Books: Modified, Limited Hangout

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THE COMPANY by JOHN EHRLICHMAN 313 pages. Simon & Schuster. $8.95.

"Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth—to see it like it is, and tell it like it is—to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth. "

—Richard Nixon, accepting the

G.O.P. presidential nomination in 1968

As nearly everyone in the U.S. knows, John Ehrlichman was one of President Nixon's chief aides. Since Watergate he has avoided jail (without benefit of pardon), settled in New Mexico, and is still appealing convictions on charges that range from two counts of perjury to conspiracy to obstruct justice.

He has also written this novel. And why not? Even in the old days, Ehrlichman had a way with words. It was he, for instance, who came up with the phrase "modified, limited hangout," a memorable locution, which in practice was roughly translatable as "admit as little truth as possible and try to put the whole blame on John Mitchell." So successful were the President's men at concealing truth that despite all the reports, books and films since Watergate, Ehrlichman's novel is sure to be grasped by his still frustrated countrymen in hopes of gathering a few more shards of information about the political hecatomb that was the Nixon White House.

On that account prospective buyers of The Company should beware. A Washington roman à clef it is; a full-scale Watergate book it is not. Ehrlichman is clearly using fiction as an extension of politics by other means; but his novel ends with word that a member of the White House staff has just been caught breaking into the headquarters of a Democratic candidate. The Company, in fact, bears the same relation to the final drama of Watergate that successive Shakespearean history plays bear to one another. There is some overlap. Dark deeds and blood feuds of the past rise up to haunt or thwart the heir apparent, whether he be Richard III of York, or Richard I of Whittier, Calif.

Pluperfect Egomaniac. The Company of the title, naturally, is the CIA, a political genie that Congress is even now trying to stuff back into some sort of legislative bottle. As the book develops, dynastic rivalries between Presidents and parties are less fierce than continuing an almost mortal combat between the White House and the CIA. The dark deed that makes the plot boil, in fact, is a political murder, secretly ordered by Democratic President William Arthur Curry and carried out by the CIA on a Latin American beachhead (here called Rio de Muerte) easily identifiable as the Bay of Pigs.

President Curry, described as a rich man's son, a Yaleman and a "handsome weakling," dies before completing his term. His Democratic successor makes William Martin, the CIA agent who saw to the murder, boss of The Company. Why? Because the new President is aware of the secret order and of Martin's guilt. Armed with that knowledge, he tries to indulge in a little friendly blackmail to get CIA files for use in the next election. This President, Esker Scott Anderson, is portrayed as a vast, salty-tongued, womanizing hick and a "pluperfect egomaniac" who dotes on the appointments of the presidential plane. (Even the candy wrappers aboard, Ehrlichman writes, come emblazoned with the words Air Force One.)

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