote place and hating Richard Nixon are not necessarily emblems of virtue and sensitivity. The “new Ehrlichman” seems to have a lot in common with the old one. There is a pervasive meanness of spirit in The Company. Its author’s antagonism cuts several ways. He has added Richard Nixon to his enemies list, but he doesn’t seem to have taken anyone off. Ehrlichman delights in his caricatures. William (“Billy’) Curry: glamorous young President who dies in a plane accident, is revered by his countrymen but has an unseemly hidden record of dirty tricks. Carl Tessler: German-born Harvard professor who becomes national security adviser, is vain and arrogant. When he’s praised by an attractive woman, his eyes shine behind his thick glasses, and he loves to dazzle onlookers with stylized fits of anger at his subordinates. And there is also the armpit-scratching President Esker Scott Anderson, who succeeded Curry, and the aging, dictatorial FBI Director Elmer Morse, supposedly a homosexual. The resemblances reach down to the level of Washington journalists, and there is a particularly nasty and gratuitous scene, also alleging homosexuality, about a reporter whose real-life counterpart can be guessed at. Since so many of the characters are in fact meant to suggest actual persons living and dead, the reader is led to wonder how literally Ehrlichman intends the book’s events to be taken.
The plot turns on the relationship between the CIA and the Monckton Administration. Despite his cameo role. Monckton is a subordinate character; the central figure is William Martin, CIA director, modeled on Richard Helms. Martin is a career man who has served under several Presidents—including the hated William Curry (read JFK)— and he struggles to protect his job under the Monckton Administration. CIA files contain a document that can ruin Martin: proof of his involvement in the “Rio De Muerte” (read Bay of Pigs) “Disaster” (read Fiasco). Bad stuff: Curry ordered Martin to have a prominent revolutionary murdered. Martin complied. Monckton could use it to discredit the memory of Curry, and incidentally destroy Martin.
Before Monckton gets a chance, the tables turn. CIA operatives learn that Monckton with the cooperation of the FBI and with private contractors—is carrying out some very Watergatelike clandestine work. Marlin presents the President with the evidence and strikes a deal. Monckton will destroy the evidence against Martin, Martin will not blow the whistle on Monckton. Martin will leave the CIA, and be given a suitable ambassadorship.
The Martin-Monckton confrontation, by the way, is Ehrliehman’s nicest piece of work. The showdown occurs at Camp David. Our novelist has plainly been in that setting but has not felt entirely of it. He provides a glimpse of its elegant absurdities: the rusticity walled off by chain link fences, the livery of guards and stewards protecting the President’s recreational moments, the retinue of deer feeding for his pleasure. Ehrlichman adds this teasing bit of data on Monckton’s Camp David: his colleagues in the Department of Defense have bugged his living room in Aspen Lodge.
To avoid electronic eavesdropping, Monckton and his blackmailer stroll outdoors. The President pretends not to hear what Martin is saying, He carries on a soliloquy somewhat in the manner of Ophelia . . .“ ‘See those swings and the teeter-totter? That thing is called a jungle gym. I’m told. Perhaps you know that. Do you have children?’ He looked intently at Martin.
“‘Ah. Well. William Arthur Curry had a son, you know. Billy, Junior. He put all this playground here for his son. But his wife hated Camp David; not elegant enough for her, you see. She called the buildings Arkansas motels. So she wouldn’t let the little boy come up here and play with these things. I think that’s too goddamned bad. The stuck-up bitch.’ ”
But, despite his monologue, Monckton has been listening and the deal is made. If we are to read this novel as history, it raises some intriguing issues. At a minimum Ehrlichman is saying that intramural warfare in the executive branch of the government and its intelligence agencies was worse than we know even now, after three vears of damaging revelations about the Nixon Administration, the FBI, and the CIA. Is he also saying something more exact? That Nixon at a time when he still had something to lose—was blackmailed by the CIA? (Helms left the CIA to become ambassador to Iran in 1973.) Is Ehrlichman implying specifically that evidence damning to Kennedy has been destroyed?
The questions suggest part of what is wrong with the book: Ehrlichman has been recklessly coy in his choice of form if he has something of historical importance to say. But the hook has deeper troubles. The Company contains no expression of moral dismay over the events it describes: if anything it is tinged with a romantic appreciation for skillfully executed evil. Ehrlichman, it emerges, loathes Monckton-Nixon not for his transgressions but for his clumsiness and his addled mind: loathes him because he didn’t play the game cleverly enough. The moral of this story is plain: everybody does it. Despite all we know (and despite all we don’t), that remains a facile, simplistic, and, for John Ehrlichman, a self-serving bit of wisdom.
A fter reading the Ehrlichman novel, I found myself thinking about three other books I’d read in recent weeks an odd trio, though all of them are about the difficulties of maintaining character and the hazards of worldliness.
Sloan Wilson’s autobiography, WHAT SHALL WE WEAR TO THIS PARTY? (Arbor House, $12.95), comes with an awkward subtitle: “The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit Twentv Years Before & After.” Time passes. It’s necessary to remind readers now that Sloan Wilson is the author of one of the great artifacts of popular culture in the fifties.
Like the novel, this autobiography is an unconscious document. Wilson was as dumbfounded as everyone else by the success of the novel, and seems to recall little of what motivated him to write it, beyond the desire to be a writer. His course afterward was mostly downhill: he never had another big success, though he made more money, and spent it. and his life became a sad meander—drinking, spending, divorcing-redeemed by late-blooming romance and a second family.
In a way, he had started down before success struck: this story is a representative tale from the generation that came of age in World War II. like some of his lucky and privileged peers, Wilson had a good war, and the best stretch of writing in his memoir recalls his service as a Coast Guard officer in the North Atlantic on a converted trawler. It’s alive with honest nostalgia for a moment when life offered nothing except precious clarity of purpose. It’s the sort of sentiment you could find beneath the striped tents this spring at the 35th reunions.
Joe McGinniss’ HEROES (Viking, $7.95) is a disaster of a book, but a fascinating disaster. McGinniss set out on a reporting venture armed with the hypothesis that America lacks heroes. To test it, he interviewed some disparate candidates for the role, such as Edward Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Daniel Berrigan, and William Westmoreland. It wasn’t much of an idea to begin with, and things were made worse by McGinniss’ “personal” life, the facts of which were screaming so loudly at him that he couldn’t hear whatever his subjects might have to say.
McGinniss was puffed up with the success of his first book, The Selling of the President, 1968. But he seems also to have been suffering some (justified) self-doubt, and he was in general knocked on his ear by success: in love with fame and estranged from his children and from a wife who suddenly represented all the dullness he’d left behind; living with another woman; and deep into a relationship with alcohol.
The stark facts about McGinniss’ life are stated here as if in a confessional, without explanation or apology. This is effective up to a point, but the book badly wants to take an introspective turn that its author can’t manage. Still, there is some honesty in Heroes, and considerable drama unfinished drama: you’re not sure whether the life that you have been invited to view so intimately is falling apart or starting to put itself back together,
I don’t know why L. Rust Hills’s small book How TO BE GOOD (Doubleday, $7.95) has been treated so badly, but its review’s have been scant and dismissive. Unfair. It’s a funny book. This is the third part of Hills’s quirky enterprise called “The Fussy Man Trilogy” (earlier titles: How to Do Things Right, How to Retire at 41). In this volume Hills offers advice on how to lead “the extricated life,” a passionate form of privatism that invites you to realize the courage of your lack of convictions. The Hills code is based in part on the principle that “the worst things are done by people who care deeply. . . . It’s line to believe something, or even okay to believe in something. But don’t care about it.”
I think How to Be Good has caused its readers difficulty because at some point they start to think that Hills means what he says. Well, he does mean what he says, in a way, but the burden of sincerity only enhances the wit of this elegant book.
— Richard Todd