John Dean’s Unfamiliar Account of a Familiar Story
I am in the process of reading John Dean’s newest book about Richard Nixon and Watergate. The book is entitled The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (New York: Viking, 2014). I am about 4/5 done, as I write today’s post.
Dean, who was chief counsel during the Nixon era, arranged for transcription of all of the audio recorded tapes, and has painstakingly listened to and interpreted them to write this book. Some tapes were of very poor quality and Dean professes to have spent hours trying to decipher them with the most sophisticated equipment available. The book is a well-written, although not always well-proofed (there are typos), account of the major events and players in this infamous era. His first, and most famous book, was Blind Ambition (New York: Simon and Schuster), written in 1976, which Dean frequently cites in this book.
I listened to some of these tapes before they were made available to general public. Once on a trip to D.C., in the early ’90’s, I spent most of a day at the National Archives selecting sessions of interest to me. At the time I did this, many of the tapes that are available today on the Internet were still classified. This book reinforces the startling reality that we had an American president who stumbled and rambled in an inarticulate manner, presenting himself in front of others as confused, disorganized, and uninformed. He adapted well to whom he was speaking, but in a manipulative and unethical manner. What I did not know until I read this book was that he was also horribly sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic. The tapes reveal that he was no fan of women, African-Americans, or Jews, in spite of any presidential appointments that he awarded them.
The most interesting portions in the book to me are the reflections that Dean includes from a perspective 40 years later. He frequently explains what he was thinking then, and what he thinks now. He provides corrections and updates to what he heard on the tapes. This is not a book that simply includes transcriptions, but rather, that weaves in information and accounts from multiple sources that correspond with those transcriptions.
People criticize Jimmy Carter as president for surrounding himself with the wrong people. They were no match for “all the president’s men.” I always thought that Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was machiavellian and controlling. I never believed Charles Colson back then, or when he found Jesus Christ in jail and wrote books for personal profit, or now as I read what he said in these transcriptions.* Until I read this book, I never thought that John Ehrlichman, the counsel and Assistant to for Domestic Affairs, was so stupid. The tapes reveal how often he spoke before thinking, how limited his knowledge of civil and criminal law was, and how dismissive he was of alternative positions that were not aligned with his own. Without doubt, the great unraveling of the Watergate cover-up as well as the Nixon presidency was the gradual interest each person had in protecting himself by twisting facts and spinning tales to fit individual concerns. At one point, Ehrlichman, in a meeting with Haldeman and Nixon, actually provides word-for-word false testimony that he wanted Dean to recite under oath. At another, with the same audience, he assumes a broadcaster’s voice, and provides the content of a potential news story that he thought could play out in the media. In so many conversations, all of these men provided Nixon partial information about damaging circumstances, omitting any content that could implicate themselves. That is even true when they spoke about each other with Nixon while one or more were not present. Dean was brave for bolting the scene and baring himself to prosecutors, but why did it take him so long to do so?
But the president himself was the problem. If you read this book, you may be amazed how much time Nixon devoted to Watergate-related business. He devoted entire days and weekends to gathering facts about it, creating scenarios, providing instructions, and examining options. How many times he asks the same questions and gets the same answers from the same people – again and again. He forgets, or pretends to forget, facts received from the same person, sometimes in the same conversation. I wonder how the rest of our national affairs could possibly have progressed with this much attention paid to Watergate in the Oval Office. His subordinates purportedly were trying to distance the president from their own involvement, but they could not do that, due to his own. Ultimately, I believe it was not John Sirica, or Sam Ervin, or Leon Jaworski, or any other characters who brought down Nixon. I think it was the American people. They could not tolerate, nor trust, a man in this office who once implored the country to put Watergate behind them. Nixon’s picture on the cover of Dean’s book is extremely sinister.
I find myself constantly returning to two sections in this book. First, I find the footnotes informative. These are both print sources and recording references. I occasionally will listen to a tape after reading about it in the book. Maybe that is why I have not finished this yet. Second, I like to go back to the list of the cast of characters. There are many, and I always want to refresh myself on a person’s exact title. Interestingly, there are no photographs, and I presume Dean knows they are readily available to readers elsewhere.
The two appendices are also revealing. Appendix A is an account of the Watergate break-in. Appendix B focuses upon the missing 18 1/2 minute gap in a recording, supposedly created by Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods. You will be surprised about the actual account published here about what happened, especially from expert testimony.
I will post final reflections about this book when I finish. I am interested to see how I feel about this when I can reflect about the entire book.
But, for now, this is an amazing work-in-progress. Why did I not wait until I finish to post this? Because, like many biographies which are careers-in-progress, so is this account for me.
* – I am in a definitive minority about my feelings concerning Colson. Almost everyone I have spoken to thinks Colson genuinely found the Lord in jail, and that his books indicate a sincere revelation of a changed personality. I wish I could also feel that way, but I just don’t. I simply believe he wrote them for profit, knowing that a public hungry for good news from such turnabouts would buy them. I will say, however, that I think Colson’s non-profit agencies and organizations have helped many people, and that overall, he provided a legacy with more good in the last years of his life than he did with the bad during the Watergate years. But, I just can’t shake my opinion that he wrote these books for the wrong reason.