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John Dean on ‘The Nixon Defense’

Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon resigned his presidency following the Watergate scandal. We talk to Nixon's legal counsel John Dean, who was instrumental in the cover-up following the burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and whose testimony before a Senate committee led to Nixon's resignation. Dean is out with a new book: "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It." Read a book excerpt.

John Callaway interviewed John Dean in 1976 about his then recently released book, “Blind Ambition: The White House Years.” Watch the interview.



The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It

By John W. Dean


The report of the arrests in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, of five men who had broken into the Watergate complex offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), wearing business suits and surgical gloves, their pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, was something like a scene from a circa 1940s low-budget black-and-white gangsters B movie. This caught-in-the-act stupidity seemed too dumb to be ours, since the undertaking was so conspicuously illegal and inexplicably risky, not to mention obviously bungled. But this political surveillance debacle did turn out to be ours, the work of a ham-fisted team of amateurs assembled by G. Gordon Liddy, a former Nixon White House staff member who was then serving as general counsel of the finance operation of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP). This was, in fact, the opening scene of the worst political scandal of the twentieth century and the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. It was the start of Watergate, a story that has been told and retold, but never as I am going to tell it in the pages that follow.

The central character in Watergate was, of course, the president of the United States, Richard Nixon. From beginning to end Nixon sought to defend himself and his presidency from the political and legal consequences that followed the arrests at the DNC on June 17, 1972. This is the story of Nixon’s defense, the story I found when trying to understand how someone as politically savvy and intelligent as Richard Nixon, a man who surrounded himself with those he thought the best and brightest, allowed this “third-rate,” bungled burglary to destroy his presidency. The story of the Nixon defense is Richard Nixon’s Watergate story.

Most of Nixon’s Watergate-related activities were secretly self-recorded. These surreptitious recordings eventually revealed that his public Watergate defenses were colossal deceptions, patent lies that eventually forced his resignation. Nixon’s secret recordings provided much of the overwhelming evidence that sent his former top advisers to prison, not to mention forced his own early retirement. So some of this story has been around for several decades. Investigators and prosecutors, however, were not interested in the context and circumstances of Nixon’s ill-conceived defensive efforts; rather, they focused only on select portions of conversations that could provide evidence establishing wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt, so as to end any malfeasance and punish malefactors. Historians, in recounting the Watergate story, have relied largely and almost exclusively on the information gathered by the Watergate investigators and prosecutors. Remarkably, historians and other students of the Nixon presidency have chosen to ignore the full collection of secretly recorded White House conversations relating to Watergate, which slowly but surely have become almost fully available over the past four decades. 

Before now, no one has attempted to catalog and transcribe all of Nixon’s Watergate conversations, and to examine and reconstruct this history based on this primary source material, the likes of which has never before existed. The account in the pages that follow is based on this unique collection, and it is presented not as transcripts but rather as narrative and dialogue drawn from and based on them. The story that follows is a first-person account of what I found in this unique historical record. In telling this story I have only edited the transcripts to make them readable and understandable, correcting the obvious anomalies that inevitably occur in spontaneous conversations and often compressing material to report its essence. Almost all the conversations from which this account is drawn are available online at the Nixon Presidential Library; the exceptions are those from June 1972, which are available at the Miller Center. 

The Nixon defense—both legal and political, because they were inseparable—was assembled behind closed doors in a process that began in the days following the arrests at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic Party. The first public statement of a defense was made by Nixon on June 22, 1972—that nobody in his White House was involved in this bizarre incident—and Nixon’s final firewall explanation of his defense was issued eleven months later, on May 22, 1973; the latter followed the firing of his top aides, including your author, who had become the center-piece of his defense. Because I was deeply involved in and later the focus of the Nixon defense, I always hoped someone else would tell this story. I also understood such an undertaking meant the not easily accomplished task of transcribing all of Richard Nixon’s Watergate conversations. Of course, we knew the broad outlines of his activities that led to his resignation, and he did provide some additional details in his memoir. But he, too, relied primarily on conversations that had been transcribed by investigators and prosecutors, leaving most of the historical facts buried in his secretly recorded conversations. Having now transcribed all those conversations, and grasping the content of the newly transcribed material, I understand why he wanted no more information than was already easily available made public, for while this additional information explains many of the activities he was responsible for, those rationales do not redound to Richard Nixon’s glory.

Read more of the Preface.

From “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It” by John W. Dean. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © John W. Dean, 2014

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