A Review of John Dean’s “The Nixon Defense”

The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew ItThe Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This John Dean book should be very interesting to those that remain fascinated by Watergate, or Richard Nixon. I watched all of the Dean testimony before the Watergate Committee, and I was amazed, as a youngster, at his command of detail. That same command is exhibited here, with Dean having access to the library of Watergate tapes that are now part of the public record. Dean’s testimony before the Ervin Committee, as detailed as it was, was made without the benefit of review of the tapes made by President Nixon. This book allows Dean, a participant in the acts of conspiracy and obstruction of justice, to review the audio tapes, and create a truly impressive record of how the Watergate matter unfolded, using those tapes to let us hear directly from the participants, taking us from the start of the cover-up to the end.

The book brings us some of the major figures of the Nixon Administration, and some of the lesser lights that played an outsized role in the Watergate scandal. For those that might not be familiar with those players the book may not be the best place to start a study of Watergate, but you will get here eventually. From Jeb Magruder all the way to John Mitchell the story has a large cast of individuals that were wrapped up in the Watergate scandal, and other acts of the Nixon Administration, that toppled the President.

Richard Nixon truly was, if nothing else, a ruthless and brilliant politician, who was on every national ticket from 1952-1972, with the exception of 1964. The White House recordings show us how Nixon tried to “manage” the Watergate affair from the start, and truly botched it badly, despite his usually strong political instincts. Dean takes us along on a calendar ride, examining the White House political response to the initial break in at the Watergate, and then follows the calendar expertly, showing us how this initial political brush fire turned into a conflagration. As time passes, whether it be Watergate or other matters, our memory tends to fade, with the motivations of those involved part of that memory loss. Dean gives us not only a good review of the timeline but a pretty good narrative on the motivations of the individuals we get to hear through President Nixon’s taping system.

So what happened to Nixon’s usually solid political instincts, and how did he manage to get himself directly caught up in the conspiracy to obstruct justice? As badly as Nixon handled the matter the tapes show us a President who almost made it out of this mess wounded but intact. Without the tapes Nixon might have been able to weather the storm. Nixon started by looking to limit the fall-out to the five burglars and E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, hoping to get guilty pleas and light sentences that would contain the scandal there. But the connection between these 7, and the White House through the Nixon re-elect committee, and the direct connection between Hunt and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, and Presidential Domestic Advisor John Ehrlichman, and Presidential “troubleshooter” Charles Colson, presented some real political problems for the Nixon White House. These problems were not limited to the Watergate matter, which was the true crux of Nixon’s problem. A real investigation of Watergate would likely uncover other, unrelated to Watergate illegalities that might come to light and that were directly tied to the Nixon White House, and likely to Nixon himself. That fact, more than Nixon’s direct handling of Watergate, in my view, led to the unraveling of the cover up. As Nixon plugged one hole in the dike other leaks sprung forward, eventually overwhelming Nixon and leading to disaster for his presidency. Bob Haldeman saw the risk after the break in, on June 20, 1972:

“Haldeman, however, did record in his diary that evening: ‘I had a long meeting with Ehrlichman and Mitchell. We added Kleindienst for a little while and John Dean for quite a while. The conclusion was that we’ve got to hope the FBI doesn’t go beyond what is necessary in developing evidence and that we can keep a lid on that, as well as keeping all the characters involved from getting carried away with any unnecessary testimony.’ “

Dean, John “The Nixon Defense” Page 19

As the White House and the Nixon re-elect Committee both scrambled to find out what the exposure was they came into information that would likely have put former Attorney General (and head of the Nixon re-elect Committee) John Mitchell at serious risk. Activities related to the break in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s (the man who released the Pentagon Papers) doctor presented a real problem. The tangled web of illegal activities directed by the Nixon Administration made localizing the Watergate break in to the actual burglars next to impossible. Nixon’s desire to protect an old associate, and the former Attorney General of the United States, John Mitchell, from legal peril contributed greatly to the eventual collapse of the cover-up.

Beyond the direct connection to the White House the investigators were able to trace the money, connecting the dots on money found back to the Nixon re-elect Committee, and eventually back to major players in the Nixon money operation. Haldeman outlined the problem for Nixon on June 23, 1972:

“ ‘Now on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break in thing,” Haldeman began, ‘we’re back to the problem area, because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and their investigation is now leading into some productive areas.’ More specifically, he explained, the FBI had ‘been able to trace the money ‘ found on the burglars to the bank that issued the new hundred-dollar bills , although not to the individuals to whom the bills had been given. ‘And, and it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.’”

Dean, John “The Nixon Defense” Page 56

Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, appointed on an interim basis to replace J. Edgar Hoover, proved to be a disaster in every respect as FBI Director. When Nixon reluctantly, at a later point, sent Gray up for confirmation as Director the Senate hearing on that appointment turned into a major disaster for Nixon, as well as for Gray. The Nixon team, realizing that matters were indeed getting out of hand, concocted the idea to use the CIA to “warn off” the FBI, and get them to limit, or stop the investigation. 

“Haldeman then continued with his recommendation regarding the out-of-control FBI: ‘That the way to handle this now is for us to have [CIA deputy director Vernon] Walters call Pat Gray and just say, stay the hell out of this business here, we don’t want you to go any further on it.’”

Dean, John “The Nixon Defense” Page 56

Nixon bought in, and so directed Haldeman, on June 23 in advance of a Haldeman meeting with Vernon Walters and Richard Helms of the CIA:

“‘I’d say, the primary reason, you’ve got to cut it the hell off, I just don’t think , ah, it would be very bad to have this fellow Hunt, you know, he knows too damn much. And he was involved [in the Watergate break-in], we happen to know that. And if it gets out, the whole, this is all involved in the Cuban thing, it’s a fiasco, and it’s going to make the FBI’-he had misspoken and corrected himself-‘the CIA look bad, it’s going to make Hunt look bad, and it’s likely to blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing, which we think would be very unfortunate for the CIA, and for the country at this time, and for American foreign policy. And he’s just got to tell them, lay off.’”

Dean, John “The Nixon Defense” Page 61

That tape would eventually be considered the Nixon “smoking gun” tape which would, when released, finish him off politically. Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up was clear, and it also involved knowledge of perjured testimony, suborning additional perjury, and approval of the payment of hush money to the original Watergate defendants. This book brings us much more than an indictment of Nixon. Dean shows us Nixon and his staff trying to their best to seal this off before it crippled them, and largely failing each step of the way. It really is a fascinating story, with Dean showing, in my view, a bit of sympathy for Nixon. He never whitewashes Nixon’s actions, but shows that Nixon really was trying to ascertain some of the particulars with regards to people close to him. What was Mitchell’s level of knowledge, in advance, of the Watergate break in? Who authorized what, and when? Dean speculates, and shows fairly convincingly, that Nixon, for all his faults, was pretty poorly served by his closest associates, including Haldeman, but especially Ehrlichman and Mitchell. Plenty of blame to go around, but Nixon had to weed his way through some internal evasions, and outright lies, from top staff, who came to realize the legal jeopardy that they were in. As Nixon came to the same realization he continued to try to contain the matter, but as his co-conspirators fled the ship, (John Dean initially, but many others later) he resorted to the same types of internal evasions, and outright lies, that had helped to get him into the mess. Dean, realizing before the others that the group, including Nixon, was likely guilty of a conspiracy to obstruct justice, warned Nixon in his “cancer on the Presidency” talk of March 21, 1973 that serious legal problems lay ahead for the key staff, including Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and Dean himself. It would not be possible, in light of that tape, to make the case that Nixon did not understand the conspiracy to obstruct justice that was ongoing.

Did I learn anything new from the Dean book? I did in fact find out that the Nixon White House, through the President himself, had a pretty good feel for what the Justice Department was doing by Presidential talks with AAG Henry Peterson, and with AG Richard Kleindienst. Neither man was charged with wrongdoing for those conversations, with Peterson eventually ceding control of the investigation to Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon was not shy about asking, and without question received information that he should not have had from both Peterson and Kleindienst. I was a little surprised by the extent of the involvement of Haldeman and Ehrlichman in the operational side of the “intelligence” operations mounted by the Administration. I never realized the extent to which they had participated, especially Ehrlichman. They had greater legal exposure than the conspiracy to obstruct, which is likely a key reason that Nixon could not go down the “full hang out” road. I also learned that the Nixon Administration, through Haldeman, had a very clear understanding that some of the most damaging press leaks were coming from FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, “Deep Throat” of Woodward and Bernstein fame. Dean paints Felt as eager to undermine Acting Director Gray, who was not considered to be a true FBI man, as well as ambitious for the FBI Director’s job. In today’s world Felt might be characterized as part of the “Deep State.” If Nixon had survived politically Felt would not have been in a very good position.

The times were different but some important lessons can be taken from the Watergate scandal. Having the President “interfere” at a Justice Department charged with investigating crimes committed by members of his Administration, with the President possibly being a subject of investigation, is a pretty bad idea. When the facts came to light on Nixon’s actions major figures in the GOP decided that the country was more important than the Party, and made it clear to Nixon that they could not support his continuing in office. When Nixon fired the Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox it was Republican Attorney General Eliot Richardson, and then his Deputy William Ruckelshaus that refused his order, and created a political firestorm by themselves being fired by Nixon. Nixon always considered his actions “fighting back” politically, and consistently pointed to the actions of Democratic Presidents, who he felt had committed similar illegalities. The “What Aboutism” argument is not a recent creation. But as Nixon came to find out obstructing justice is not the same as political infighting. For those looking to learn more about Watergate I highly recommend this book.

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