Character assassination

By John W. Dean


Salon Staff
June 18, 2001 11:01PM (UTC)

Read the story.

John Dean, the former young Nixon aide and flatterer who told Nixon that destroying his enemies was "an exciting prospect" but who then defected to save his own hide, and who has since wanted to portray himself as a good guy after all and a sage political commentator, called my book "Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg" "a hatchet job worthy of the White House Plumbers" in Salon on June 15.

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Dean says that the Daniel Ellsberg portrayed in my book "is not the same fellow I have been conversing with for 25 years." Dean notes that he and Ellsberg established a relationship in 1975, and he points to a reason for their bond: "Each of us, for his own reasons, had made decisions that profoundly affected the Nixon presidency." Dean has encouraged Ellsberg to write an autobiography. He ends his review with another such urging: "So get to it, Dan." Dean has also helped write and produce a screenplay for a television movie on the Pentagon Papers, one that he sought Ellsberg's help on (Ellsberg said no, Dean says). I haven't seen the movie, and don't even know if it has been broadcast yet, but I suspect it portrays a very different Ellsberg than the one described in my book.

Dean, then, is not an unbiased reviewer of "Wild Man." In my view, his review is a hatchet job. It reads like a defense of a friend who has been wronged, and as an embrace of Ellsberg politically. Dean argues that I have simply given Ellsberg's detractors a platform to express their views, and that "there are remarkably few kind words" about Ellsberg in the book. In fact, the book contains many favorable observations of Ellsberg, including from his critics. His strengths and appealing personal traits are described along with his weaknesses. The book is extensively and carefully researched; another reviewer observed that it treats Ellsberg "fairly" and offers "a nuanced portrait." (Two can play this game: Dean approvingly quotes criticism made by another early reviewer who said that Ellsberg didn't merit a biography at all, only a long magazine article, and thus deemed the book "bloated.")

Dean points to G. Gordon Liddy as an example of someone I gave a platform to, but who I quoted as if he were impartial. I interviewed Liddy about the White House's perceptions and moves on Ellsberg. A reasonable thing to do, I think. Anybody who knows anything about Watergate knows that Liddy is not impartial. (Dean and Liddy, incidentally, despise each other; as I noted in the book, Liddy once fantasized about killing Dean by jamming a pencil in his neck.)

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Dean's review contains many errors of fact. He reduces my explanation of Ellsberg's decision to release the Pentagon Papers to Ellsberg's desire for public recognition. I present a more complicated and varied picture than that, one that includes Ellsberg's desire to end the war. Dean claims that "according to Wells, almost everything Ellsberg does involves 'self-aggrandizing, over-dramatizing and attention-seeking.'" That is a caricature of my book, and Dean lifted the quote from my discussion of one episode in the mid-1970s.

Dean maintains that I often solicited information from "the least reliable sources possible," and seems to point to Ellsberg's ex-wife, his "estranged daughter" and his "embittered former co-conspirator" as examples. But each of these people knew Ellsberg unusually well, and struck me as highly reliable. Dean might have given specific examples of purportedly unreliable sources offering unreliable information. (And just who is the "injured and once frightened co-worker" he mentions?)

Dean say that voices of people who admire and respect Ellsberg are missing, as is Ellsberg's sense of humor. Both claims are untrue. I interviewed many people who applauded and admired Ellsberg's release of the papers. (I myself consider release of the papers a very valuable act, and wouldn't have chosen to write about Ellsberg if I did not.) Dean writes that "Wells argues that Ellsberg should have known that leaking the papers would have little impact on the war." Huh? Where did I write that? Dean claims that I said that the papers had no impact on the war. Actually, I argued that release of the documents had a significant impact on the war through its impetus to Watergate (though no direct impact).

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According to Dean, I wrote that Ellsberg "so loved the action" he experienced as a Marine "that he went back to the killing fields of Vietnam." In reality, Ellsberg did not see any action (i.e., combat) as a Marine, and he was not returning to Vietnam. What book did Dean read? Dean claims that "Wells describes Ellsberg's activities there [in Vietnam] as demonstration of a 'death wish.'" Ellsberg himself is quoted about his desire to die in combat in Vietnam.

Dean caricatures my analysis of Ellsberg's political evolution from hawk to dove, claiming that I attribute it solely to "self-serving motivations." I present a far more complex picture than that, and I suspect Dean knows it. Dean also criticizes me for focusing on Ellsberg's problems completing work. That is a central theme in Ellsberg's life and cannot help but be a major thread in any biography of Ellsberg that is not a hagiography. Yet Dean says that most of my discussion of this topic is "irrelevant." Also according to Dean, my view that Ellsberg was frustrated and angry that Henry Kissinger did not take his advice on Vietnam is merely speculation, and my basis for making it is unclear. Actually, I quoted someone who was a good friend of Ellsberg's at the time. Also, Ellsberg was 15 years old when his mother died, not 11 as Dean writes.

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I suppose writing critically of Daniel Ellsberg will inevitably raise the feathers of his supporters, but I would have expected a more thoughtful, careful and accurate review from Dean. Dean, incidentally, whom I interviewed for a previous book, "The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam," once told me with some fervor that he had been slandered or libeled by two authors and that "public figures have a right to defend themselves." I wonder if this issue is another element of his long "conversation" with Ellsberg.

-- Tom Wells


Salon Staff

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