Drugs, Nixon and the Big Lie

At Jezebel, John Ehrlichman is described as a “Nixon policy advisor.” Ah, how times have changed. Along with H.R. Haldeman, he was as close to the president as anyone alive. The pair were called Nixon’s “Berlin Wall,” as you couldn’t get to Nixon without going through Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

To people of a certain age (that being alive and aware during Watergate), he’s as politically toxic as they came.  And he did a year and a half in the slammer for his part, which couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Sure, he was a “Nixon policy advisor” on paper. In reality, he was one of the triumvirate who ran America.

And Dan Baum, in Harpers, says he spoke with Ehrlichman in 1994 about the War on Drugs when he was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition.  He says that Ehrlichman spilled the beans.

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.

You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (Emphasis from Jezebel quote.)

Given the tenor of American politics in 1968, with the world coming apart at the seams, the unpopular Vietnam War, hippies, yippies, SDS, drug culture, Black Power, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Richard Nixon offering the antidote to the insanity on behalf of the “silent majority,” whose slogan was, “America, Love It or Leave It,” this quote makes total sense.  If there was ever a president more cynical, more willing to manufacture fear and loathing for his own advantage, it was Tricky Dicky.

That Nixon created the Drug War as we now know it, as has been developed and perpetuated over the past 50 years, such that it’s become a bedrock belief of law enforcement by dint of longevity, if not reason, is neither new nor controversial.  Radley Balko made the case in the Rise of the Warrior Cop.

But that Nixon’s purpose wasn’t saving society from the scourge of drugs, which had become widely used during the 60s for “recreational” purposes without any great stigma or negative consequences, aside from social castigation by the crowd who preferred their rye whisky and Pabst Blue Ribbon to weed and Black Beauties, had never been confirmed.  Sure, Nixon’s motives were questioned at every turn, as he was despised by most people under 30. But it was all speculative.

Until now. Until now?  Damn if Ehrlichman’s quote doesn’t satisfy. It confirms everything we ever hated about Nixon, about the drug war, about law enforcement, about racism, about politics.  We were right all along?

Dan Baum wrote a book entitled Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. In its promotional pitch, it says:

What began as a flourish of campaign rhetoric in 1968 has grown into a monster. And while nobody claims that the War on Drugs is a success, nobody suggests an alternative. Because to do so, as Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders learned, is political suicide. Dan Baum interviewed more than 175 people – from John Ehrlichman to Janet Reno – to tell the story of how Drug War fever has been escalated; who has benefited along the way; and how the mounting price in dollars, lives, and liberties has been willfully ignored. 

Was this Ehrlichman quote in there?  Not having read the book, I have no clue. But given that it’s now huge news, it would appear that this is an epiphany that has never before been revealed. This raises some serious questions:

  • Did we all miss the fact that Ehrlichman admitted that the Drug War was created for the purpose of cynical and racist political manipulation?
  • Did Baum provide this quote in his 1997 book, and it didn’t mean anything at the time?
  • Did Baum not provide this quote in his book?  Did he not think this was information that mattered?
  • Or now that Ehrlichman is dead, has this quote surfaced, unmentioned in 1997 when he was still alive, with no one to deny it was said?

Like many others who lived through Nixon, I want this quote to be true and accurate.  It explains so much, and confirms my worst bias against Richard Nixon.  And yet, it seems inconceivable that Baum, having this Ehrlichman admission that a half century of criminal law disaster was built on an outright lie, political manipulation and racism, wouldn’t have mentioned this before.

Or did he, and nobody noticed?  Or worse still, nobody cared.

As much as I want to believe, as much as this explains so much about how the United States dove head first down the rabbit hole of the Drug War, as much as this confirms that millions of lives have been destroyed for the most disgraceful and cynical reasons, concern over confirmation bias precludes the embrace of this Ehrlichman admission until the questions about it are answered.

Because the only thing worse than this quote is believing it because we want to when it didn’t happen. If true, this is huge. But first, we need to know that it’s true.

31 comments on “Drugs, Nixon and the Big Lie

  1. Hal

    While, like you, I’d like to believe this I think the old saying that “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is” applies.

    Most, likely, “Hanlon’s Razor” – “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity or incompetence” applies here, too.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t attribute it to anything. Rather, I won’t accept it as true just because I want it to be true. One way or the other, the truth will come out.

  2. James

    If you go to the affiliate Amazon link for the book you provided and click on the cover, you can use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to search for words and phrases. The statement about Nixon’s marginalization of the counterculture and blacks is in there (search for “illegal to be young”) but it’s not attributed as a quote to Erlichman, but as a commentary on Brownell’s joy over a Newsweek article.

    If you have a copy of the book, take a look at page 21, toward the bottom of the page, right above the tilde separating the sections.

  3. John Neff

    I had doubts about Ehrlichman’s credibility before I read his book. That removed all doubt he was not a credible source.

  4. Kyle W

    I remember seeing this quote a few years back. I don’t remember if it was attributed to him or not. I did express some confusion as to why it was all of a sudden in the forefront, though, having been “old news” to me.

    1. SHG Post author

      Of the various offensive types of comments, this is one of the worst offenders. “I kinda sorta remember something, but can’t really remember, and have no clue where or what, but enough to suggest something while saying nothing.” This is an asshole comment.

      1. Kyle W

        Apologies. I wrote it once and then figured it didn’t matter because I couldn’t remember anything, then rewrote it simply to say that it wasn’t a quote that just came out.

  5. the other alan

    I am always amused at the irony of a guy named “Ehrlichman” being among the most dishonest political operatives in American history. (I know the question here is more about Baum’s integrity than Ehrlichman’s, but unless Baum sets fire to a forest or something, I got nothing)

  6. PAV

    A website from 2012 called Washington Liberals claims the source of the quote is a book, “Source: The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-changing Stories. Edited by Larry Smith, Harper Perennial, 2012.”

    Websites from 2012 on have been posting this particular quote. A cursory Internet search hasn’t turned it up on websites before that. I can provide several more links for sites which have this quote but only one provided a source, which I can’t confirm.

    I’d seen the quote long before today, though not 1997 long before.

    1. Ken Rogers

      It looks like the quote is included in a 5 paragraph essay in “Source: The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-changing Stories. Edited by Larry Smith, Harper Perennial, 2012.” titled ‘Truth, Lies and Audiotape’ – Dan Baum
      The text of the essay is similar to the Harpers article, I’m not sure of the fair use on this so I’ll just paste in the quote as it appears in the essay:

      He was much shorter than I expected–fat, with a gigantic mountain-man beard. As I started asking him earnest, wonky questions about Nixon’s drug policy, he held up a hand to stop me. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the weariness of a man who no longer had anything to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar Left, and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or be black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

      I haven’t been able to find any earlier mention of quote than the 2012 collection of essays.

  7. Fyodor

    Nixon might have “created” the drug war but Nixon left office in 1974. Nixon didn’t reach through time to force Democrats and Republicans in the 80s and 90s to support harsher drug penalties. We like these kinds of secret “bad motivation” quotes to prove that the drug war or tax policy or social benefit cuts are inherently bad, but it doesn’t really matter. Lots of political leaders support terrible crime policies with good intentions but it doesn’t make it any better for the people who suffer.

    1. SHG Post author

      All true, but not relevant to the question of how it started, which is the point of this post regardless of whether you think it matters.

  8. Maureen O'Neil

    Harper’s Magazine (accessed online) dated March 23, 2016; article titled “Legalize it All” by Dan Baum. Quote is there.

  9. Dawgzy

    I have Baum’s very fine book in front of me. My recollection from reading it almost 20 years ago is that the “nut quote” was from Haldeman;’s diaries, not JE. A quick indexing does not turn up the above quote (maybe I missed it) but here is JE in ’75 or ’76 before a Subcommittee on Investigations: ” ‘I think there is a genuine hypocrisy in all of this,’he said. ‘The people in the federal government are just kidding themselves and the people when that say we have mounted a massive war on narcotics when they know darned well the massive war they have mounted on narcotics is only going to be effective at the margins. If they don’t know it, they ought to know it. Maybe we can use the money some other way.’ ” (p. 88) From Haldeman’s diary: ” [Nixon] emphasized that the whole problem is the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” (p. 13) Mitchell and Haldeman proposing sending narcotics agents to raid peace demonstrators in DC and to arrest and hold as many of them as possible using “preventive detention” until after the demonstration was over. “DC police ended up holding 8000 people in Kennedy stadium” …. “Haldeman also recorded in his diary that Nixon wanted to know “why all the Jews seem to be the ones that are for liberalizing the regulations on marijuana.” (p.55)
    Baum does footnote but without numerical references. I do real see in a Haldeman diary quote to the effect “We’ve got to get something on the Blacks and protestors; let’s use their drugs” but can’t take time right now to comb through all of it.

      1. Dawgzy

        Have looked more closely now that I’ve fulfilled uxorious obligations (the errand type.) I skimmed Smoke and Mirror’s notes where Baum does careful attribution of quotes. The JE quote above isn’t referenced. Since the quote appears in the Harper’s article, was part of an interview for the book, and, apparently, not in the book, might it have been “deep background” or not for attribution. Now that JE is gone, he can’t object, but he can’t verify it’s veracity, either. Baum has a website- I’ll drop an enquiry there.

  10. Troutwaxer

    The Haldeman quote is fairly easy to find. Just Google* “Haldeman Drug War.” It may have been online as early as 2009, though you have to dig to find it earlier than 2012. As noted above, the whole thing definitely warrants some following up – quotes that show up twenty-years-later are definitely suspicious.

    And I’m sure everyone is also aware of the interesting results from Googling “Anslinger marijuana,” which definitely show some racial prejudice. (For those who aren’t aware of the history, Anslinger was the first head of the Bureau of Narcotics.)

    1. SHG Post author

      The quote is from Ehrlichman, not Haldeman or Anslinger.

      I still haven’t seen any mention prior to 2012, and struggle to understand why. It’s not that I think Baum is dishonest, but that I can’t understand why this didn’t make it into his book in 1998, but was important enough for a 2012 essay, and now a Harper’s post.

      And why is it now “big news” when it wasn’t before?

      1. Alex Bunin

        You may have broken this deal wide open. Perhaps, John Dean can confirm the racist, cynical drug war plan. It’s probably somewhere in those thousands of hours of tapes at the Nixon Library:
        Nixon: If we can just tie drugs to a Jewish/black conspiracy against the Vietnam War, I will beat McGovern in 49 states.
        Ehrlichman: I will put Liddy on it.
        Haldeman: Ditto.

        1. SHG Post author

          Every morning on the way to law school, I would see Nixon walking from his car to his office at 26 Federal Plaza. I would wave. He would wave. I would smile. He would smile. The whole time, I would think unpleasant thoughts. If I can get Dean on the phone, I’ll ask him to confirm or deny. I’ll tell him I’m an old pal of Nixon’s. It’s not outlandish.

  11. Adam

    Fascinating thread. I had the same curiosity about such a great quote when I first saw it. If I haven’t missed anything the quote’s timeline is: 1994 Baum interviews Ehrlichman. 1998 Baum’s book (“Smoke and Mirrors”) is published in 1996 by Little Brown. 1999 Ehrlichman dies. 2012 Quote first appears in a 5 paragraph essay by Dan Baum “Truth , Lies and Audiotape” which suggests there is a tape. Then the same quote is used again in 2016 for the Harpers article. I’ll be interested to see what the reply is on Baum’s site.

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