As paranoid and corrupt as Richard Nixon’s tenure was in the White House, he might never have been forced to resign without the public testimony of John W. Dean. The 34-year-old White House counsel, who indelibly advised Nixon there was a cancer on his presidency, found himself telling the Senate Watergate Committee what illegal doings had been happening behind the scenes at the White House and in the service of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (aka CREEP). It was electrifying television, Dean exposing the misdeeds of Nixon and his cronies, while burning down his own future.
It’s hard to imagine now how much Dean became the central character back then, in June of 1973. His televised testimony dominated headlines worldwide. Dean wasn’t innocent, but he wasn’t the liar and manipulator that Nixon’s allies called him on TV, in radio and in print. Sitting quietly behind him, even Dean’s wife Maureen was scrutinized (despite such obnoxious headlines as the NY Times’ “Dean’s wife gives him some tea and advice,” they’re still married). This year marks the 50th anniversary of his testimony.
There were only three television networks, plus PBS in its infancy, and soon everyone was tuning in. America was given a look inside the room where it happened, and it was riveting.
The events of the Watergate coverup and unraveling of Nixon’s presidency are so compelling they’ve been made into films over and over. In the new, darkly funny HBO series “White House Plumbers,” with Justin Theroux as G. Gordon Liddy and Woody Harrelson as E. Howard Hunt, Dean is played by Domhnall Gleeson – which is charming but bizarre – Dean had no involvement with them. He’s been portrayed slightly more accurately on screen by Dan Stevens, David Hyde Pierce and Martin Sheen. Dean himself knows the truth from fiction — he remembers those events with startling clarity.
An incisive commentator on the law and corruption, Dean was of course much in demand to talk about Donald Trump and is regularly seen on MSNBC and CNN. And in fact he’s been a media commentator since the NSA wiretapping scandal. A bestselling author, Dean left Washington for the West Coast decades ago. He’s been a banker and had many academic appointments but at 84, keeping up with Trump’s crimes keeps him busy. Dean and Maureen (Mo) live in Los Angeles; we spoke via phone shortly after Trump’s indictment in Florida about Nixon, truth-telling and Trump and his cult. Our conversation has been edited.
What are your thoughts on the recent federal Trump indictment?
It's a very powerful indictment. It'll obviously get tested very quickly and they'll probably file a motion to dismiss. The real question hanging over this federal case is the Florida Judge, Aileen Cannon. Her track record is one that Trump will certainly like. The government is going to have to consider carefully how they deal with her. She's a rookie judge. She has no experience with this kind of case. I'm sure she has never tried a case with highly classified information before. The first question is going to be, is she going to stay on the case? And that's her call, initially. It's the chief judge's call, secondarily, if the government asks that she be removed. But she can have a tremendous impact on the case. Trump is probably absolutely thrilled — that is his probably greatest hope at this point on this case.
Will it be going to a jury?
Yes. It would be a jury case. The trial judge is very involved in the process of jury selection and can influence the jury pool. In other words, she could, in essence, rig the case, if the jury pool was loaded with people who were solid Trump supporters. That's why there's a legitimate call to either televise, which is unlikely, or to have an audio feed on this case, so the public can hear what goes on in the courtroom.
The Watergate hearings are my first television memory. It seemed like it took over the networks, NBC/ABC/CBS and PBS, right?
Initially, everybody covered it. They found the hearings were kind of dull. There was pool coverage in the hearing room. The feed came out and they all took whatever they got and then had their anchors making commentary during recesses and votes. That was the way it initially started. But after about a week or so, they realized that they were losing audience [laughs]. So they just went down to one; they rotated through the networks. When I appeared, the networks all came back in and covered it live. They had not, for many weeks, covered it live but my week they were, and we reached, I'm told, about 85 million households.
Is this correct: Did you have a 245 page statement to read?
60,000 words. Had they told me I was going to have to read the statement, it would have never been 60,000 words. Never.
How did you feel when that started, when that happened?
I actually started testifying, sort of highlighting and summarizing, and then the chairman [Sam Ervin, Democrat from North Carolina] said, Mr. Dean, please read the entire statement. So, [laughs] I was kind of stuck. That’s when I went to a monotone, I thought, don’t give a lot of inflection, just go straight down the middle. And it took eight hours of reading to read it.
You must have been exhausted.
I didn't write it for it to be spoken. I wrote it for it to be read. I probably would've selected different words if I'd known. I would've made it much shorter. It would've been 6,000 words, at most. I still have it. I kept all those papers and that started my archive.
What are you going to do with the archive?
My White House papers are all at the Nixon Library, but my post-White House papers have all accumulated. I have a storage facility we built for the house, and they're temperature controlled, they're in pristine condition. In recent years, I've had a number of people approach me about it. All I know is I have promised my wife, I will not burden her with having to do that. So I will do something with them in the near future.
It’s interesting, even after your testimony about what you knew of Nixon and the Watergate coverup, it seems like some people were reluctant to believe what you had testified until the knowledge of the tapes came around. Is that right?
Well, there was some polling, Who do you believe, Nixon or Dean, and I did lead the whole way — and more people believed me than believed Nixon. But not everybody believed me. I have some dates wrong. That was the toughest thing in looking at my drafts, you know, the 60,000 words. I did it chronologically. I have 37 conversations with Nixon.
When I became White House counsel, I knew I would not be the White House counsel — John Ehrlichman would keep that job. [Officially, Ehrlichman was named Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor]. I would do all the grunt work of the White House counsel’s office, which he wanted to get out of. [laughs] Which was fine. I was very young and it was a great title.
I don't really meet Nixon until deep, deep into Watergate. He doesn't start calling on me until the end of February of 1973. By that time, I realized we're making a terrible mistake. I'm trying to gently inform him, in figuring out how to deal with this man, that his Presidency is in a whole lot of trouble. And within less than a month, I'm in there telling him, you know, there's a cancer on his presidency.
So anyway, not everybody believed me, and I did get some dates wrong, no question. But I also made clear to the Senate that my memory is not a tape recorder. [Laughs] I got the gist of it all right.
You were telling the truth about Nixon and the White House, and the tapes backed up what you said, yet still you wound up going to jail.
That was a choice I made. When I first hired my attorney Charlie [Charles N. Schaffer], I went to him because I wanted to work out a good plea deal. I wanted to take responsibility for what I'd done. He said, I don't do plea deals, but I'll be happy to look at your case and make recommendations. Very quickly he concluded, you're a witness, you're not really a defendant. You’re not running this show, you’re somebody that is following directions; you didn't cook this up. He said, you're a very typical witness, and I think you should be immunized and be the government star witness.
We tried to work with the prosecutors, but we realized it was too big for them. Charlie made a deal with them that I would come in and start outlining what had happened but they could use nothing against me, it's a form of immunity. It's the kind of proffer you make when you think you have a witness rather than a defendant. But they needed to know what I was witness to. So we started down this road. This is when I'm at the White House trying to get my colleagues to end the cover up, too. And being very open with them, telling them, I'm going to the prosecutors, I'm gonna talk to these guys. This wasn’t something that was surreptitious, either.
On April 15th, 1973, it sort of hit the fan. Jeb Magruder [from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President] had cooperated and with that the prosecutors really understood who was behind the break-in — that it had been approved by Magruder and Mitchell [John Mitchell, the former Attorney General who took over CREEP], and they had sent Liddy in there on a fishing expedition and so on and so forth. The prosecutors weren't thinking coverup–initially, that didn't even occur to them. But Charlie kept trying to tell them, you guys don't really understand this case at all. On April 15th they said, listen, we've got so much information, we've gotta go back to the Department of Justice and report it.
And part of our deal had been, they couldn't take what I told them back to the Department of Justice, because I knew what would happen. It would go right to the White House, and everybody at the White House would be dragging bushes over all their footprints. But that's exactly what they did. They said, we’ve got to break the deal. Charlie said, you break the deal, we are breaking the deal. We don't want to talk to you anymore. We're going to the Senate and that's the right place to handle this. Because it's clear these prosecutors, this is too big a case for them. They're not gonna be able to handle it and anything, if anything, they may blow it.
We talked to Sam Dash [the chief counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee] for many weeks in private and in secret because we knew that Howard Baker [a committee member and Republican Senator from Tennessee] would report it quickly to the White House. But now to your broader question of, you know, how could I be a witness and still go to jail. Charlie went up and said, listen, John will testify, with immunity. And Sam said, I think he should have it. I told Sam Dash, I’m coming to the Senate with or without immunity, just so you know. And Sam would later write that in his book, because it became a big brouhaha as to whether I would testify without immunity.
To make this shaggy dog story end, what happened is I probably had one of the strongest cases where the government could not prosecute me unless I pled guilty. I didn't want this trickling on for years. I wanted to get it behind me. Whatever mistakes I made, I was willing to pay for. It was time to get the truth out and deal with the great disappointment of Richard Nixon thinking that he was above the law.
Charlie said, John, you can walk or you can plead, it's your call. He said, I want you to walk because it'll make me look very good as a defense attorney. [laughs] I said, I didn't get in this to beat the rap, so if we work out the right plea deal, I'll do it. I pled to the only crime I know I committed, I was a part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice.
But I had a lot of knowledge about other things. So when I did my testimony, it's far broader than just the Watergate issues and the break in and the cover-up. People didn't understand that the reason the Nixon White House was concerned about Watergate is that the clowns who were responsible for Watergate — and I've never seen any evidence that the White House had advanced knowledge that they were going to break into the Watergate, nor did they give them instructions to do that — they had broken into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office at the direction of John Ehrlichman. That's what they were covering up. But no one understood that at the time they thought it was, they were covering up the bungled burglary over on Virginia Avenue at the Watergate Complex. That isn't the reason.
What exactly did you end up going to jail for?
I had conspired to obstruct justice.
There are a lot of risks with becoming a whistleblower or truth-teller. What would you recommend to someone who realizes that they have a dark truth that they have to tell? What lessons would you have?
Well, as I once told Richard Nixon on tape, I'm not capable of lying. I can't pull it off. I can't live with myself. I just can't handle the lie. I've always had the freedom of being able to tell the truth, lay it out for what it is, and if others don't like it, that's tough. I'm going to live my life my way.
There are obviously people who are 180 degrees away from that. Donald Trump can create a string of fabrications that are endless.
You worked for Richard Nixon, who for a while Nixon was thought to be the worst President, but maybe he could be compared to Warren G. Harding, who was also very poorly rated.
You know, I did a book on Harding.
I know you did.
Harding is America's most maligned president. I'd known Arthur Schlesinger Jr. for years, and I read he was doing this Times book series, tight little biographies of all 42 past presidents, selecting people who were in a unique position to write about that President. He had George McGovern doing Lincoln. I called Arthur and I said, I obviously should not do Nixon and wouldn't go near it for your series, but who do you have to do Harding? And he said, I don't have a clue. In fact, he said, that's one of my head scratchers. I knew that Arthur and his father, who was a historian, had come up with the first ranking making Harding the worst president in American history. I said, Arthur, I think you have Harding wrong. I grew up in Marion, Ohio where Harding's from, I used to deliver papers up and down Main Street where his house is. My next door neighbor was his successor as the editor of the Marion Star.
To make a long story short, when Arthur read the manuscript, he said, you know, I do have this guy wrong. I never knew about how progressive he was with issues like civil rights. How after Woodrow Wilson, who was an outright racist, you've got Harding going down into the south and where half the audience is black on one side of a fence, half is white, Harding telling them if they continue this way, this country will fail. Harding had done so much that Arthur was unaware of. When he finished my manuscript, he said, I think we have maligned a good man. So anyway, Harding is a terribly maligned president.
Now, will Trump affect Nixon? You bet. Nixon looks like a choir boy vis-a-vis Trump.
I don't think there's any question, there’s going to be a reexamination of Richard Nixon. Nixon was a far more intelligent, knowledgeable president than Trump. The big difference to me in the men, they're both authoritarian personalities. My experience at the Nixon White House is why I became a student of authoritarianism. My last book, Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers was done with one of the leading social scientists who study it, Bob Altemeyer.
Nixon vis-a-vis Trump, they're both authoritarian types. Where they differ is interesting. The big difference is Nixon had a conscience. Trump doesn't have a conscience. Nixon experienced shame. I don't think Trump is capable of experiencing shame and that unfortunately that is one of the two strands of authoritarian personalities, that they just don't know shame. They don't feel it. They're not troubled.
I think one of the great mistakes that Democrats and journalists have made following Trump’s initial campaign, his Presidency, and now, I fear this indictment, is thinking that Trump can be shamed out of taking control, of reaching for power. We can't throw shame at them.
You can't, you can't. Nor the Republican party writ large, it has become shameless. The fact that they’re so openly embracing what Trump did [with the classified documents], McCarthy saying, well you could lock the bathroom door where all those were hidden, so there's no problem here. That is shameless thinking. I mean, it just doesn't seem to even be in the realms of reality.
I’m not at all Republican, but I think I understand the kind of Republican Party you grew up into. If it were still functioning in that way, there's no way someone who had done what Trump has would be able to stand for the party nomination. Right?
Exactly, exactly. You know, even Nixon would be very uncomfortable with Trump. Notwithstanding that Nixon's son-in-law showed up at Bedminster last night, apparently. [For a post-Florida indictment fundraiser].
Do you think there's anything that people can do to resist? What can we do to disable the momentum that Trump has?
I think he is a cult leader. Nancy Pelosi called that early. The people who are in the cult, they don't believe they are, they're comfortable there. He gives them reassurance. The rest of us just have to see it for what it is and appreciate that it's about a third of the Republican party that is wagging the tail of the entire Republican party because they’re so enamored with this clown.
You'd have to talk to former Scientologists about how you deprogram people — I guess it can be done. It’s kind of their own drug, if you will, that they're hooked on. Following the cult, and they'll drink the Kool-Aid.