Creepier than Nixon

The man who brought down Richard Nixon says Bush and "co-president" Cheney are an even greater threat to the country.

Published March 31, 2004 8:25PM (EST)

As Richard Nixon's White House counsel during the Watergate scandal, John Dean famously warned his boss that there was "a cancer on the presidency" that would bring down the administration unless Nixon came clean. In his new book, "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush," Dean warns the country that the Bush administration is even more secretive and authoritarian than Nixon's -- in fact, he writes, it's "the most secretive presidency of my lifetime."

"To say that the [Bush-Cheney] secret presidency is undemocratic is an understatement," he adds. "I'm anything but skittish about government, but I must say this administration is truly scary and, given the times we live in, frighteningly dangerous."

Dean's new book is being published, appropriately, as the country is being treated to another spectacle of Nixonian smearing and stonewalling by the Bush White House. Rather than come clean about its pre-9/11 security policies, the administration has engaged in a frenzied counterattack on its whistle-blowing former terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, while refusing to let National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice testify before the bipartisan panel investigating the terror attack until the political pressure became overwhelming.

Dean conversed with Salon by e-mail from his Los Angeles home.

How is the Bush-Cheney administration more secretive than Nixon's?

A few examples make the point. Nixon became a secretive president, as his presidency proceeded, while Bush and Cheney were secretive from the outset. Nixon actually tried to reduce the excessive national security classification of documents (through a panel headed by the man who is now chief justice of the United States), while Bush and Cheney have tried to increase classification (and 9/11 does not hold up as the reason for much of it). Nixon only abused executive privilege (the power of a president to withhold information from his constitutional co-equals) after Watergate, while Bush and Cheney have sought to abuse the privilege from the outset. Nixon was never taken to court by the General Accounting Office for refusing to provide information about executive activities, while Bush and Cheney forced GAO to go to court (where GAO lost under a recently appointed Bush judge). Nixon believed presidential papers should be available for historians, but Bush has undermined the laws to make such records available to the public.

While Nixon's presidency gave currency to the term "stonewalling," Bush and Cheney have made stonewalling their standard procedure, far in excess of Nixon. In short, in every area one looks, Bush and Cheney are more secretive than Nixon ever imagined being. I have mentioned but a few.

Why have Congress and the press allowed Dick Cheney to get away with his stonewalling tactics on the energy task force, Halliburton, duck hunting with Justice Scalia, and other questionable aspects of his vice presidency?

I would add to the list Cheney's outrageous stonewalling about his health, which we know is bad, notwithstanding his effort to keep the details secret. The Congress lets Cheney do anything he wants because Republicans control it, and Cheney is their heavy in the White House for getting things done. Cheney, so long as Republicans control, will not have to answer, but should we return to divided government in 2004 or 2006 and Cheney is still in the White House, that will end.

There has never been a vice president -- ever (and even including Spiro Agnew who was Nixon's) -- who needed to be investigated more than Cheney. Nor has there ever been such a secretive vice president. Dick Cheney is the power behind the Bush throne. Frankly, I am baffled why the mainstream news media has given Cheney (not to mention Bush) a free ride. I don't know if it is generational, or corporate ownership, or political bias, but it is clear that Cheney has been given a pass by the major news organizations.

Do you feel the vice president has, after more than three years of secretive governing from an undisclosed location, become a political liability to the president? How likely is it that Bush will drop him from the ticket this year?

Dick Cheney is a political disaster awaiting recognition. In the book, I set forth a relatively long list of inchoate scandals, not to mention problems worse than scandals. They all involve Cheney in varying degrees. Bush can't dump Cheney, for it is Cheney, not Rove, who is Bush's backroom brain. He is actually a co-president. Bush doesn't enjoy studying and devising policy. Cheney does. While Cheney has tutored Bush for almost four years, and Bush is better prepared today than when he entered the job, Cheney is quietly guiding this administration. Cheney knows how to play Bush so that Cheney is absolutely no threat to him, makes him feel he is president, but Bush can't function without a script, or without Cheney. Bush is head of state; Cheney is head of government.

If, say, the Securities and Exchange Commission's current investigation of Halliburton's accounting also discovers that Cheney engaged in insider trading when he left Halliburton (which the facts suggest is highly likely), and this matter erupts before the Republican convention, then Cheney might be forced to step aside. Cheney always has his bad-health excuse anytime he wants to take it -- because it is a fact. He has a certain immunity as vice president, but if he were to be dropped from the ticket (or he and Bush lose), I believe Cheney would have serious problems which he would no longer be able to deflect. Thus, he will stay and fight like hell to win.

I quote Cheney from his time in the Ford White House when he said, "Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn't do any good if you lose." I think this statement sums up Cheney's thinking nicely.

You write that Bush and Cheney have not leveled with America about their true agenda. What is it?

Because of their secrecy, it takes a lot of work to connect the dots. I've not connected them all, but enough of them to know that the only agenda they had during the first term was to get a second term -- which meant secretly taking care of their major contributors. Should they get a second term, we know their secret agenda, for they have quietly stated it: They intend to make sure the Republicans control the federal government (all three branches) indefinitely, if possible. In short, the Bush-Cheney agenda is about perpetuating Republican rule by taking particularly good care of major contributors who share their views of the world.

Karl Rove also plays a unique role in the Bush administration. One close observer says in your book that he's "Haldeman and Ehrlichman all in one." Explain.

Rove's unique role is that he is a political guy making policy decisions for political reasons. Decisions in the Bush White House are made not based on what is best for the public interest, rather what will get the president the most mileage with his base, and best political advantage. Not since Nixon's so-called responsiveness program -- which was uncovered during the Watergate investigation -- have we had such overt political decision-making.

The reference to Haldeman and Ehrlichman as explaining Rove was a quip from a friend of mine from the Nixon White House who has had dealings with Rove. Since Rove is a revengeful fellow, my friend will remain nameless. But my friend was telegraphing a lot of information about Rove with this bit of shorthand -- for anyone who has any knowledge of the Nixon White House and Watergate, they know Haldeman and Ehrlichman were the heavies. First, it is a compliment in that both Haldeman and Ehrlichman were very smart, and highly efficient. But what it tells us is that Rove is ruthless, for both Haldeman and Ehrlichman were that too.

Both Haldeman and Ehrlichman saw the world through a political lens, and what was most likely to help Richard Nixon get reelected. So does Rove. Haldeman was involved with procedure (broadly speaking, I mean who was doing what at the White House, arranging the presidential travel and appearances for maximum political benefit, and constantly mindful of the president's image and making him look good), and Ehrlichman was the substance guy (who developed domestic policies, but accounting for the political impact). Rove controls both.

Had Haldeman and Ehrlichman not received the longest sentences of any of those involved in Watergate, Rove would probably be pleased by the comparison.

Karl Rove first came to your attention during Watergate. In what ways is he the reincarnation of Nixon dirty tricksters like Charles Colson and Donald Segretti?

He is way beyond anything Nixon had at his disposal. He is closer to a behind-the-scenes Nixon operator named Murray Chotiner, who could cut off an opponent at the knees so quickly the person did not immediately realize he had been crippled. As I note in the book, the first time I heard the name Karl Rove was when I was asked if I knew anything about him by one of the Watergate special prosecutors who was investigating campaign dirty tricks. I didn't have any knowledge. But I recalled that question when working on this book, and located a memorandum in the files of the Watergate prosecutor's office that indicates they were asking others as well about Rove. Based on my review of the files, it appears the Watergate prosecutors were interested in Rove's activities in 1972, but because they had bigger fish to fry they did not aggressively investigate him.

Colson was brutal, cruel and vicious before he found God (during Watergate). While he once famously said he would run over his grandmother to get Nixon reelected, today I suspect he'd run over his grandmother to convert a few heathens to Christ. Segretti did not engage in the kind of dirty politics that Colson liked to play. Segretti was a political prankster, who only by accident got associated with Watergate. Nothing that Segretti did, that I know of, could be called sinister. Colson, on the other hand, was as nasty a political operative as could be found. Indeed, to this day we don't know the full extent of Colson's activities. He even refused to tell Nixon some of the things he had done (while boasting to Nixon he had done things he didn't want to tell the president). Colson walked out of the White House with any of his papers and records that might cause him a problem. Karl Rove, from what I've seen, makes Colson look like a novice.

Bush has managed to stay above the ugly tactics used against opponents like John McCain and now John Kerry. Does he privately give them his blessing?

Of course. All candidates control their campaigns, and if they don't want such activity, it doesn't occur. As I discovered in talking to people about Bush, he is a highly sophisticated political operator. I've noted in the book that Rove gets the credit for being Bush's political brain. It's an arrangement both men like, because it raises Rove's importance as a political operator, and lowers Bush's exposure. In truth, Bush is probably more politically savvy than Rove. Both men learned their politics from Lee Atwater, who ran Bush senior's 1988 campaign. Atwater made dirty politics into an art form, by which I mean he provided those for whom dirty deeds were done deniability while Atwater's people tore up an opponent's pea-patch and everything else. I expect the 2004 presidential campaign to make Richard Nixon look like a high-road campaigner.

At least until recently, the Bush administration has successfully used the public's fear of terrorism to advance its agenda. You go so far as to agree with Gen. Tommy Franks' dark prediction that another major terror attack on U.S. citizens will drive the country to suspend the Constitution. Why do you fear that?

As I state in the book, I agree for reasons that probably differ from those of Gen. Franks. The short summary of what is really a thread that runs through the book is that when you have a presidency that has no regard for human life, that develops and implements all (not just national security) policy in secrecy, and is driven by political motives and a radical philosophy, it is impossible not to conclude that they will overreact -- and at the expense of our constitutional safeguards. Bush and Cheney enjoy using power to make and wield swords, not ploughs. They prefer to rule by fear. We've had three years to take the measure of these men. I've done so and reported what I found in a book I never planned to write, but because others were not talking about these issues, I believed they needed to be placed on the table.

Bush and Cheney have exploited terrorism ever since 9/11. Now they are exploiting it to get reelected. Should there be an even more serious threat, they have found that when Americans are frightened they can be governed like sheep, which suits Bush and Cheney perfectly. Rather than taking the terror out of terrorism by educating and informing Americans, they have sought to make terrorism as frightening as possible -- using terrorism to launch a war of aggression that is breeding a new generation of terrorists and getting the Congress to pass the most repressive new laws imaginable and calling it an act of patriotism.

Do you think Bush has an enemies list? Are you on it?

I don't believe that Bush, Cheney or Rove are foolish enough to actually maintain such a list -- as was foolishly done in the Nixon White House. But I believe they have long memories. As to how they feel about me, I could care less. As I explain in the book, I used many of my sources on background because this is a White House that takes revenge, and its supporters and surrogates play as dirty as they can get away with. The truth for this White House is not very pleasant, and my writing about it will not be appreciated. I didn't write this book for those who believe that Bush and Cheney have got it right, and don't want to hear otherwise. Rather I wrote it because a lot of people suspect that they've gotten it wrong, and needed someone who knows the workings of the White House to explain what is going on and why.

If the Bush-Cheney scandals are "worse than Watergate," why hasn't this administration produced a whistle-blowing John Dean?

First, I make very clear in the book that while the underlying conduct is worse than Watergate, it has not -- yet -- erupted into a scandal like Watergate. Like anyone at the White House, yours truly included, you first try to work within the system -- to right things you know are wrong. Take former terrorism czar Richard Clarke. He certainly tried to get the Bush administration to address the problems of terrorism sooner rather than later, but failed. After leaving government he remained troubled about the Bush administration's failures to deal with terrorism, for he knows better than most that the war in Iraq only added to the problems. So he testified truthfully before the 9/11 commission -- which is all I did. Or take former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. He tried to work within the system. However, he was fired for telling the truth and expressing his well-founded concern about Bush's excessive tax cuts for the upper incomes. This is a presidency that does not like the truth told about their activities.

If, as I believe to be the case, things are going to get rough for Bush and Cheney given the potential scandals they face, others like Clarke and O'Neill may fill the role I found myself having to fulfill. But the stakes are higher now. No one died because of the abuses of power known as Watergate. Too many have died (and more in the future may) because of the abuses of power by this presidency. That's why their abuses are worse than Watergate.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

MORE FROM David Talbot

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dick Cheney George W. Bush Karl Rove