"It Is Everyone's Job To Be A Truth-Teller"
Nixon's White House Counsel on what the former President (and others) knew about Watergate, and when.
If the fall of the Nixon Administration can be blamed on one man, that man is not Bob Woodward. Nor is it Carl Bernstein, nor Deep Throat. It's a soft-spoken, bespectacled lawyer with a mind like two steel traps named John W. Dean III, who served as White House Counsel for Nixon between 1970 and 1973 -- the eye of the Watergate storm. As the events in the Watergate timeline click past their fortieth anniversary, Dean is finalizing what may be The Book of The Scandal.
He has also been conducting a series of workshops for lawyers on the Pandora’s box of legal ethics opened up by Watergate. Addressing more than 100 legal professionals in a packed auditorium near New York City's Battery Park, Dean recently spent three hours speaking about his famous "cancer on the presidency" conversation with Nixon on March 21, 1973. Shortly afterwards, I asked him to tell me even more...
NSFWCORP: When you joined the Nixon Administration in 1970, did you have any sense that it might meet the fate it ultimately met?
John W. Dean: Not a clue. The president to me was the public-image Nixon, who was not the real person I later discovered.
NSFWCORP: Did it occur to you at any point before the establishment of the Plumbers Unit that there was something wrong with the way Nixon dealt with leaks?
JWD: Before creating the Plumbers Unit, Nixon dealt with leaks much as President Obama has -- through the Justice Department and FBI. This was a proper procedure, and national security leaks are a serious problem. No president can operate in a fish bowl. Because I had been involved in stopping a senseless burglary of the Brookings Institute, I was excluded from the Plumbers Unit. Those running this Unit had been told not to tell me of their activities. Indeed, I would have told them they were crazy, had I known they were going to break into Dan Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office after leaking the Pentagon Papers, just as I did with the Brookings. I did not learn until long after Watergate that Nixon had ordered the break in at the Brookings to look for leaked material.
NSFWCORP: You mentioned that you were out of the country at the time the cover-up began and when you returned, it was fully underway. What was it like to come back to Washington and learn about the extent of the cover-up?
JWD: Frankly, I was not surprised. To not cover-up would have meant that Nixon would have tossed under the bus his former Attorney General and friend, John Mitchell, along with his White House chief of staff, Bob Haldeman and his top domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman -- who were all directly or indirectly implicated because of the bungled burglary. […]
NSFWCORP: Can you describe how your internal conflict developed as the cover-up grew?
JWD: I don't believe anyone in the Nixon White House realized we were breaking the law with the cover-up until after the election. Conspiracy and obstruction of justice are not bright line crimes -- unless directly connected to destruction of documents or perjury, which are very bright line crimes. It was in late November 1972, when Chuck Colson recorded a telephone call from Howard Hunt demanding money in exchange for silence, that I got out the law books and discovered we were on the wrong side of the law. When I told others of my discovery they either disagreed, or acted as if I was trying to share a heart attack. Rather than break rank at that time, I did what often happens in a cover-up, I doubled down my determination to make the cover-up work. […]
NSFWCORP: At what point during the cover-up did it become clear to you that it could be catastrophic for the administration? Was it well before the "cancer on the presidency"?
JWD: When Nixon's overwhelming reelection failed to carry Congress, I knew we were going to have serious political problems. With the exception of Nixon, I was much better plugged into and aware of Washington politics than my superiors. But it was not until after the trial and conviction of the men arrested in the Watergate plus Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, who organized the break ins, that I began thinking about how serious the criminal problems were as well. These men were demanding not only money but presidential clemency, notwithstanding the fact this was not a presidential undertaking. Indeed, there is no evidence whatsoever that Nixon had any knowledge of, or involvement with, the planned Watergate break in. When Howard Hunt sent a blackmail message directly to me on March 19, 1973, at a time when the president was pushing me to write a bogus report about Watergate that I had resisted, that [was when] I decided somebody had to blow up the cover-up, and I was the only person who could do it. So I did just that on March 21, 1973. I told the president he had a cancer on his presidency, and that in addition to yours truly, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell were involved in obstruction of justice.
NSFWCORP: At any point did you think the cover-up could be successful?
JWD: Before the election and until the trial of the Watergate burglars plus Hunt and Liddy. After that I knew it would only work if I was willing to lie, and since I was not willing to do that, I knew it was doomed -- it was only a matter of time.
NSFWCORP: Your suspicions that conversations between you and Nixon had been taped ultimately led to the uncovering of the recording system in the White House. Can you go into detail about that suspicion? Was he talking to plants or furniture?
JWD: In April 1973, Nixon told Henry Petersen, the head of the criminal division of the Justice Department, that he had me on tape saying I had been given immunity by the prosecutors. Well, I had been given informal immunity, but not formal immunity. When the prosecutors mentioned this to my lawyers, my suspicion that Nixon had taped me (and others) on one or more occasions was confirmed. In fact, I had mentioned to another White House colleague -- former Nixon law partner Len Garment, who became White House counsel after me -- that I was aware of the president taping my conversations. Garment, in turn, told others of my suspicion. There are a series of secret Nixon recordings where Nixon is assured by Haldeman that I did not know about the recording system, so this resulted in Nixon becoming concerned that I must have secretly been recording him, which worried him greatly. As I explained to the Senate when testifying that I thought I was recorded, before they learned indeed I had been, because on April 15, 1973 when I met with Nixon, after telling everyone I was going to meet with the prosecutors, he handled the conversation in such an obvious way that I could not but suspect he was recording me. He began with a series of leading questions, and when he did not get the answers he wanted, he got up and in a stage whisper across the office said to me, "I was foolish to talk to Colson about clemency for Hunt, wasn't I?" It occurred at the moment that he was asking me something he did not want recorded, as I told him, "Yes, Mr. President, that was probably an obstruction of justice." In an effort to discredit my Senate testimony about being recorded, Senate Watergate Committee investigator Don Sanders asked Alex Butterfield, who had been instructed by Haldeman to have the taping system installed, if my thinking that I had been recorded was possible. Butterfield answered honestly and the rest, as they say, is history.
NSFWCORP: People now see Watergate in its entirety: break in, tapes, testimony. It's often hard to realize that your testimony preceded any knowledge that there were secret White House recordings. What was it like to stand almost alone before even you knew that safety net was there?
JWD: Truth is a very comforting companion.
NSFWCORP: Was there a sense throughout the administration that being in the administration meant you were above the law?
JWD: No, to the contrary, I think most everyone wanted to follow the law. Over the years, I have met many former federal prosecutors who have told me that they had never heard of obstruction of justice until Watergate.
NSFWCORP: If at some point during the cover-up, you had suddenly moved to the South Pole, how do you think Watergate would have unfolded?
JWD: Speculative answers are just that, but I suspect there is a high probability the cover-up might have succeeded since my former colleagues -- namely Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell, not to mention the president -- had no hesitation about lying, and were pretty good at it.
NSFWCORP: After Watergate, did you want redemption? Did you feel that it was your job to be a truth-teller?
JWD: Nixon's secret recordings have provided all the redemption I could ever wish. I think it is everyone's job to be a truth-teller. The truth about Watergate has never worried me, rather it is the lies that are troubling. Indeed, there is a small school of Watergate revisionists who have created an entire new history by simply ignoring the record, and totally distorting the facts. It is virtually impossible for a public figure to correct the record under the existing defamation law, although that has not stopped me from going after them. But efforts by Nixon apologists and quick-money writers, along with Gordon Liddy, to distort the record will ultimately fail, given the massive historical record detailing what did actually happen.
NSFWCORP: Did Watergate ever end for you? Certainly Nixon thought it had ended for him when he made his comeback; others tried to hide from it.
JWD: For about thirty years, I never talked (nor thought) about Watergate. The bogus Watergate revisionists forced me to address it, [I couldn’t] allow them to distort this history beyond reorganization. When that first happened in 1991, I was in a fortunate position where I could take them on and did. I used civil litigation to open files of the Watergate Special Prosecutor's office that might have been decades in the future before they became accessible. Because of this litigation, today I know far more about Watergate than when I lived it. As the fortieth anniversary of Nixon's resignation approached, it occurred to me, and my publisher agreed, that I should try to answer a question that had long bothered me: How could anyone as politically and media savvy as Richard Nixon create the deeply flawed defense that he was unaware of the Watergate cover-up until I told him on March 21, 1973? This was the core of his defense, along with efforts to discredit me.
To answer that question I found I had to do what no one had done -- catalog and transcribe all Nixon's Watergate conversations. I discovered there are just under one thousand conversations. The Watergate Special Prosecutor transcribed some eighty conversations, all but about a dozen are merely first drafts by FBI secretaries. Historians have done partial transcripts of another 320 conversations. So I decided to do them all from scratch. It has taken my team of graduate students four years, and we are almost finished. While I am not writing a book of transcripts, rather writing an account based on all the Watergate conversations, which will be in your bookstore next year, shortly before August 9, 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon's departure from office. Title: “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.”