Dan Baum is back in the news. On Mar. 24, harpers.org posted his article, "Legalize It All," in which Baum quotes the late John Ehrlichman, who had been an assistant and legal counsel to former President Richard Nixon, saying that Nixon's drug war was intended as a way to crack down on African Americans, young people and the anti-war protesters. Or, as he put it:
'You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war 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.'
I've studied Nixon and the Watergate era – and spent a good deal of time in the Nixon Tapes section of the National Archive listening to and transcribing some of the recordings – so that quote comes as no surprise. We've known about this for years. The Ehrlichman quote just helps to confirm what Nixon really thought about the drug war for anyone who still had lingering doubts.
The big question for me though, is why Baum sat on a quote like that for 18 years before finally publishing it? He interviewed Ehrlichman in 1994 for Smoke and Mirrors, his magnum opus on the drug war that was published two years later. The Ehrlichman quote actually first came to light in a 2012 book,The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure, which contains essays by authors about transformative experiences they'd had.
Baum now says that he left the quote out of Smoke and Mirrors because he didn't feel that it fit into the style of the book. "There are no authorial interviews in it at all," Baum tells HuffingtonPost. "It's written to put the reader in the room as events transpire. Therefore, the quote didn't fit.”
Ehrlichman died in 1999. Possibly, Baum left the quote in question out to avoid embarrassing Ehrlichman by putting him in the position of having to confirm what he'd said. Baum mentions part of the following conversation in Smoke and Mirrors, though he cites Nixon's Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman's diaries as the source rather than the Nixon Tapes. This snippet really says a lot about how Nixon viewed the marijuana issue:
May 26, 1971, Time: 10:03 am - 11:35 am – Oval Office Conversation: 505-4 – Meeting with Nixon and H.R. "Bob" Haldeman
Nixon: "Now, this is one thing I want. I want a Goddamn strong statement on marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofabitching, uh, Domestic Council?"
Nixon: "I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them. I see another thing in the news summary this morning about it.
'You know it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it's because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there's so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish.'
"By God we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss, I want to find a way of putting more on that. More [unintelligible ] work with somebody else with this."
Haldeman: "Mm hmm, yep."
Nixon: "I want to hit it, against legalizing and all that sort of thing."
Listening to the Nixon Tapes can be a disturbing, surreal experience. Much of the time you don't get the impression that you're a fly on the wall of the Oval Office, eavesdropping on the world's most powerful people. Rather, it feels more like you're in a working-class bar listening to some bigoted rightwing drunk a few stools away, draining glass after glass of Canadian whiskey and spouting off to his cronies, offering wrongheaded opinions about anything and everything.