From John Dean to Michael Cohen: A crisis of American politics, and American meaning

Everything I know about America I learned from the Watergate hearings. What if I learned the wrong lessons?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 3, 2019 12:55PM (EST)

John Dean III testifying on the Watergate case, June 27, 1973; Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight Committee on February 27, 2019. (Getty/AP/Salon)
John Dean III testifying on the Watergate case, June 27, 1973; Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight Committee on February 27, 2019. (Getty/AP/Salon)

Last week’s extraordinary Capitol Hill appearance by Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal attorney, had one obvious historical precedent that was mentioned by nearly everyone: The testimony of John Dean, former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, before the Senate Watergate Committee in June of 1973. That marked the beginning of the end of Nixon’s presidency, and shaped the political consciousness of millions of Americans, including me.

Dean himself, still wry and vigorous at age 80, appeared as a commentator on CNN, before and after Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee. He then wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, published on Friday, that elucidated the similarities and differences.

Neither man’s Dostoevsky-style journey toward redemption should be the nation’s principal concern, then or now, but the note of personal anguish in Dean’s Times article was nonetheless striking:

Mr. Cohen should understand that if Mr. Trump is removed from office, or defeated in 2020, in part because of his testimony, he will be reminded of it for the rest of his life. He will be blamed by Republicans but appreciated by Democrats. If he achieves anything short of discovering the cure for cancer, he will always live in this pigeonhole. How do I know this? I am still dealing with it.

Even so, Dean did not lay out the parallels as clearly as he might have. He engaged in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice with the president of the United States, and then became either a national hero or villain — depending entirely on one’s perspective — by turning against that president and telling the truth about their misdeeds. I don’t think anyone who observed Cohen’s testimony last Wednesday, including President Trump’s most ardent defenders on the Oversight Committee, has any serious doubt that the same is true here. But the unanswered question for America in 2019 is whether the truth actually matters, at least in the sense it once did.

Of course we cannot gauge how history will view Michael Cohen, who has a much longer career of dubious and corrupt behavior and who clearly “flipped” on Trump, to use the president’s own terminology, as part of a deal with federal prosecutors. (John Dean was only 35 years old in 1973, and his pre-Nixon record was squeaky-clean.) But the two men are products of different eras, and reflect a disturbing process of evolution. Marx’s famous observation that history tends to repeat itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, is overused because it captures something essential. In this case, I would say that Michael Cohen is both things at once, and the two strands are inextricable.

Although I don’t remember much about the specifics of Dean’s testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, I remember the experience of watching it very well. For those five riveting days, and indeed throughout that summer, my father and I perched on the moldering brown sofa in the front room of my parents’ ramshackle summer house in the California mountains, watching the Watergate hearings on a tiny black-and-white TV he had purchased at JC Penney. I think he bought the TV originally to watch the Moon landing in 1969, although I don’t clearly remember that. I know we had watched the Oakland A’s win their first-ever World Series the previous fall — a significant cultural event in itself, and one that tempts me toward a longer digression. (Some other time.)

I’m sure other things must have happened that summer. Our Siamese cats brought home rodents and lizards and, more alarmingly, baby rattlesnakes. I took swimming lessons, which included getting to practice the “cross-chest carry” with a girl named Marissa. I played on our town’s youth baseball team, whose talent level was miscellaneous enough that I wasn’t even close to being the worst hitter. But mostly I sat on that sofa with my dad and learned about America. Since I had spent my entire life up to that point either in Berkeley, California, or overseas, it was a country I knew about mostly by reputation.

My father had himself come to the United States as a teenager, and viewed American politics with the hard-headed, studious ardor of a newcomer. He held strong opinions on Calvin Coolidge, which can only have been inherited from a stepfather or uncle or neighbor. He was a fiercely loyal Irish Catholic Democrat who still bore the scars of the country’s rejection of Al Smith, the first major-party Catholic nominee, in the 1928 election — although that too was an event he did not remember.

I’m pretty sure, however, that my dad’s first vote as a U.S. citizen was for a Republican: World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower, in the 1952 election. I once viewed that with filial condescension: Look at the immigrant, trying to prove how patriotic he is! Decades later, living in a New York neighborhood full of immigrants from around the world — not too far from where my dad lived when he first got here — I don’t think about it that way anymore.

Along with all other adult Americans of that time, my dad had lived through a traumatic decade. He had initially supported the Vietnam War, with considerable misgivings, and then had turned against it. He had come to despise Lyndon Johnson, fairly or not, and although he was never a radical or a leftist flat-out refused to vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. (Yes, I hear you, zero-sum Democrats: So Nixon was actually his fault. Duly noted.) The Kennedy assassinations had broken his heart. I can remember him crying at the breakfast table, on a morning when the San Francisco Chronicle had an all-caps, red-ink headline I did not understand: RFK SHOT.

So for my father, and for many other people besides, the Watergate hearings felt like a moment of renewal. It was evidence that despite everything the nation had endured the arc of history still more or less bent in the direction of justice. Truth still mattered; in the epic, sprawling narrative of America, vice would eventually be punished and virtue rewarded. Everything about that committee suggested that the flawed machineries of American democracy still functioned: the courtly, theatrical demeanor of Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, the committee chair; the way that Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, Nixon’s staunchest defender, gradually began to retreat before the avalanche of damning evidence; the blunt language of Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who lost his arm and won the Medal of Honor fighting in Italy while many of his fellow Japanese-Americans were in internment camps back home.

I don’t remember my father’s specific reactions to John Dean’s testimony, but along with the rest of the country we could feel that the lid was suddenly popping off the Watergate conspiracy. As Dean observes in his Times article, 80 million people reportedly watched all or part of his marathon appearance, a number roughly equivalent to half the adult American population at the time. (As huge an event as Cohen’s testimony seemed to be, its live audience was less than one-fourth that size.)

For my father, I think it possessed a special, half-hidden meaning: To see a scion of the WASP prep-school Republican elite such as John Wesley Dean III stand up for the truth, against his own party and his own president, must have seemed like proof that this was still a country whose principles were more powerful than partisanship or class privilege. That was perhaps too idealistic even for 1973: As Dean makes clear, many conservatives have never forgiven his apostasy, and Nixon apologists to this day depict him as a self-serving rat who saved his own ass by throwing his boss under the wheels of history.

In our town in the California mountains, the local postmistress, Mrs. Supinger, was one of those people. She refused to remove Nixon’s official portrait from the post office wall after his 1974 resignation, and bitterly told all visitors that he had been a good man unfairly persecuted by the “Democrat Party.” (That formulation has been around longer than people think.) After Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, Mrs. Supinger moved the presidential portraits to a dusty back corner, and hung FBI posters of most-wanted fugitives up in their place. To my knowledge, neither New York mobsters nor escaped Black Panthers were ever apprehended in Placer County, California. I’m sure she felt she was doing her duty.

I do not want to sentimentalize that era: Mrs. Supinger did not believe John Dean was telling the truth about Nixon, and quite likely believed that her beloved president was the victim of a “deep-state coup.” (In those days the term of art would have been “Communist plot.”) She did not care about the so-called facts, and did not deem them to be trustworthy if they came from scurrilous sources.

But hers was still a fringe position, fueled by the John Birch Society and "None Dare Call It Conspiracy." Republicans, both in Congress and in general, reluctantly accepted that the facts mattered and increasingly were not on Nixon’s side. When articles of impeachment were passed by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, it was largely on a party-line vote. But as that year progressed, more and more Republicans began to defect. When Sen. Barry Goldwater, the spiritual leader of the conservative movement, went to the White House that August to tell Nixon the jig was up, it was a pragmatic, political calculation: Impeachment in the House was a foregone conclusion, and more than enough Republicans would vote to convict him in a Senate trial.

We don’t need to hold a graduate seminar on the epistemological crisis of the Trump era to see that no such thing is likely to occur today. Whether or not Michael Cohen was telling the truth about Donald Trump — and whether or not the facts about Trump are many times more damning than the facts about Richard Nixon — is not even a subject of debate, and was of little or no interest to the Republicans on the Oversight Committee.

Let’s offer a moment of parenthetical, bewildered admiration for Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a libertarian oddball Republican who asked Cohen some actual questions and appeared to acknowledge that the truth about President Trump’s abundant corruption might be worth learning. But despite that brief Watergate flashback, the Republican Party has now gone full Mrs. Supinger, although without the odoriferous Aqua Net hairstyle and the strange, pucker-inducing hard candies she offered to children.

In the current Republican worldview, there are no facts worth knowing and no principles worth upholding. As has become abundantly clear after the Trumpian insurgency that turned the GOP inside out, there is also no ideology and no core beliefs. There is only the struggle for power, conducted by any means necessary.

Richard Nixon and John Dean brought us here; I think there’s no question about that. But the true lessons of that history are still hidden from us. Whether or not America can overcome this crisis — which is a crisis of politics and culture and meaning and damn near everything else — as it apparently overcame the Watergate crisis is impossible to say. But I don’t think it’s helpful to understate the nature of the crisis by blandly observing that some Americans still believe in a shared, objective, evidence-based reality, and we may well be able to elect someone else president next time around. So, heck, this weirdness will soon go away, right?

My dad would not have been fooled by that. He died pretty young, a long time ago. Although I think about him every day — as many of you know, a dead parent is always with you — for the most part I feel grateful he didn’t have to see this. I wouldn’t want him to feel like the lessons he taught me about America, as we sat on that uncomfortable couch through those long, hot afternoons, watching those flickering images piped in from thousands of miles away, simply weren’t true.





By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir