John Dean is uniquely suited to write the definitive history of the Watergate cover-up: He has written a previous research-driven political history, was White House counsel for Richard Nixon when the scandal broke, testified before the Senate Watergate Committee, and—the part he’ll never forget—pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice in connection with the scandal and spent four months in federal prison.
Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate story 40 years ago for The Washington Post, wrote in his recent review of The Nixon Defense that Dean “brings the microscope as close to the Nixon of Watergate as anyone has.”
Dean talked to The Daily Beast about why lawyers make great historians, how he transcribed 4 million words from the Nixon tapes without going crazy, and how he does (and doesn’t) understand Nixon better after finishing the book.
Dean also breaks a little news: A Hollywood studio is developing The Nixon Defense as a TV series.
What do you think Nixon’s legacy is today?
It’s been cast a couple of ways. There are those who write about it without Watergate, and there are those who write about it with Watergate. You come out with different results. As historian Stanley Kutler put it when he first learned of another historian writing about Nixon without Watergate, it’s like Hitler without the Holocaust. That’s a little bit of an over-dramatization, but clearly you can’t look at Nixon without Watergate. It defines the end of his presidency.
Secondly, there’s no question that Nixon did have some major and lasting accomplishments. Everything from domestic policy with things like EPA to his foreign policy initiatives like China, and those are pretty lasting. I don’t know how those will be remembered; some people are worried about China now, and a lot of people are worried about the EPA. It will depend on the point of view of the historian.
As for Watergate, I learned so much more about it doing this book that it actually colors my view of the Nixon presidency. A couple of people reviewing it have called me because they just found it jaw-dropping, and these are people who are pretty familiar with Watergate, and it was for me too. I don’t pause in telling the story to reflect on it; one, I don’t put flashing lights on new information, and two, I don’t really draw conclusions. I just try to tell the story and stay out of the way as best as I can.
There’s no question when you digest it that Nixon’s management of the matter is just incredibly bad. It’s just one bad decision after another. It’s clear why he’s making these bad decisions is that he just refuses to look at facts, refuses to inform himself with information readily available to him, and it pulls down his presidency.
In the book, you stay pretty much within the confines of Watergate, right?
I do, I do. Watergate has become very broadly defined as any abuse of power during the Nixon presidency, but I focus principally on his dealing and reaction to the Watergate break-in and the arrests at the Watergate on June 17, 1972. He is on the defensive from the very moment he learns about it, and that’s where the title comes from. The defenses change, and the last part of the book is really where he gets down to a written defense, but his defenses were evolving.
Do you come down more on the side that it was a snowball of bad decisions or that it was a concerted effort to outlast the story in time for the ’72 election?
It is some of both. You can’t really simply describe it. Initially, it’s clearly a political reaction. We all got involved and got ourselves in trouble by really not looking at the implications of it. Nixon wants it to go away. He doesn’t want to play it up like he did the ITT scandal, where he was actually innocent, as the Watergate prosecutor later established. ITT, which I describe in the book in about a page, is the scandal where the Nixon administration is accused of taking $400,000 to settle an antitrust case against ITT in exchange for ITT underwriting the Republican convention that was planned for San Diego. And it was just untrue.
Nixon did not want to repeat what had happened with ITT, so he tried to stay away from that over-reaction. As a result, there’s an under-reaction to Watergate, which was a far more serious problem. Also, [H.R.] Haldeman and [John] Ehrlichman—other than The Washington Post—are Nixon’s only sources of information for the first eight months until he starts calling on me. Haldeman and Ehrlichman are not giving him the facts; he doesn’t want all the facts, but then he asks for the answer to this, this and this, and they don’t give him the facts. They even lie to him about their own roles. This also influences his bad decisions. No one warns him.
You wrote a book called Warren G. Harding. Is that a straight biography?
It was part of a series that Arthur Schlesinger did on the then 42 former presidents. I had known Arthur for years, and so I called him and said, “I’m not calling about Nixon, but what you are you going to do about Warren Harding?” He said, “I don’t have a clue. Are you interested?” I grew up in Warren Harding’s hometown in Marion, Ohio. He was in the sense my first president. My next-door neighbor was editor of the Marion Star, which Harding started and was the source of his modest but not insubstantial wealth. This editor gave me a couple of books on Harding when I was about 13, so he was my first president, if you will.
Over the years, as I told Arthur, I probably have every book that’s ever been written [on Harding], and there’s a lot of garbage out there. It’s one of those things where he has been tarred and feathered with Teapot Dome. From everything I can find, he’s not involved. Historians just refused to get into the basic facts. And I said, “Arthur, some of your friends, including you, have done really terrible jobs on him.” So he said, “You take it and run with it and see if you can turn me.” When I turned the manuscript in, I had turned him. He said, “You’ve convinced me. Just do me one favor: Just don’t beat up on all my friends. Save that for another book.” So I took some of that out.
“It’s clear why he’s making these bad decisions is that he just refuses to look at facts, refuses to inform himself with information readily available to him, and it pulls down his presidency.”
Meaning other historians?
Other historians who just clearly made no effort to look at Harding’s papers. I think oral history is terrible. When you get a source like actual documents from a presidency—the myth that all of Harding’s papers had been destroyed was just was not true. There was a substantial amount of them. Harding is something like an Eisenhower—very admired at the time of his presidency. When he dies in office, it was not unlike when Lincoln died. The nation was in mourning.
Did you know how to be a historian before you wrote that?
I would argue that lawyers are better historians than most historians. A legal training, I think, is much stronger for historical digging than the way most people come to it. They have critical thinking and research courses in undergraduate and graduate, but I just think the way historians handle evidence makes me suspect at times, whereas lawyers certainly know hearsay and are more analytical than some historians. There are great historians, no question, but someone with legal training can jump right into that field.
Did you approach The Nixon Defense knowing there was a lot of new material you wanted to get to, or did you find those in progress?
I first discovered nobody had ever cataloged all of the Watergate conversations. When I started this book, I was really just trying to answer a very narrow question: How could somebody as smart and savvy and politically astute as Richard Nixon let this third-rate burglary blow away his presidency? It’s almost incomprehensible that this thing got out of hand the way it did. I was there and things happened around me, and I didn’t know what happened behind closed doors. I thought the tapes that had already been transcribed would answer that.
I started looking at them to, for example, figure out how he came up with his March 22 and April 30 statements of his defense where he’s saying, “I didn’t know anything about this until my counsel John Dean came in and told me there was a cancer on the presidency with the cover-up.” I couldn’t understand how he would make that decision. I knew damn well it wasn’t true.
When I got in there and started to unravel it, I realized there’s a gap. There’s a lot of conversations that nobody had transcribed. Most of the transcripts that are available are partial. There’s better equipment today to hear this stuff. In testing some of the transcripts, I could hear stuff on the digital version that clearly those listening to the analog version could not hear, so I decided to do them all over.
Are you going to make your transcripts available?
I don’t know what I’m going to do with the transcripts yet. There are 21 volumes of 3-inch notebooks here containing thousands of transcribed conversations. I’ve estimated roughly about 4 million words. It’s huge. I did about 250 conversations. My lead transcriber who is getting her Ph.D. in archival science did 500 transcripts, and my other grad students did about another 250.
Eventually, I might put the transcripts out. My editor and I have talked about it.
Some of these have been released within the last year, right?
Yes, but I was ahead of the National Archives. I went to the Nixon Library and digitized all the tapes that I needed. [The National Archives] didn’t catch up with me until I was writing the last part. I was able to check some places where there had been some withdrawn information where I knew the basis for the withdrawal no longer existed, like when the people were dead. So I was able to fill in a couple of gaps that way as I was writing the last part of the book.
[The Nixon Library] had them on audio cassettes. I found a company in the U.K. that made a digitizer where you can take a cassette and put it in the machine and run it through a computer and come up with a digital version. You can do a 90-minute in about 5 minutes. The people at the Nixon Library salivated watching this machine. I went out there and digitized hundreds of conversations.
You said at the beginning that you came out the other side of this project feeling different about Watergate than you did going in. What specifically?
I didn’t understand how the mess had happened. I do now. You see first Nixon’s reaction of not wanting information, then when he wants information he’s not given it. He is very deep into the process when he then takes charge of it, and by then he’s taking charge of a cover-up of the cover-up.
How many times did you talk to Nixon after he resigned?
You never spoke to him again?
No. I wasn’t alone. He had no relationship with Ehrlichman either. And a pretty damaged relationship with Haldeman; they somewhat patched it up but never totally.
Do you think the historical view of Nixon has changed in the last 40 years?
You know, it’s interesting. Historians on the right would just as soon avoid Nixon rather than address him. Some of them try to put Watergate aside. Some of them try to twist Watergate and write a story of bogus revisionism. There’s been a whole school of that by some not-very-able people, but they just don’t care; they’ll write anything for the quick buck and are doing more damage by trying to create way-out conspiracy theories.
The Jerome Corsi-type books?
Yeah, exactly. No legitimate person takes them seriously, but there are people who like to read that stuff. I don’t see a dramatic change in that history. He did his best to run for the office of ex-president and got there, but it’s not without its blemishes. Watergate is just not going to go away. I’m surprised nobody ever did what I have done, and I wish somebody else had done it. It was just something once I started that the story had never been fully addressed.
Do you consider yourself a historian?
Not really. [Laughs.] I’m an avocational writer. I wrote two books before I got very active in business, and then I did well enough in business that I could write in retirement. I’m doing it for what interests me. Writing a book is like studying for the bar exam. You never know more than the day you go in and take that bar exam. Same with a book. Right now, I’m just a human encyclopedia on Watergate. I know more about it than I’ll ever know, and that’s what I was curious to know.
Are you more sympathetic or less sympathetic to Nixon having gone through the exercise of writing this book?
I don’t know that I have arrived at any feeling on that. He’s pretty brutal in here. I certainly understand him better now, and it’s not necessarily prettier. There are parts of this story where he’s lying to Haldeman, he’s lying to Ehrlichman, he’s lying to me. In a sense he’s lying to himself, but he can keep all the stories straight. He’s certainly a complex figure; I’ll say that.
How much of the things that are part of presidential politics today—political polarization, coarsening of campaigns, identification by party, etc.—do you think is attributable to Watergate?
A lot of that really does come from Nixon’s style of politics. He was the inventor of the wedge issue, and his effort to Republicanize the South post-Lyndon Johnson because of civil rights helped redefine the parties. When there was no [longer] a conservative bloc within the Democratic Party, that pushed the Democrats to the left and the Republicans to the right.
Has anyone acquired film or television rights?
There’s been interest in Hollywood in doing some project relating to this book.
Has it been optioned by a production company?
It has—by a very successful production house.
You can’t say who?
I’ll let them speak to that.
Is it being eyed for series or for a feature?
I think for series at this point.