After three years as counsel in the Nixon White House during the Watergate years, John Dean famously blew the whistle on President Richard Nixon in 1973. His testimony against Nixon and key aides in the administration led to death threats. As a result, Dean spent a year-and-a-half in federal witness protection after being disbarred from practicing law because of obstruction of justice charges leveled against him. A distinguished legal career that had brought him to the highest echelons of political power disappeared.
Dean, whose comment about “the cancer growing on the presidency” is still memorable, says he never doubted his ability to survive. “I’ve been blessed with a relatively fast mind. I learn things quickly,” he said in a candid interview with The Fiscal Times.
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At 74, he says he never imagined 40 years later he would still be talking and writing about Nixon. “Not in the slightest,” he said.
Still, Dean’s newest book, The Nixon Defense, took four years to write and contains some 1,000 transcriptions of Nixon conversations about Watergate and the massive cover-up. Dean spoke with The Fiscal Times:
Maureen Mackey (MM): What one thing has stayed with you about Richard Nixon after all these years?
John Dean (JD): How could anybody as savvy as Nixon have let a bungled burglary destroy his presidency? Pretty fundamental question – which I thought I could address with the [transcribed] tapes that were [already] available. Really wrong assumption. I really had to start from scratch. Cataloguing the Watergate conversations took months – the material wasn’t digitized back then – and I had about 1,000 conversations transcribed. Huge job. I transcribed 250 myself.
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MM: Forty years later, what have we learned as a nation from the massive cover-up and criminal activity that brought down a presidency? Do you see any parallels in how the Republicans right now are accusing President Obama of vast executive overreach?
JD: We ought to send a copy of this book to every Republican in the House, particularly those talking about impeachment. I don’t think they have a clue what they’re talking about. There were reasons Nixon was being considered for impeachment. I think what’s happening now - and it really starts with [Bill] Clinton – is that Congress is trying to use the impeachment process to besmirch a political career. It didn’t work well with Clinton. They didn’t convict him. It’s not going to happen with Obama.
It's political shenanigans. Republicans like to wrap themselves in the Constitution but they have to understand what the impeachment clause is there for – it’s not just because you have political differences with a president. It’s a checks and balances system. It was with the greatest reluctance it was used in the Nixon situation.
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MM: When House Speaker John Boehner talks about suing President Obama …
JD: That’s just grandstanding. That’s just playing to the base... If the courts get into this kind of activity – it would be dangerous. There might be one or two very partisan judges who would love to have a case like this. But I don’t think when you get to the Court of Appeals level or the Supreme Court level this would be tolerated.
MM: As an independent, what are your views on President Obama’s second term thus far?
JD: The thing that most surprises me about Obama is that it looks like many of the people from the Bush Justice Department are still there. They had pretty aggressive ideas about things like prosecuting leakers, going after journalists – and they’re still there, and Obama’s doing it. I’m surprised that a former constitutional law professor would have the kind of policy he has at the Department of Justice.
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MM: When Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret taping system, did that surprise you?
JD: I had put in my testimony before Howard Baker and the Senate – I had said, ‘You could ask the question.’ I sincerely believed that one or more of my conversations [with President Nixon] might have been recorded. So I wasn’t totally surprised. But I was surprised it was a voice-activated system. My God, that will never happen again. We’ll never have the kind of material I had to write this book. No president’s ever going to do that again.
MM: Devil’s advocate here: Why not?
JD: It’s a very unnatural act. Presidents are very human. They have good days. They have bad days. Some swear. Some take shortcuts. They’re politicians. The presidency, like Congress, is a lot like a sausage factory. It’s not always pretty. To record it all is just asking for trouble.
MM: Why do you believe all these years later that Nixon wanted to tape himself?
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JD: Not just to preserve his words for historical purposes, but to portray his role in history accurately. Particularly when Nixon made a decision about something, he didn't want a third party saying something he hadn’t said.
MM: The fact that he ultimately decided not to destroy the tapes, which you say could have saved his presidency, is intriguing for many reasons.
JD: Nixon talked about destroying the national security conversations. He didn’t want Henry Kissinger to go out and write a different history. He didn’t want Kissinger, for example, taking credit for China.
MM: You obviously cannot let Nixon go. Why not?
JD: What happened with Watergate and the Nixon presidency is not a history we should ever bury. We’re a country that likes to repeat our history by ignoring it. I hope we don’t have to go through all this again. An unchecked president can cause huge problems.
MM: Are you concerned about the role of money in politics today, given the Citizens United decision?
JD: Most of the reforms that Congress created post-Watergate have gone by the wayside. I think Citizens United is a travesty. The [Supreme] Court has become a mini-legislature on campaign finance. It’s absurd. It’s troubling. They’ve gotta have very, very, very open disclosure laws which tend to inhibit people from throwing money into the process. Or they have to have accountability... Democrats have to get more involved in this. They can’t play the game if both sides don’t play by the same rules.
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