by James Rosen

In October 1973, with impeachment proceedings looming as a result of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon proposed a compromise to the courts and to members of Congress, who were demanding access to the secret tapes of Nixon’s conversations with aides. The existence of his taping system had been publicly disclosed in July and was swiftly triggering a constitutional clash over executive privilege and its limits in the context of a pending criminal investigation.

Naively imagining that the proposal would mollify his enemies, Nixon said he would turn over the relevant recordings to Senator John C. Stennis, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi. The White House would then prepare summaries of the subpoenaed conversations for investigators, which Stennis could authenticate by listening to the tapes themselves. The “Stennis compromise” was ridiculed by Time magazine with a photo of the septuagenarian lawmaker cupping his ear, and the caption: “Technical Assistance Needed.”

It wasn’t just Stennis’s infirmities, of course, that rendered Nixon’s proposal laughable at the time; it was the suggestion that the president, by then identified as an actor in the Watergate saga, could be trusted to appoint the sole arbiter of the critical evidence in the case. Now, four decades later, John W. Dean III, a central figure in the Watergate saga, has arrogated the same authority to himself, with The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (Viking, 784 pp).

The sixth of Dean’s books about the Nixon presidency, and his fifth about Watergate, The Nixon Defense offers a day-by-day account of the scandal over the course of 13 months, from the arrests of June 1972 through the dismantlement of Nixon’s taping system in July 1973. Dean claims to have identified several hundred Watergate conversations on tape segments that only he, working with a team of students, has freshly reviewed and transcribed. With the help of audio-enhancing software, they commenced their work in 2009. But rather than publish complete verbatim transcripts of these excavated conversations, The Nixon Defense presents a highly selective prose narrative of the first half of the Watergate scandal, heavily salted with edited quotations from these “new” transcripts.

The problem, of course, is that Dean is no disinterested party. While at one point in the book he describes himself, with a straight face, as a “Nixon historian,” Dean was Nixon’s White House counsel and the admitted “desk officer” of the Watergate cover-up. Nine months into the mushrooming scandal, Dean bargained for immunity and won himself a lenient prison term by delivering the sensational, if deeply flawed, testimony—before the klieg lights of the Senate Watergate committee (1973), the House Judiciary Committee (1974), and the trial of U.S. v. Mitchell (1974)—that helped convict Nixon’s top former aides: former Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, and domestic-policy chief John Ehrlichman.

Ever since then, Dean’s true role in Watergate has attracted vigorous debate. By 2009, the New York Times was acknowledging the existence of “rival visions” of Dean: He was either “a flawed but ultimately courageous man reluctantly sucked into the scandal” or “a primary architect of the cover-up who saved himself by deflecting guilt.” In fact, numerous scholars, myself included, have argued that the great mass of evidence that emerged after 1974 shows that Dean was motivated to assume his central role in the Watergate cover-up not because he suffered from “blind ambition” (the title of his 1976 memoir) but because he wanted to conceal his role in authorizing the ill-fated break-in and wiretapping operation at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Dean was no bystander, no Brutus seduced by power, but a Cassius, a lead actor in the crime. Indeed, the original Watergate prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert, concluded that Dean stood “at the center of the criminality.” He vehemently denies having ordered the Watergate operation and has spent much of the last two decades litigating or threatening to litigate, without success, against historians and others who have so argued.

Whatever Dean’s true role, there can be no doubting that today, at age 76, he is one of the last surviving major figures of the Nixon presidency and remains, now more than ever, a decidedly interested party in Watergate, with an extant version of the affair, if not several competing ones, that he wishes to see cemented in history.

The problem of Dean’s self-interest recurs throughout The Nixon Defense and fatally undermines it as a work of scholarship; at more than 700 pages of text and source notes, Opus de Self-Justifio would have been the more apt title. Frequently Dean interrupts his running narrative of the “new” tapes to tell us what other speakers were thinking when they spoke. He pauses to tell us when others made false or myopic statements on the tapes. He attacks other people’s Watergate memoirs when they are seemingly contradicted by the tapes. And he occasionally works to explain away uncomfortable moments on the tapes where his own conduct, stubbornly resistant to his deep massage of the record, interferes with his long quest for rehabilitation.

Case in point: Dean’s approving responses to Nixon’s full-throated suggestions, in an Oval Office meeting in September 1972 when the cover-up was succeeding, that the White House should use the second term to target the president’s enemies more aggressively. “That’s an exciting prospect,” Dean famously said. But in the new book, he frames the exchange thus: “While I could not play the sycophant, as [special counsel Charles] Colson did, nor could I be a brittle and nasty son of a bitch, like [associate counsel] Tom Huston, both of whom I knew Nixon admired, I could play the admiring staffer in my own way, which I did with a couple of appreciative remarks, such as ‘That’s an exciting prospect.’”

Although Dean has recounted this meeting many times before, this riff on it is new, and it hints at the compulsive score-settling to be found in The Nixon Defense: the delight that Dean, armed with the results of his long trawl through the National Archives, takes in belittling his former colleagues, most of them deceased. When it suits his purposes, the author halts the tape-centric narrative to second-guess virtually all the president’s men: to chide them for broaching a subject “not too subtly,” to gloat over their convictions and incarceration, to dismiss their recollections as “invented after the fact,” to boast that “my analysis would later prove correct”—to anoint himself, in short, sole arbiter of what happened in Watergate, renderer of final verdicts.

Nor are Dean’s displays of triumphalism limited to those who testified opposite him. Of the Washington Post, he sneers, “Much of their information was wrong”; and he accuses the celebrated Judge John J. Sirica, who presided at both major Watergate trials, of “acting as both prosecutor and judge” and of practicing “judicial extortion” with his heavy sentencing.

Naturally, Dean never trains on himself the unsparing ex post facto scrutiny he applies to his ex-colleagues. While his footnotes frequently cite Blind Ambition, he never mentions that he has elsewhere admitted he never read his own book “cover to cover” prior to publication. While Dean stated in the foreword to Blind Ambition that writing the book required him to “review an enormous number of documents as well as my own testimony,” he later admitted: “I’m going to be very honest with you. I didn’t even reread my testimony when I wrote my book.”

Likewise Dean never mentions the 2,000 pages of deposition testimony he gave in September 1995 and January 1996. There, he accused the ghostwriter of Blind Ambition, the future Pulitzer Prize–winner Taylor Branch, of having decided in the case of one critical passage—at odds with Dean’s Senate testimony—to “absolutely make it up out of whole cloth.”

Q: As I recall your testimony, Mr. Dean, when asked about particular passages in Blind Ambition, you have explained them in various ways, as either “pure Taylor Branch,” “out of whole cloth,” “conjecture,” “speculation,” “writer’s language,” “reconstruction for the purpose of speculation,” “brush strokes beyond testimony.”

A: Right…I thought this was a good popular and commercial explanation of the events, a good portrait and dramatization of it, but…it’s not absolutely accurate.
Taylor Branch denied making up anything in Blind Ambition. None of this appears in The Nixon Defense.

Similarly, its readers would never know that the staff lawyers on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) privately dissented from the myth that the Nixon tapes wholly corroborated Dean’s account of Watergate. In a February 6, 1974, memorandum, WSPF lawyer Peter F. Rient identified 20 instances in which Dean’s testimony before the Senate diverged materially from what was on the tapes. The Rient memorandum did not surface until 1997.

George Frampton, another WSPF lawyer, actually concluded that one key meeting Dean had described, deeply damning to Mitchell, “apparently didn’t take place,” adding: “We probably would do well simply to omit Dean’s testimony about this.” In the same document, Frampton wrote about California attorney Herbert Kalmbach, the chief fundraiser of the “hush money” that was delivered to the Watergate burglars and their attorneys. Dean has always maintained that John Mitchell authorized the enlistment of Kalmbach. But the WSPF concluded: “Mitchell’s logs and schedule suggest…Dean exercised somewhat more discretion himself to forge ahead with getting Kalmbach into the picture than he has admitted.”

None of this appears in The Nixon Defense.

Dean’s treatment of the tapes themselves is no less misleading. While The Nixon Defense is chiefly a vehicle for introducing snippets of “new” transcriptions by Dean and his researchers, the book also reprises some familiar tapes—unless they further inculpate Dean. Consider his account of a meeting that President Nixon held with H.R. Haldeman in the Oval Office on the morning of March 27, 1973, when the cover-up was rapidly unraveling.

Haldeman related to the president the gist of a conversation that a pair of lawyers for the Nixon reelection campaign committee had had with Jeb Magruder. The latter, who died in May, was the critical link in the chain-of-command for the Watergate break-in. Magruder was the youthful campaign aide who received the final order to move against the Democratic National Committee, issued to him by a more senior political figure—Dean himself, as I and others have argued, and as he denies—and transmitted it to G. Gordon Liddy and his squad of ex-spooks, who carried out the operation. What Magruder had to say in March 1973 about the origins of the DNC operation was of critical interest to the president.

Here is how Dean, employing the first-person (in utterly dreadful prose), summarizes the Nixon-Haldeman conversation in The Nixon Defense:

Because [Watergate burglar James] McCord had claimed I was aware of the Watergate break-in, I would be called to the grand jury, and my testimony would not jibe with Magruder’s. As a result, Magruder had told the committee’s lawyers, aware they would tell others, that he had a new version of “what really happened at the Watergate.” He was claiming that the plan had been cooked up at the White House, that it was triggered when [Haldeman aide] Gordon Strachan told him, “Haldeman has said that you cannot delay getting this operation started any longer. The president had ordered you to go ahead immediately, and you are not to stall anymore. You’re to get it done.” Haldeman reminded Nixon that Magruder was a good liar: “He’s a hell of a convincing guy, as evidenced by how he got off on the Sirica trial.”

Now here is the relevant excerpt of the same conversation as published by Stanley Kutler, the (left-wing) University of Wisconsin professor who edited the last compilation of Watergate transcripts, widely used by researchers, entitled Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (1997):

HALDEMAN: Magruder has apparently told Dean that he’s thought this whole thing through and he’s now—no, he didn’t tell Dean. He called in…the two [campaign] lawyers, yesterday, and said: Here’s the situation. He has now clarified his memory and figures that he’s got to—he’s now got to—if they’re going to haul everybody up [to the grand jury], he’s got to clean himself up, too.

NIXON: Right.

HALDEMAN: And that what really happened on the Watergate was that all this planning was going on and Dean set it up and was involved in it and in getting the planning worked out, and they had the plan all set but they were not ready to really start with it, and then Strachan, Gordon Strachan, called him or went through or something and said: “Haldeman has said that you cannot delay getting this operation started any longer. The president had ordered you to go ahead immediately, and you are not to stall anymore. You’re to get it done.” And that Magruder has chosen to say he believes [that] to be the actual fact now, and he told these two lawyers this. And Dean said: “Don’t discount Magruder as a witness; he’s a hell of a convincing guy, as was evidenced by how he got off on the Sirica trial.”

Dean’s distortion of this tape is marked—and telling. Consider the following:

First, he tells us that Magruder, alarmed by the revived grand jury, simply developed “a new version” of “what really happened at the Watergate,” the implication being that Magruder’s new account was concocted from scratch. In reality, Haldeman told the president that Magruder had “clarified his memory.”

Second, Dean tells us, with studied vagueness, that Magruder’s new version of “what really happened at the Watergate” was that the DNC mission, as Dean summarizes, “had been cooked up at the White House.” In reality, Haldeman had been far more specific: He said Magruder was now charging that “what really happened on the Watergate was that all this planning was going on and Dean set it up and was involved in it and in getting the planning worked out.” Why was the second half of Haldeman’s sentence—the part about the origin of the Watergate break-in, where Magruder identified Dean as the one who “set it up” and got “the planning worked out”—deleted from Dean’s summary?

Finally, Dean tells us that Haldeman “reminded” the president of Magruder’s skill as a liar. In reality, Haldeman was quoting Dean.

All of which raises fundamental questions: Where else in The Nixon Defense does Dean play so fast and loose with his summaries of Watergate conversations? What else, in the corpus of old or “new” tapes, was stricken, condensed, rendered inaccurately? And what motives are driving this project? Are they purely, or even chiefly, scholarly?

The book also contains the occasional flat-out lie. Case in point: Dean repeats his longstanding claim that Haldeman or Ehrlichman, Nixon’s two closest White House aides, “either instructed or approved my every move” in Watergate. This assertion is offered in support of Dean’s complaint that Nixon and his men were bent on “elevating me from a message-carrier to the mastermind of the cover-up” once Dean had turned on them.

In fact—and not counting the previously quoted conclusion of the WSPF that Dean “exercised somewhat more discretion…getting Kalmbach into the picture than he has admitted”—there were at least two other, and likely many more, overt acts that Dean committed in furtherance of the Watergate conspiracy, undertaken without informing his superiors and cagily withheld both from the prosecutors, at key junctures, and from readers today.

One such act was the furtive trio of meetings Dean held, in late June 1972, with the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General Vernon Walters. At those meetings, Dean pleaded in vain for the agency to supply hush money to the Watergate burglars. Despite Dean’s claims, no evidence has surfaced to suggest that either Haldeman or Ehrlichman ordered him to meet with Walters (not once but thrice); indeed, the evidence suggests Dean was operating without their knowledge. After all, at the time Dean summoned the deputy director to the Executive Office Building, Haldeman and Ehrlichman had already met directly with CIA Director Richard Helms, importuned him to use the agency to block the FBI’s nascent Watergate investigation, and been rebuffed. When the U.S. assistant attorneys turned the case over to the special prosecutors, they pointedly warned them that Dean had “withheld the incriminating role he played with regard to Walters.”

A second such act came in January 1973, when Dean destroyed a vital piece of evidence of which both Haldeman and Ehrlichman were totally unaware: the Hermes notebook that break-in planner E. Howard Hunt later described as his “operational diary” of the DNC mission, as well as the pop-up address book that showed all his contacts. It was Dean who had reviewed the contents of Hunt’s White House safe and secreted away his notebooks for later destruction.

I and others have argued that the true motivation for these criminal acts by Dean, and for his false claim to have acted only at the direction of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, was that he was working feverishly to conceal a larger, authorial role in the original crime: the break-in and wiretapping at the DNC. Although he denies it, the evidence suggests that Dean’s presence at the creation necessitated an outsized presence in the cover-up.

Jeb Magruder, for example, repeatedly fingered Dean as a progenitor of Operation Gemstone: the code name Gordon Liddy assigned to the DNC mission and his other covert projects. Though Magruder did offer several different versions of events, this claim endured beyond the spring of 1973, long past the point when there was any need for Magruder to “clean himself up” for the grand jury. In a February 1990 interview, he was asked about the fateful moment when he ordered G. Gordon Liddy to re-enter the DNC’s Watergate office—the ill-fated mission whose disruption by the police touched off the great scandal.

“If you thought it through now, what would you say…to a direct question, ‘Who told you to go back in [to the DNC]’?” Magruder’s answer: “It had to be either Dean or Strachan and probably, in this case, more likely Dean, because…I wouldn’t have [issued the order to Liddy] probably, even if Strachan had told me…I would have checked with Dean.” Six months later, Magruder went further and claimed that Mitchell, who had been his boss at the Committee to Reelect the President, had played no role in Operation GEMSTONE: “All Mitchell did was just what I did…acquiesce to the pressure from the White House. We didn’t do anything; we weren’t the initiators. Hell, the first plan that we got had been initiated by Dean…The target never came from Mitchell.”

Questioned about these statements in an August 1995 deposition, Magruder claimed he had been quoted out of context. “I don’t recall John Dean talking to me about GEMSTONE after [February 1972],” Magruder testified. In doing so, he was repeating the story he had told the Senate in 1973, where he had testified that Mitchell was the ultimate authority behind the break-in. Yet elsewhere in the same deposition, Magruder unmistakably continued to implicate Dean as the author of the DNC mission. “Is it true that John Dean was one of the people in the White House that was pushing for the GEMSTONE plan?” he was asked. “Yes,” Magruder answered. “Is it, in fact, truthful that you and John Dean had prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in?” “Yes."

In my book on Watergate, published six years ago, I wrote: “The tapes unmasked Nixon not as the take-charge boss of a criminal conspiracy but rather as an aging and confused politician lost in a welter of detail, unable to distinguish his Magruders from his Strachans, uncertain who knew what and when, what each player had told the grand jury, whose testimony was direct, whose hearsay.” Not only do the hundreds of hours of desultory conversation recounted in The Nixon Defense confirm this; Dean himself admits it.

Nixon is seen in these pages relentlessly going over the same terrain, struggling to master the origins, players, and arc of the scandal that would ultimately engulf him. Dean writes of Nixon’s “near exhausting…propensity for engaging in highly repetitive conversations, day after day.” As the cover-up was imploding in March 1973—nine months after the arrests at the DNC, and notwithstanding the hundreds of hours the president had already devoted to Watergate—Dean notes that Nixon “even at this late date had no real idea of his exposure,” possessed “no accurate sense of Haldeman’s criminal exposure nor of anyone else’s.”

What value this book provides is on the margins. If Dean’s transcriptions are someday made available for verification, and if it is determined that he did not omit relevant material—tall hurdles, for sure, and practices uncharacteristic for Dean, as illustrated above—we would understand that Nixon appears to have known earlier than we thought about the fitful payments of hush money to the burglars and their attorneys, and about how the whole story was destined to end. Dean recounts Nixon musing aloud about resigning, “just throwing myself on the sword, and letting Agnew take it,” in April 1973—16 months before the dawn of the Ford presidency.

In his second Watergate book, Lost Honor (1982), Dean described his life after prison, and how he soon recognized his financial dependency on the scandal that put him there:

[I]t became clear that my knowledge of Watergate was still my most employable asset…I did not relish the prospect of continuing to make a career out of Watergate…I had told myself, after leaving the White House, that I would never again work on anything I found distasteful, even if I went broke. But, when you’re near broke, it’s amazing how tastes can change.

And make a career of Watergate he did. As Dean quotes Ehrlichman saying of him in April 1973: “He has an almost unlimited capacity to dredge up anecdotes from a dim and murky past, and we’re just going to have to handle it one by one.” And so we are.

How many bites at the Watergate apple should one central participant be accorded? Imagine if Robert E. Lee had outlived Ulysses S. Grant by forty-five years and determinedly made use of each new communications platform in that time frame—the telegraph, the direct-dial telephone, radio, the talkies—to smooth out his account of Appomattox. Given Dean’s advanced age, The Nixon Defense should mark his final stab at shaping the record of Watergate; but I wouldn’t bet on it.

From sustained immersion in Dean’s canon—the tapes, the testimony, the books, the articles, the interviews, the lectures, the lawsuits, even the made-for-TV miniseries of Blind Ambition (1979), starring Martin Sheen, in which the alert viewer will find embedded some bizarre clues to Dean’s true role in Watergate—the picture that emerges is of a tragic figure who never transcended, let alone learned from, the epochal event in which he became embroiled at the age of thirty-four, largely through his own initiatives. Like Nixon in his claustrophobic Oval Office, rehashing the same suppositions and evasions for hours at a time, to no discernible benefit, Dean continues to wallow in Watergate.

There it was, the blooming early 1970s, when other Americans his age were practicing EST, enrolling in kung fu courses, listening to the Allman Brothers—doing their own thing!—and he was stuck in the West Wing with Haldeman and Ehrlichman, scheming to outsmart the U.S. attorney’s office and dying the death of a thousand cuts. Forty years later, the former wunderkind is still suffering that death, over and over again, doomed to an eternity of evidentiary sifting and kneading. That even so angry, litigious, and dishonest a character should suffer so sad a fate should offer, to the charitable among us, some reason to feel sorry for John Dean.

About the Author

James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (Doubleday, 2008).