Was a literary lynching committed this month in a national newspaper? Or are the victims only twisting slowly in the wind of their own imaginations?
These questions emerge as old enemies from the Watergate era clash yet again. In one corner--Howard Simons, a former managing editor of the Washington Post and now curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, and Haynes Johnson, one of the Post's top political commentators. In the other--former White House aide John Ehrlichman.
The facts behind the brouhaha are not in dispute. Simons and Johnson collaborated to write a first novel about Nazi commandoes on a secret mission in Washington during World War II. In a review for USA Today, Ehrlichman, a novelist himself, panned the book, "The Landing" (Villard Books, $17.95), whose official publication date is today.
What is in dispute, at least for Simons and Johnson, is Ehrlichman's motive. The two are charging that Ehrlichman--who served 18 months in a federal prison on a variety of charges stemming from his Watergate role--had a clear conflict of interest and that he slammed the book in revenge for the Post's role in uncovering the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency 12 years ago.
"He savaged it," Simons said in an interview here, referring to the review. Calling USA Today's decision to assign "The Landing" to Ehrlichman "very spooky," Simons added, "I was instrumental in putting him in jail" and the decision to give Ehrlichman the assignment to review the book "seems obscene to me."
An 'Odd' Choice
In a telephone interview, Johnson characterized the choice of Ehrlichman as "odd to say the least." He added, "Maybe the only thing worse than being criticized by Watergate felon and perjurer John Ehrlichman would be to be praised by Watergate felon and perjurer John Ehrlichman."
Beginning the review, Ehrlichman wrote, "I really hoped I would like this book much more than I did. My reservations about 'The Landing' will probably be suspect in view of the folklore about my old problems with the Washington press corps."
While he found that "parts of 'The Landing' are very well written," Ehrlichman also complained of "big, long, exhausting sentences" and that the novel's plot quickly bogs down in the steamy weather of Washington's summer of '42.
Aside from USA Today, the book has been reviewed, glowingly, in the Post by CBS correspondent Heywood Hale Broun and, lukewarmly, in the New York Times. Simons' and Johnson's connections to the Post were acknowledged in the Post review. Peter Andrews, the New York Times reviewer and a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine, found elements to praise in the book. But he echoed Ehrlichman's comment, writing, " . . . I desperately wish I liked it more." The novel has not yet been reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, where it has been assigned to Carolyn See, a regular reviewer.
Ehrlichman, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., could not be reached for comment, but USA Today book editor Robert Wilson defended his choice of the former Nixon aide and said he was convinced that Ehrlichman had no ax to grind about the past.
"Watergate is pretty far behind us," Wilson said. "(Ehrlichman) wouldn't use that for settling scores . . . he's a big enough boy that he's not going to settle scores in a bush league way like that."
Wilson said he had discussed possible conflict of interest and residual feelings of revenge with Ehrlichman and was convinced that Ehrlichman had "put aside the kinds of reactions that they're (Simons and Johnson) having."
Wilson also said he made his choice partly because Ehrlichman himself has written Washington novels and that a review from a former insider would be appropriate. Ehrlichman's latest book, "The China Card," is also currently in book stores.
In the years since Watergate, Ehrlichman has frequently expressed regret for his actions during that turbulent time. In his nonfiction book about Watergate Ehrlichman wrote, "I was in many ways a person I can neither respect nor condone."
However, contrition may not be enough. When asked to comment on the Ehrlichman assignment, Los Angeles Times Book Review editor Jack Miles replied, "Maybe Robert Wilson forgot, or never knew, that Howard Simons and Haynes Johnson were at the Post when the Post was fighting the Watergate battles. Either way, John Ehrlichman, a Watergate principal, was an unfortunate choice as a reviewer. Old friends and old enemies, even suspected old friends and enemies, make unreliable reviewers."
"The Landing" is not a conventional thriller. While the Nazi agents move toward their objective, Simons and Johnson interlard the book with huge dollops of social history. Both Simons and Johnson said one of the pleasures of writing the book was developing a portrait of Washington being transformed from a sleepy Southern town into a world capital by World War II.