Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Chasing Watergate in Santa Fe was tough duty

Jun 10—My first trip to Santa Fe amounted to blind ambition. I was supposed to track down and interview tight-lipped John Ehrlichman, a high-ranking criminal of the Watergate scandal.

One of my college professors concocted the idea. Ehrlichman recently had been released from prison. He returned to Santa Fe, his home of choice after a life of corruption drove him from Richard Nixon’s stained White House.

Shy, sly Ehrlichman didn’t give interviews. He saved his words to write books that paid him for his crimes. Ehrlichman also was busy doing radio commentaries for the old Mutual Broadcasting System.

He was more notorious than remarkable. All the better, my mentor said. Few heroes exist in politics, especially when it comes to Nixon’s staff.

Seasoned newspaper reporters and national writers from the wire services had pursued Ehrlichman in Santa Fe, all without success. No problem, my mentor said. Ehrlichman has to talk sometime. He might let his guard down with an eager novice.

I was 21 and as broke as most college students. For two months or so, I saved what I could from my part-time job. I figured I could afford the eight-hour drive from Northern Colorado to Northern New Mexico if I found Ehrlichman in two or three days.

To prepare, I read all I could about Watergate. John Dean, a corrupt lawyer for Nixon who flipped alliances to save himself, had written a successful, self-serving book called Blind Ambition. I code-named my attempt to buttonhole Ehrlichman as “More Blind Ambition.”

For inspiration, my reading veered to Damon Runyon, a legendary newspaperman from my hometown in Colorado. Runyon always said he preferred to write about losers, as their stories were more interesting.

My instinct was different. What about a winner who lost after his happenstance involvement in Watergate?

I’m referring to Frank Willis, who worked as a graveyard-shift guard in the Watergate complex in Washington. Willis found suspicious tape over door latches to the Democratic National Committee offices.

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He phoned the cops, who caught Nixon’s burglars. The great national scandal of Watergate would never have been uncovered if not for Willis.

He made the cover of Jet magazine, which highlighted Black people who succeeded. Willis also played himself in the 1976 movie All The President’s Men, but his fame didn’t last.

While Dean, Ehrlichman and other criminals of Watergate profited from book deals and paid speeches, Willis had trouble getting work. He hoped to land on the lecture circuit, but his involvement in Watergate was too fleeting to hold an audience’s attention.

Willis made news again briefly in 1979 after pleading no contest to a shoplifting charge.

More trouble followed. Willis would later be convicted in Georgia of stealing a $12 pair of gym shoes. He said it was all a mistake, that he had money in hand to pay for the shoes, which were to be a gift for his teenage son.

The judge wasn’t moved. He sentenced Willis to a year in prison.

Black mayors from the New Jersey cities of Newark and East Orange paid the $3,000 bond to free Willis pending an appeal. The mayors said the sentence Willis received was unduly harsh, the result of racial prejudice.

In any case, Willis’ sentence was longer than the four months Dean spent in a minimum-security prison.

Ehrlichman served about 18 months in prison. His novel The Company was published while he was incarcerated.

Ehrlichman’s good fortune continued when the broadcast rights to that book were purchased. It became a television miniseries entitled Washington: Behind Closed Doors. Jason Robards starred, a twist on the times. Robards had played Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee in All The President’s Men.

Willis, a more sympathetic figure than Ehrlichman, was across the country, out of my reach. Ehrlichman would have to do.

I arrived in Santa Fe with slender hopes. Maybe Ehrlichman would be as merciful with me as the legal system was with him.

I found his home but never saw him. Maybe Ehrlichman was avoiding everyone while writing Witness to Power, his book about Nixon.

Santa Fe residents who dealt with Ehrlichman described him as quiet, bearded, worthy of a second or third chance, a fine gent in casual conversation.

I went back to school empty, my bulky tape recorder unused. Santa Fe, at least, was a pleasant place to fail on my first attempt at an enterprise story.

Next Friday, June 17, marks the 50th anniversary of the Watergate burglary. The airwaves will be full of stories recounting the break-in and its aftermath.

Willis died in 2000 in Augusta, Ga., the site of his second shoplifting case. He was 52, an overlooked figure in the story that brought down a president.

Ehrlichman’s voice fell silent in 1999. He died at 73 at his home in Atlanta.

If not for Willis, Ehrlichman’s obituary might have been one about public service instead of public corruption.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at [email protected] or 505-986-3080.

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