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Egil Krogh's lessons from the fall of a President have echoed down the years

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(Editor's note: In this third of four Flynn'sHarp articles reprising stories written a decade ago on the four Washington residents who gained national prominence during the 1968 presidential campaign, Watergate figure Egil (Bud) Krogh discussed the fall of a president and the lessons learned that he sought to convey for subsequent administrations. The validity of his message has echoed down the years, even into today's political scene. The original articles from a decade ago are offered now because it's the 10th anniversary of this weekly column, but also the 50th anniversary of that fateful '68 campaign.)
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The disgraced presidency of Richard Nixon is the stuff of history books. But for Egil (Bud) Krogh, the memories that remain vivid are of condemnation and redemption for the role he played and the belief that the events that led to the fall of the president need be kept ever in mind by both presidents and those who work for them.

Krogh, who had just passed the bar in 1968 after graduating from law school at the University of Washington, actually didn't have a part in Nixon's campaign, instead of being left to run the Seattle law practice of John Ehrlichman, the prominent Seattle attorney who helped engineer Nixon's eventual general-election victory in 1968.

egilKroghEgil (Bud) KroghBut after the election, Krogh was asked to join the White House team as personal attorney to the president and staff assistant to Ehrlichman, one of the handful of men who basically ran the White House and thus the country until Watergate brought them all down.

The many books on Nixon and Watergate detail how Krogh was caught up in the scandal, named by Ehrlichman to guide the "Special Investigations Unit" that came to be known as "the plumbers," whose charge was to stop the leaks to the media after the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers.

What followed was the break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, whose release of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times had helped create a siege mentality in the Nixon White House. Krogh's role eventually led to a prison sentence after he pled guilty to criminal conspiracy for engineering the break-in.

Krogh had been an unlikely choice to head such a unit. He had a reputation as someone who scrupulously obeyed the law, with Theodore White writing later that "to put Egil Krogh in charge of a secret police operation was equivalent to making Frank Merriwellchief executive of a KGB squad."

But what the history books don't detail is "the why", which Krogh subsequently sought to explain in articles, interviews, and in his 2007 book, "Integrity. Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House." The book detailed the lessons of Krogh's lifelong effort to make amends for what he describes as a "meltdown of personal integrity" in the face of issues of loyalty to the president and to the power of the office.

The dedication is a telling reflection of that lifelong campaign: "To those who deserved better, this book is offered as an apology, an explanation, and a way to keep integrity in the forefront of decision-making."

In fact, the quality of the man is evidenced by his belief that, ultimately, it was the break-in at Fielding's office that set the stage for the eventual Watergate break-in because it created the sense that people could break the law in the name of the president, and that thus he was personally responsible for all that followed.

After he served his prison sentence, Krogh returned to Seattle and, with the help of a prominent attorney and eventual federal judge William Dwyer, regained his right to practice law.

It was in 2007 that we got to know each other and I did several interviews with him before various audiences and wrote the 2008 column.

Krogh recalled in our conversations and interviews how after Nixon's resignation, his personal path of reconciliation involved a visit with Fielding to apologize to him for Krogh's unacceptable violation of the rights of "a genuinely decent human being."

And Krogh and Ellsberg became friends, with Ellsburg writing the forward comments for Krogh's book.

Then followed a visit with Nixon in California in which Krogh recalls basically saying: "Mr. President. I apologize to you because everything that's happened was really my fault."

I asked Krogh over lunch in 2008 if he and Ehrlichman, who also went to prison for his part in the events, had ever had the opportunity to talk through what had gone wrong. "John and I had several opportunities to visit after we were in prison, about what happened and why" he said. "We concluded that so many of the mistakes were due to our not really grasping how off-base Nixon was in his demand for results that used illegal means.

Loyalty to 'the man' was the over-arching requirement for service on that staff." And it is the flaw of misguided loyalty that Krogh has remained ever convinced that presidents and their staff members must be vigilant to avoid, including his caution about "reliance on hazy, loose notions about 'national security' and 'commander in chief' and what such notions can be tortured into meaning."

Krogh left Seattle and his law practice in 2011 to join the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress as a Senior Fellow on Leadership, Ethics, and Integrity.

We last talked In 2012 as I caught up with him by phone as he was en route to a Pennsylvania speaking engagement. The time was near the anniversary of Watergate and I asked him if the book was still successful. "It's selling better now than at the beginning," he replied. "The issue of government integrity seems more relevant to people today."

By then his personal focus had become zeroing in on the School for Ethics and Global Leadership, which attracts high school students, and it was in that environment of sharing his philosophy with young people that he honed his Integrity Zone concept.

The concept of the Integrity Zone was based on a couple of fundamental considerations. The first challenges the process of thinking that precedes decisions, basically: "have I thought through all the implications?" while the second part is ethical considerations: "Is it right? Is this decision in alignment with basic values like fairness and respect?"

"We never asked any of those questions in the Nixon White House," Krogh told me. "And most of what we see in Congress today fails those tests. Instead, we see a focus on loyalty and fealty to party. You simply can't check your personal integrity at the door."

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