The new Richard Nixon lie: John Dean on why he would have loved the Tea Party

On anniversary of Nixon's fall, John Dean talks Tea Party, taking out Gordon Liddy & Watergate conspiracy theories

Published August 8, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Richard Nixon, John Dean         (AP/Alex Brandon/Photo montage by Salon)
Richard Nixon, John Dean (AP/Alex Brandon/Photo montage by Salon)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation, just steps ahead of likely removal from office for the Watergate coverup. In his new book, "The Nixon Defense," John Dean -- Nixon's legal counsel during Watergate -- has generated an amazing historic record. He transcribed all of the Oval Office tapes related to Watergate and allows them to stand as a guide to what the president knew and when he knew it.

Nixon does not come out looking good. While some of these tapes were transcribed earlier by historian Stanley Kutler, and others were transcribed by Watergate prosecutors, no one has published a complete record until now. And it's clearer than ever, from these transcripts, that Nixon helped encourage and orchestrate the White House coverup as soon as the days after the burglars were arrested in June 1972 inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Dean himself remains a fascinating figure. For going into the Oval Office in March 1973 and telling Nixon that the Watergate coverup has created a cancer growing on the presidency, he'll always be considered by some to be one of the honest men inside a corrupt White House. To others, Dean is a turncoat, a traitor, an architect of the coverup who switched sides when it became legally necessary and politically expedient. There are even conspiracy theories that place him at the center of everything.

In a wide-ranging conversation last week at the Warwick Hotel in Manhattan, we talked about Nixon's role in the coverup, what he might have done differently, and about what it takes to tell the president that there's a cancer growing inside the presidency. We also worked through some of the alternate Watergate theories, most interestingly the one where Watergate burglars with CIA ties intentionally sabotaged the operation. And Dean said that while Nixon has gotten credit for a progressive domestic agenda, it was the priority of one aide, and he wasn't interested in it.

Nixon revisionism, Nixon conspiracy theories -- perhaps we still do have Dick Nixon to kick around.

This transcript has been lightly condensed and edited.

It’s amazing to me -- and must have been to you -- that no one beat you to this book. It's been 40 years and nobody thought it would be interesting to transcribe every Watergate conversation off these tapes. 

It’s a story you really have to watch unfold day-to-day. Because no one's done that.

Any theories as to why not?

I think it was maybe the burden of having to do the transcripts. And they thought they had enough of a gist from the combination of the Watergate prosecutor and the material they got from [historian Stanley] Kutler.

But still, that's only half the 1,000 tapes. 

It’s probably even less than half because Stanley’s — those are all partial transcripts. His ellipses can be 20 to 50 minutes of omitted material. Stan is a good historian and knew what to cut and what not to cut. But he missed some things that might be in the flow that he didn’t pick up in earlier conversations. And I’m not sure which was harder, David, transcribing them or trying to boil them all back down. Both of them were awesome tasks.

What do you bring to this task that is different than, say, Kutler or the other people that have worked on this? Did you have a deeper understanding of what was being was said, simply based on working with all these people and understanding how they speak and think?

Probably the most simplistic thing is that I recognized words and phrases they don’t. Did you see the Politico piece where they compared the transcripts? Bet on my transcript.

I just know how they speak, I know how they think. The other thing is that Stanley was stuck with analog copies, and I have digital copies. My digital copies are not even as sophisticated as it is now. They have an engineer who did it. I just did it by having to learn how to do it and do it myself, and got a portable unit that I could take out to the Nixon library and digitize all that material I had.

How did they treat you at the Nixon library?

Well, the NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] people are wonderful ...

So the most obvious question is why take on such a herculean task? What do we learn after having all these transcripts added to the historical record?

I didn’t know I had to. That’s the most simplistic answer. When my publisher was encouraging me to do something on Nixon and the anniversary, my editor said, "You must have some curiosity on some questions," and I said sure. I wondered how anyone as savvy as Richard Nixon could screw up his presidency as badly as he did. That was my basic question.

That's still on your mind almost four decades later? 

Still a question 37 years later. And so I decided to see if I could find the answer out. And the key was, how could he be so foolish to come up with his final defense.

Which was I didn't know anything until John Dean told me.

Exactly. I just said, "How could he have come to that?"  And to get to that answer, I kept having to go back further and further and further, until I’m back to June 20, 1972.  There’s just no other way.

In your memoir "Blind Ambition," you write about talking to Charles Colson about this when you're both in prison. "It looks suspicious to me," you wrote. "Millions of dollars have been spent investigating Watergate.  A President has been forced out of office.  Dozens of lives have been ruined.  We're sitting in the can.  And still nobody can explain why they bugged the place to begin with."

And there is no simplistic answer, except you have to watch it happen day to day. And that’s what the book does; it’s a combination of his character and his decision-making.

Which is horrible from day one. 


You read those new transcripts of June 20 -- 

-- and this is so contrary to his image as Mister Careful, Mister Executive.

-- and he was already thinking through all of the different permutations of what happened. There are probably six different meetings on that day. A couple with H.R. Haldeman, there’s the call with John Mitchell in the evening. In some ways, he settled on a coverup on June 20.

Absolutely. Absolutely. Haldeman and Ehrlichman had settled on it when they agreed to the bogus press release over the weekend. But it gets worse. He’s relatively passive at the outset. He is later a total activist; he is the driving force of the coverup of the coverup, which happens after March 21.

You're working in the White House. You are the president's lawyer. Did you realize at the time how involved he was, how consumed he was? Or did you learn things from these transcripts? 

Well, I only have dealings with him one time.

That's September 1972, and then not again for another almost six months.

So I’ve always had natural curiosities — how could they make these foolish decisions?

It never occurred to you at the time, or even later, that Nixon was so busy orchestrating the details of his coverup? What did you come away from this book learning for the first time?

I had no idea that he was aware of the payment of hush money. I had no idea his involvement in suborning Jeb Magruder’s perjury. Those were all really surprising to me. He’s totally knowledgeable the whole way along. To me, it completes and fills in — as Bob Woodward says, it’s the definitive account of Watergate. But it’s also an amazing human story of a man in trouble, and how people respond in these situations. There’s a lot of drama that I really didn’t realize was in that story. I was in the forest at the time.

Nixon is about to win a 49-state landslide. He was never in any danger. But while these transcripts make clear he never really considered another path, he could have, no? Did it even cross his mind to honestly find out what happened and get rid of the people involved? Could he have gotten through Watergate? 

I think he did have opportunities, but they were not realistic for him. I do very little commentary in the book along the way, but one of the things that I am struck with is how he keeps coming back to Colson. Is Colson involved in this? Is Colson involved in this? You know why he’s doing that?

Because he did know about Colson's involvement with the break-in at Brookings and also the Daniel Ellsberg break-in. 

Right. And he is not sure if he didn’t answer another break-in. He has just forgotten.

Really! You think the coverup happens because Nixon thought he just might have said go break into the DNC and he can't remember?

Yes, and so he’s very worried personally, and he’s trying to find out, very subtly, even with Haldeman and Ehrlichman. In essence, he soon gets comfort from Colson that they didn’t cook this up.

This one wasn’t ours.

This one wasn’t ours, thank God. It could have been. And so he gets over that and his next concern is more on an emotional level with John Mitchell.

Haldeman had once told me in one of our sessions that Richard Nixon believed he was president because of John Mitchell. That but for their relationship, he wouldn’t be president of the United States. And so he felt greatly indebted to him. Mitchell didn’t want to come to Washington — he wanted to stay in New York and practice law, didn’t want to be attorney general.

He certainly didn't want to run the Committee to Reelect the President. 

No, didn’t want to do any of that. But Nixon leaned on him all the time, much to probably his chagrin. And obviously, it killed his career. And I’m not positive that John Mitchell ordered the break-in, like Jeb Magruder thinks. Here’s the way it happened, as best as I can interpret the tapes now that I have them: Gordon Liddy’s plan is rejected in two meetings in Mitchells office —

This is Gemstone?

Gemstone, right.

Millions of dollars, prostitutes, a massive black bag operation. 

And it’s a joke, everybody knows it’s a joke. Mitchell's not going to approve it —

But you’re in the attorney general's office, you’re the counsel to the president of the United States, and you’re hearing this crazy, batshit stuff. You must need to respond to this.

And I now know from Haldeman's schedule — I went back and told him, not once but twice — I was only sure once, and had only testified once. I know now it was twice.

What are you thinking in that room?

That this man's insane, and if Mitchell hadn’t winked at me and said, "Hey, I’m not taking this seriously," and he’s looking at this as a show ...

And it's when I go back a second time, I’m the one to blow it up and say, "You can't talk about this stuff in the office of the attorney general." I just said it. It was just absurd. And that Magruder would have the bad judgment to bring Liddy back to a second meeting is incredible to me.

Liddy has no judgment. He’s somewhere between an under-accomplished juvenile delinquent who grew up and never matured, to somewhere between a sociopath and a psychopath. I don’t know where he falls. He’s got problems. This guy has no moral compass and the fact that he would go over and pitch that is insane.

So anyway, I go back to Haldeman, I now know, twice. I put a lot of it in the endnotes, because I didn’t want to make this another biographical work — I’ve already done that. But this did refresh a lot of my recollections and I was able to get later records and material like that. So I’m pretty sure because of my meeting with Haldeman that this plan is dead. Haldeman says, "You stay a mile away," and I say, "I didn’t want any part of it and we shouldn’t have any a part of it." And he said, "You’re right I don’t want any part of it, either. " And I’m convinced that Magruder — and I explained this in a meeting, it's in the tapes, it's in the book — that it got in what’s called the Tickler System at the White House, and [Haldeman's aide] Gordan Strachan never gets it out. He’s got it in his system, and he doesn’t know whether Haldeman wants it or not --

Because he’s hearing it somewhere, "I want this, I need this, I have to have this information. "

Right, it may well be, as Haldeman explained, that he was pushing Strachan like crazy to record McGovern’s meetings. And what he wants is his speeches. And this is a pretty fine line, and maybe that’s just a later Haldeman giving his own baloney.

But the way he describes it to Nixon is — because Nixon’s is asking the same thing — they want copies of McGovern's speeches and they’re not getting them. They just want somebody to go in the crowd with a recorder when he goes and does a public appearance, because they’re not getting that even. And that’s what they really want. So that can all easily be confused.

So what I see happening, the plan is approved by Mitchell, and it includes Watergate, it includes McGovern, it includes whoever the leading candidate might be. That’s done. So Liddy goes and breaks into Watergate. Liddy doesn’t find [chairman] Larry O’Brien’s office -- and this is something he’s talked over with Magruder before the first break-in. I don’t think Magruder knows about the second one, because the fruits of the first one start coming in, and there’s some talk in the book -- Ehrlichman somehow learns about the fruits — I’m pretty convinced its from Fred LaRue that he learns about them. But anyway, Ehrlichman learns about them, the fact that there’s some juicy stuff and what have you.

But Mitchell thinks it's junk. And this is a story that Magruder told me contemporaneously, as well as what he later testified when he has immunity, no reason to lie, he’s trying to clean his act up. And the stories are totally consistent. He says, "Mitchell picks up the phone, calls Liddy and reams him out. 'Gordon this stuff is junk, its not worth the money were paying for it,'" you know, a couple hundred thousand dollars. That’s what — today, a million dollars! It’s a lot of money. It was then, and it is today.

And Liddy tells him, "General, I'll take care of it." And he doesn’t say how he’ll do it but what he does is go back in the second time. There’s a tape from Nixon saying to Haldeman, "put a plant in McGovern operation." Now, what’s a "plant" mean? Anything. But Liddy would have obviously taken that as electronic surveillance. So what Haldeman does is gives the instructions to Strachan to have Liddy change his intelligence operation from Muskie to McGovern. And that’s where they’re going the night of the break-in. So if they had been arrested in McGovern office, instead of the DNC, he’d have it traceable right back to Nixon.

So why are they going into the DNC in June of '72? There's never much intelligence to be gained in a party headquarters, but there's next to nothing at this point in a presidential campaign.

They’re fishing.

For what? There’s no information there —

I did a special edition of "Blind Ambition" where I put a big, fat explanation of why they broke in. Because by then, I had the testimony of Howard Hunt saying, "I instructed him to fish for financial information, to see if we couldn’t embarrass the Democrats. This is right after ITT. They’re looking for just financial numbers, they’re rummaging the files looking for data. They don’t know what they’re looking for. This whole thing is so damn bungled anyway, it’s so imprecise — but it’s just a drop-by. Take some pictures and then we're going to go to McGovern and do that.

You make them sound like amateurs, but a lot of the people arrested have long-standing ties to the CIA, like Howard Hunt and James McCord.

Yes! A lot of people think this was all sophisticated, highly planned — it's not. It is just a bunch of amateurs, it's ham-fisted, and they got caught. Just that simple. And the tapes confirm basically all that testimony from Hunt and the burglars as to what they were looking for, which was financial information from Larry O'Brien.

I want to come back to some of this later, but first: Nixon knows he’s being taped.

Nixon knows he’s being taped.

He just thinks that only three people know that the taping system exists?

He’s clearly aware of it sometimes. But at other times, 99 percent of the time, no knowledge.

He just forgets? While talking about a coverup?

He forgets. It’s voice-activated. He doesn’t have to turn a switch on his desk. He just walks into the office and the machine starts.

And on some level he just thought, if it came down to it, that the tapes would be protected under executive privilege.

Right, right. You’ll see on two occasions that he asks it be removed.

July '73 it is finally removed.

July of 73, after it is revealed, it is removed. But he asks in April, twice, and Haldeman tells him he’ll do it. The problem is Haldeman got consumed by Watergate himself. And that ended that.

So Nixon’s fear in many ways, especially as the coverup gets going — is that people are going to turn on him and then it's all going to go, as he says, from bad to worse —

To go bust.

And that’s happening. You’re being blackmailed, in some ways. Hunt wants money, the burglars need money —

Nixon is, in the end, surprisingly frightened by both Haldeman and Ehrlichman. Not to mention, me. And this is not the powerful leader of the Western world. He knows he’s got his own jeopardy.

What is the day-to-day like in the White House during that period of time? Are you aware of all the chaos, all of the concern and the fear? Or is it compartmentalized to the people who are in those meetings with him?

Very compartmentalized. Need to know. So that’s what this book does, fills in all that went on behind closed doors relating to Watergate.

So how effectively is the rest of the White House operating? The economy, Vietnam, China -- was the senior staff distracted?

Please don’t forget this point -- Nixon's character and his decision-making are so flawed that I cannot believe Watergate is the only area they affected. It has to permeate — this man couldn’t just put on one hat for Watergate and then, Vietnam and the economy and whatever, be different. At the end, none -- he's not thinking about anything else. Kind of shows that the presidency can almost run without a president.

What do we learn new about Nixon's character here? 

What’s first of all interesting is his perception of what is a coverup, which he was very concerned about. But his idea of a coverup is rather unique, which is based on his experience with Harry Truman. He had actually thought he had the goods on some Truman administration people, both tax delinquencies, non-payments, and kickbacks. None of them were prosecuted. That’s what he called a coverup. Where nobody gets prosecuted. In other words, if all those who were arrested had somehow been exonerated and not prosecuted, that’s a coverup. If you cut if off before you get to John Mitchell, it’s not a coverup. They’re giving them something.

So he has this strange rationalization for what is a coverup and what is not. And he’s willing to keep it going up as necessary, but when he gets to Jeb Magruder, he’s worried. He’s worried not only because it does go to Mitchell but because it might even come over to Haldeman. So that’s where he wants it cut.

What does it take to go into the Oval Office and tell the president that there’s a cancer on the presidency? Is that a line that you had planned, or which comes out contemporaneously?

Yeah, it just struck me as something that might get his attention and realize the seriousness of what I was trying to tell him. And it did. But he wrote in his diary later that night that he thought I was overreacting. I was just raising one horror after another and thought that he would at some point say, "Let's end it."

Was that naive?

Let me put it this way: I went to work for an image of a man, who I thought he was. When I met him on March 21, it wasn’t the same man. It was like the curtain came open and I saw who the real wizard was.

The real Nixonian darkness.


What surprised you the most from his reaction?

The non-reaction. He has answers for everything I raised.

And it's, "I can get money. We can take care of that."

Not only does he say it, after I leave, I now know he goes out and asks [secretary] Rose Woods, "How much do we have in our slush fund?" I mean, jeez!

And its 400,000 bucks.

Before that, he’s selling an ambassadorship, for god’s sake, to raise money. A whole different picture of Nixon arises in this book, as to what he actually was. He wasn’t just sort of tepidly and passively, and a little bit involved. He’s in the middle of this. It's for him, blessed by him.

What is your relationship like with him after March 21? 

That’s pretty much my last conversation with him.

And behind the scenes, the conversation moves to how they could push you out, blame the coverup on you, protect the president -- and hope you keep quiet.  

They just feel it can be Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman"s word against mine, and that they will win.

If the taping system isn’t revealed, that might have worked.

Exactly right.

Back to Liddy: Early in the week after the arrests, Gordon meets you and takes responsibility for it all going wrong. And he says if you want to have him killed, just tell him which street corner to be standing on, and he'll be there to be taken out.

He tells me that on June 19, when we were down 15th Street. And I kind of just gave him a flat answer; I thought this was all a little theatrical. I said, "Gordon, I don’t think that’ll be necessary."

Ever regret that choice?

Might have been a mistake.

Although I really wasn’t inclined — I’m not somebody who really thinks he can join in a conspiracy to commit murder. As much as I might like.

There's a quote from Nixon about you in this book: "Dean has become harder in the job. Because he’s a guy, in spite of his Playboy image, who is very deceptive. He’s a playboy, he’s got a beautiful girl who lives with him who’s not his wife, he changes them every once in a while. He loves rock music and discotheques." (Laughter) That must have been an interesting quote to come across on these tapes.

There were several of those. And the only way to honestly report them was to put them in, you know.

Well, they get into my sex life later. What’s most interesting about that, when that kind of stuff comes up with anybody else, it's been withdrawn if they were still alive. Mine stayed in. Because there’s some stuff like that about Kissinger in there. And it’s all withdrawn.

How should we see Nixon now? On one hand, there's been some Nixon revisionism as Republicans turned so hard to the right that people look at OSHA, at the EPA, and say that Nixon was practically a liberal compared to conservatives today. 

Well, first I’m not sure if those are really Nixon. I heard some tapes — I didn’t put everything I heard in there, but there was clearly some stuff where Nixon is telling John Ehrlichman, who is something of a liberal/progressive — certainly a moderate at the time — who wants these ideas. And Nixon, in essence, tells him, go ahead and do whatever you want, just don’t get me arrested, or don’t get me in trouble. Not arrested, but you know, don’t get me politically in trouble for any of this stuff. So it’s really not Nixon driving any of this stuff.

On one hand, the domestic agenda is fairly progressive.

It is.

On the other hand, Nixon going back to his first campaign against Helen Douglas and "the Pink Lady" was a pretty nasty character. And he probably would have been right at home with the Tea Party today.

Exactly what I was going to say. He was an opportunist and I think he would feel very comfortable with the Tea Party.

At the same time, some of Nixon's abuses, as horrible as it is to hear them being coordinated from the Oval Office, seem almost quaint compared to Iran-Contra, or what we saw under Bush/Cheney, or the extent of the NSA surveillance state revealed by Edward Snowden.

No question. We don’t know what the parallels were from earlier, if the NSA was doing the same kind of stuff.  The Church Committee certainly uncovered a lot of unseemly stuff, and I think because technology changed, the NSA changed. And people today, they just give up so much of their freedom with the Internet. Because they get a free app. They get a good search engine.

There are lots of conspiracy theories still floated about Watergate, some of them wild, but a lot of them lead to really normal and interesting questions: the bug on O'Brien's phone not working, being a toy in the end. The bugging of Spencer Oliver's phone instead, a lower-level official. The way they taped the doors, not once but twice, perhaps making it even easier for them to be caught. 

To elevate it to a conspiracy theory is giving these guys competence they didn’t have. First of all, James McCord is not a very bright fellow. As best I can tell, he was essentially a janitor at the CIA. He swept and looked for surveillance in their headquarters. This is not high tech. The Post dropped this line, and no one really picked it up afterwards, but his equipment was antiquated, it was amateurish.

Well, that feeds the conspiracy theory: McCord was an experienced guy and he went in with junk. So what was his agenda?

No, this isn’t a sophisticated job. On the phone-in shows, you get these questions about the CIA and all that, and it just doesn’t work. And certainly if it did, something would have come up in these tapes. If there was a call girl ring being operated or any of that craziness, this just blows that all away. No one had any thought of any of that.

Well, there's some sense that the reports Mitchell was getting from the bugs were of a sexual nature. But what if you’ve got somebody —


Like Hunt or McCord on the inside, who has a different agenda and a different boss than the White House imagined?

They’re not … there’s just not a sign that they were. There’s no evidence. So McCord tapes the door this way? He’s just not smart, the lock wasn’t staying closed this other way.

The tape gets pulled off once, McCord goes back, does it the same way a second time.

Stupid. Stupid explains it. It’s also apparently the way the janitor did it.

The thought being that there are folks in the CIA that get anxious about the Huston Plan over domestic intelligence gathering and worry that Nixon and the White House were going to stumble across these other things -- and that Hunt and McCord are working for them and sabotage the break-in.

How would you keep something like this a secret all these years? And why wouldn’t someone in the White House know?

Because they were being played.

And how would all these events unfold the way they did?

Are there questions we still don’t know the answers to? Or do we have a sense of pretty much everything that happened?

Yeah, not to me. I don’t think there’s an unanswered question. And the record is so thorough, and the primary sources in this book are so solid. I guess what they’ll say is, "Well, he selectively took material from the tapes."  Just go check them yourself and tell them what I got wrong. Build your own transcripts.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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