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.