Nixon’s Righthand Man Makes Amends – Or Tries to

Historians/History
tags: Watergate, Nixon, John Dean



Diana Klebanow is a former adjunct professor of Political Science at Long Island University, Brooklyn, N.Y., and coauthor of “People’s Lawyers: Crusaders for Justice in American History” and “Urban Legacy: The Story of America’s Cities.”  This article first appeared in USA Today Magazine and is reprinted here with permission of the Society for the Advancement of Education, Inc

The 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, which was marked on Aug. 9, 2014, saw the publication of several important books about the former President. but the one receiving the most attention was John W. Dean’s The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, which isbased on all of the Watergate recordings held by the National Archives that Nixon had made in the Oval Office, the bulk of which first became available in 1996 due to the efforts of historian Stanley I. Kutler, who successfully sued the National Achieves to release them. Kutler went on to write Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (1997), in which he transcribed many of the newly-released tapes.


In his book, Dean states he spent four years listening to 634 tapes that previously had not been transcribed by Kutler, and proceeded to offer more details about the Watergate cover-up, explaining that new technologies enabled him to hear things that others have missed. At the same time, he notes he did not recount his own involvement in the Watergate story because his role is already well-documented from his testimony before Congress in 1973 and 1974, and from his other writings on the subject. He also decided not to post his transcripts of these conversations online on the grounds that the actual tapes are already available at the Nixon Presidential Library’s website and at the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia.

Dean was the counsel to Pres. Nixon from 1970 to 1973, and his role in the Watergate coverup –as well as in the events leading up to the coverup -- has been the subject of controversy. A substantial number of Americans regard him as a man of great personal integrity because he was the first person in the White House to go public with accusations against the Nixon White House when others close to the president chose to remain silent. To his critics, Dean jumped ship only to protect himself and was able to escape full punishment for his own “illegal” activities in the Nixon White House by making a deal with the prosecutors to testify against his former associates.

Dean was born in 1938 in Akron, Ohio, and grew up in the city of Marion. He attended a local high school in Marion for one year, before transferring to the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia. One of his classmates was the son of future (1964) Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, Jr., the first of the many important contacts Dean would make throughout his career. Following his graduation, he attended Colgate University in New York, but switched to The College of Wooster in Ohio. Deciding to study law, he graduated in 1965 from Georgetown University Law Center

By this time, he was married to his first wife, Karla Hemmings, daughter of a senator from Missouri, and was the father of a young son. Following his graduation, he joined a prestigious Washington law firm, but was fired within six months because of “unethical conduct.” His dismissal was over an alleged conflict of interest in the preparation of a St. Louis television license application. Fortunately for him, he managed to persuade the law firm to soften that charge for Civil Service Commission records.

Dean went on to serve as chief minority council to the House Judiciary Committee, associate director of the National Commission on Reform of the Federal Criminal Laws, and associate deputy attorney general. He worked hard to ingratiate himself with people in positions of power, and, in July 1970, he accepted an appointment as counsel to the president. At that time, he was only thirty-one years old.

The appointment had come as a surprise to Solicitor General Edwin Griswold. As noted in Kutler’s account in The Wars of Watergate The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (1990), Griswold believed that Dean was unqualified for the position. In retrospect, it was not a surprise to journalist David Halberstam. Writing in The Powers That Be (1979), Halberstam notes that Dean had the kinds of traits the Nixon White House wanted: an absence of values, coupled with a questionable set of ethics. He likened him to a young Richard Nixon.

The matter commonly referred to as Watergate had begun on June 17, 1972 – two months before Nixon’s re-nomination for president -- when five men were arrested for attempting to bug the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate residential office complex in the District of Columbia. The burglars were later found to be working for the Republican Committee for the Re-election of the President, and the break-in turned out to be part of a whole slew of criminal activities emanating from the White House, including the attempt to get the Internal Revenue Service to audit critics of the Administration, the establishment of a “plumbers’ unit” to plug up unfavorable news leaks within the Administration, and the use of “dirty tricks” to destroy or diminish the effectiveness of political opponents.

Although no evidence existed that Nixon had ordered the Watergate burglary, it was revealed in the famous “smoking gun tape” on June 23, 1972 that he tried to get the CIA to block an investigation of it by the FBI. In a tape recording on Aug. 3, 1972, he also indicated that he was aware of hush payments made to the Watergate defendants, who now included White House “plumbers” E. Howard Hunt, Jr. (aide to Charles Colson, special counsel to Nixon), and G. Gordon Liddy (general counsel of the Committee for the Reelection of the President). These matters led to a Federal grand jury investigation into the break-in; an eventual total of nine former White House aides who were tried before Judge John Sirica in U.S. District Court; a resolution authorizing the establishment of a Senate Committee headed by Sam Ervin (R-N.C.) to investigate Watergate; and an inquiry by the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives to determine if Nixon had committed any impeachable offenses.

On Aug. 7, 1974, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) accompanied by House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-Ariz.) and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) visited the White House, and told Nixon that he had no significant support in Congress. The next evening, Nixon announced that he would resign as President, effective at noon on Aug. 9, 1974.

Dean had played a major role in the coverup, and became the administration’s point man in seeking to have it contained. He subsequently admitted to blocking congressional investigations into Watergate; arranging for hush money payments to the burglars; seeking to get Hunt out of the country; trying to convince the CIA to use covert funds for bail and salaries of those arrested; obtaining FBI reports on the Watergate investigation from the acting FBI director; coaching a witness to perjure himself before the grand jury; and destroying evidence from the safe of one of the burglars.

However, as investigations into Watergate continued to mount, Dean became convinced that Nixon was trying to make him the scapegoat for the White House’s illegal activities. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas in Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1976), it was at this point Dean decided that his only option was to go to the prosecutors. On April 2, 1973, he asked his lawyer and a newly-hired criminal defense attorney to tell the prosecutors that he was ready to cooperate, and he was interviewed on April 8 as a willing witness. On that day, Dean called White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to tell him he was going to the prosecutors. When Nixon learned about Dean’s dealings with the prosecutors, he was uncertain how to handle him. Finally, he fired him on April 30, along with Haldeman and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman.

On June 25, Dean became the first member of Nixon’s staff to testify against the President before the Ervin Committee. The announcement that he would testify attracted considerable attention, and some spectators even camped out overnight in order to be first in line for admission. It was watched on television by an estimated 60 million people. Speaking in a monotone that served to emphasize the seriousness of his allegations, he read from a prepared 245-page statement in which he detailed his own involvement in the coverup, the role of his colleagues, and his discussions with Nixon about it.

He also indicated that he had informed Nixon on March 21 that these illegal activities constituted a “cancer” growing on the presidency. In addition, he brought 47 documents with him, one of which was an enemies list kept by the President to identify people he regarded as dangerous to his administration. His testimony lasted until June 29, and it was followed by several days of questioning by committee members.

While Sen. Edward Gurney (R-Fla.) called Dean a “shoddy turncoat,” Sen. Joseph Montoya (D-N.M.) referred to him as “a very credible witness.” His testimony would later be backed up when Alexander Butterfield, a deputy assistant to the president, revealed to the Committee on July 16, 1973 that a taping system had earlier been installed in the White House in June, 1971. The Committee subpoenaed the tapes, and Dean’s version of the events had proved to be true.

Although the public was clearly riveted by Dean’s testimony, it had a mixed reaction to his statements about Nixon. According to polls taken after Dean had testified, a majority of Americans still believed the President. The following year, when Dean testified before the House Judiciary Committee, he was found to be more credible than Nixon.

Dean went on to receive a mild sentence in return for becoming a witness for the prosecution. On Oct. 19, 1973, Dean pleaded guilty to a single charge of obstruction of justice before Sirica, but the court delayed his sentence for nearly ten months in order to insure his cooperation as a witness in the forthcoming trials of Watergate defendants.

On Aug. 2, 1974, Sirica sentenced him to a term of one-to-four years in a minimum-security prison. Instead of going to prison, he was sent to a “safe-house” holding facility usually reserved for Mafia witnesses and began serving his sentence on Sept. 3. The following month, he testified for eight days and appeared as the principal witness for the prosecution in the trial of five key Watergate defendants, including Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and Attorney General John Mitchell. At the request of Dean’s lawyer, Sirica ordered his sentence reduced. On Jan. 8, 1975, he was released. He wound up spending only four months in the facility, but was barred from practicing law

Following his release, Dean managed to put his life back on track rather quickly. Awaiting him was a book contract to write about Watergate, as well as one for his second wife, Maureen, whom he married in 1972. Her book – MO: A Woman’s View of Watergate – co-written with Hays Gorey –was published in 1974. His book, Blind Ambition: The White House Years (1976), became a best seller. In it, Dean was very critical of his own actions, and referred to himself and his Watergate allies as “criminals.”

Dean, who also worked as a private investment banker and lecturer during these years, went on to write eight more books. One of them, Lost Honor: The Rest of the Story (1982), also dwelt on his Watergate experiences. In another book, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush (2004), he called for the impeachment of President Bush for authorizing government wiretaps without judicial warrants.

When Dean later testified in 2006 before the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating this matter, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) called him a “patriot” who put the “rule of law above the interests of the president.” Further recognition came to him in 2011, when he was approved by the American Bar Association to teach a series of Continuing Legal Education courses on legal ethics, which he developed with James D. Robenalt, a lawyer in Cleveland. “I helped write the book of what not to do,” Dean told a reporter, “so I’m hopeful that people can learn from that – and not make the mistakes I did.”

Dean would also acknowledge that parts of Blind Ambition were inaccurate. In 1995, he gave a sworn deposition in connection with a lawsuit for libel he had instituted regarding the publication of Silent Coup: The Removal of a President (1991), which was co-authored by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin. The book alleged that Dean had masterminded the Watergate break-in to remove information damaging to his wife. In this deposition, he sought to explain the discrepancies between what he had written in Blind Ambition and his congressional testimony.

His explanation was that he was not fully responsible for what had appeared in his book because writer Taylor Branch (later to be a Pulitzer Prize winning author) had written large sections of it. Dean stated these sections were fictional, were made up of “whole cloth,” and were written without his participation, knowledge, or approval. He also blamed his editor, Alice Mayhew, for these inaccuracies. His allegations were subsequently denied by Branch, who stated that all of the book’s content originated with Dean, while Mayhew vehemently asserted that she had never told Dean what to put in his book.

These allegations resurfaced when Blind Ambition was reissued in 2009. Dean left all the content unchanged, although he did write a 95-page afterword. In 2009, historian Luke Nichter received two audiotapes of comments made by Dean in 1989 to Silent Coup co-author Colodny, who questioned Dean about his testimony that his office had little to do with Larry O’Brien, Chairman of the DNC, a statement which was the opposite of what he said in his book. Dean said he would stick with his testimony, arguing that the editors got “excited” and wanted to make it “more intriguing.” Nichter proceeded to put these audiotapes on the website, Nixontapes.org. In objecting to the airing of these audiotapes, Dean claimed that these recordings were made without his consent, violated his common law copyright, and that no one had the right to publish them without his consent. When Dean threatened to sue, Nichter removed the audiotapes from the website, stating that he did not want to undergo the expense of a lawsuit.

With the publication of The Nixon Defense, Dean once again gained national prominence, appearing on a number of TV and radio programs to promote his latest work His book has received considerable praise, but also has been subject to criticism.

Historian Robert Dallek stated that it was “a definitive historical record of how the Watergate scandal unfolded.” Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, one of the reporters responsible for breaking the Watergate scandal wide open, lauded Dean for bringing “the microscope as close to the Nixon of Watergate as anyone has.”

More critical was Frank Gannon, a former Nixon aide, who was displeased with what he regarded as Dean’s efforts to conceal his reasons for testifying against Nixon.” It was only when his [Dean’s] attempts to finesse his own criminal involvement failed,” wrote Gannon, “that he scrambled to obtain immunity by implicating his erstwhile boss and colleagues.” He also called upon Dean to post online the full transcripts of the conversations he transcribed.

An even harsher criticism was made by political consultant Roger Stone, Jr., whose book, Nixon’s Secrets: The Rise, Fall and Untold Truth about the President, Watergate, and the Pardon, was published shortly after the appearance of Dean’s latest book. Stone attacked Dean for truncating or omitting recordings between himself and Nixon for four days in March, 1973, alleging that these tapes show that Dean was one of the original planners of the “intelligence operation” that led to the Watergate break-in, and reveal how Dean coached Nixon to lie on matters pertaining to the cover-up.

Which view of Dean is the correct one? Historian David Greenberg wrote that “Dean’s identity remains, above all, tied to Watergate. Some baby boomer liberals, like my parents, consider him a villain.” At the same time, Greenberg conceded that, for many others, Dean “remains the guy who blew the whistle on the administration. That’s something that he will always have a certain heroic place in history for having done.”

Dean has worked very hard to erase the image of him as a villain, but it remains to be seen whether he really should be regarded as a hero.

Copyright  Society for the Advancement of Education, Inc




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