Book Festival: John Dean on Watergate, secrecy, and Obama

THE MOTHER of all political scandals, Watergate’s legacy is so all-pervasive that every scandal since is seemingly required to bear the suffix “-gate,” and every anonymous source called a “Deep Throat.”

The Nixon administration’s efforts to cover-up a ham-handed break-in at a Democratic Party headquarters in 1972 led not only to the resignation of Nixon himself two years later, but a renaissance of investigative journalism and a national overhaul of the whole concept of presidential power itself.

Former White House counsel John Dean found himself at the center of the scandal when he refused to cooperate with the cover-up, becoming essentially the main witness against the president.

Combing through thousands of hours of White House tapes, Dean has written his sixth and by far most exhaustive book about Watergate: The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.

One of the last surviving players involved in Watergate on either side, Dean comes to the Savannah Book Festival this weekend.

In the current climate of total surveillance and 24/7 news channels, it seems unreal today that a president would willingly record everything he said in the White House, no matter how incriminating.

John Dean: There was actually already an existing system in place, before this particular voice-activated recording system was installed. Nixon was very aware of the fact that his conversations were being taped at some times. And at other times he's obviously totally forgotten about it.

When I first started dealing with him he seemed unaware of Watergate. But I soon realized he was deliberately trying to give me that impression.

In any case, it’s a remarkable primary source. No other president is ever going to do it again.

In today’s environment of scandal, people don’t really get that Nixon had very broad public support right up until the endgame of Watergate.

John Dean: That's right. The break-in occurs during the '72 reelection campaign, in June. Everyone is immediately suspicious, but it doesn't make a real blip on the political map.

There was almost zero press coverage of it outside the Beltway, and the Washington Post were the only people covering it inside the Beltway. Otherwise it’s a complete non-issue in the campaign.

It wasn’t until April of 1973 when Sy Hersh of the New York Times jumps on the story. He wrote some devastating pieces that Nixon was shaken by, much more so than he was by Woodward and Bernstein. Hersh was already talking about the Cuban-Americans getting paid off, right at the core of the cover-up.

The way scandals work is they need constant reinforcement for the public to start paying attention. That did start to happen once the Senate hearings start in May 1973.

When the hearings start, interest slowly builds up. At first the public was terribly uninterested, and people got angry because their soap operas were being interrupted. But soon people start watching very closely.

When the hearings started, the networks used pool cameras and rotated coverage. By the time I testified in June 1973, all three networks had their own cameras there, plus PBS.

That’s actually what put PBS on the map. They had no real audience until Watergate. As a result of airing those hearings later at night for people who couldn’t see them during the day, they kept a huge and permanent audience.

Even with the tapes, Nixon could still have gotten away with this. What went wrong?

John Dean: Theoretically the cover-up absolutely could have worked. One of their problems was I wouldn't cooperate with regards to Magruder and Mitchell's testimony. They would claim I agreed to it. That was their real problem. I will lie for nobody.

But sure, there are plenty of cover-ups that have worked. The whole Iran/Contra scandal to this day has not completely unraveled, when everybody was pardoned on Christmas Eve and cases were reversed on technicalities and everybody walked.

Why did Iran/Contra not cause more outrage? Was it just a different time, or was it because it involved foreign policy?

John Dean: It could be all of those things. What really happened is that post-Watergate, Republicans got much better at dealing with scandals.

In fact it was none other than Dick Cheney who led the countercharge on Capitol Hill during the Iran/Contra congressional investigations. He had no problem at all with Reagan’s performance. Iran/Contra was easily much worse than Watergate.

You even wrote a book called Worse Than Watergate.

John Dean: The secrecy of the Bush presidency far exceeded anything Nixon could have dreamed of, from shutting down public access of information, to the presidency going after leakers.

I don’t think on his darkest day Nixon would have authorized torture. Not only is torture clearly in violation of international law, it violates about two dozen domestic statutes. And yet it was done.

And they were all given a pass by Obama, who said it was time to “look forward” and “move on.”

Liberals can be pretty complacent about Obama’s record on torture and surveillance.

John Dean: I've always been convinced Obama was sort of captured by the national security community when he came in. He was inexperienced, and had no particular desire to be experienced in that area.

It’s a pretty permanent bureaucracy. A few chairs are shuffled every now and then but these people watch out for their own.

They told Obama how things operate, and he basically had no way to counter what they were saying.

It’s amazing to read how aggressively the FBI came after President Nixon. Something like that just wouldn’t happen today.

John Dean: What happened is J. Edgar Hoover had just left the FBI after running it for decades. There is great interest and speculation about what might have happened had Hoover still been in there.

So you have a new FBI Acting Director in Patrick Gray, and a new day-to-day operations chief who is Mark Felt. Who we know better today as “Deep Throat.” Bob Woodward’s source for all those stories.

As a conversation in my book shows from October ’72, Felt is a terrible leaker! He’s sending FBI agents over to the White House without pre-clearance. Hoover never, ever in the history of the FBI had ever done something like that.

So Felt is taking on the president directly with this stuff, trying to position himself to perhaps be appointed to the permanent director position.

Many critics remark how incredibly exhaustive your book is about the details of the White House conversations. What prompted you to drill down so deeply into Watergate this late in the game?

John Dean: I hadn't planned it. I set out to answer a few questions. I didn't understand how Nixon could have come up with the defenses he came up with, the last one being he supposedly knew nothing about Watergate until I told him on March 21, 1973.

I thought enough of the tapes had been transcribed and it would be relatively easy. But I very quickly discovered they hadn’t been. Nobody had bothered to catalogue the Watergate conversations! Not even half the tapes had been transcribed!

So to follow this thread took four years. I had a whole team of grad students helping me. One woman, for example, personally transcribed 500 conversations. They all did such amazing work.


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