The Nixon Defense, by John W. Dean

The Nixon Defense

The Nixon Defense by John Dean (one of the key figures in the Watergate drama, the one who eventually flipped and testified about some of the Administration’s wrongdoing, at least what he happened to know about) is a very long—over 700 pages—account of Watergate. It is based closely on the tapes of that era from President Nixon’s secret recording system in the White House, many of which were not released until quite recently. Dean purports to be one of the first researchers who has painstakingly gone through all these hundreds of hours of tapes, trying to better understand the story they tell. The account is very thorough as far as the period covered by the tapes, but the whole period after taping ceased is handled with a brief chronology in an epilogue.

One thing I’ll mention from the get go is that this book is marred by a huge number of typos. I don’t mean grammatical errors and the like in the transcripts—you would expect spoken English to be very imperfect when transcribed verbatim—but actual typos throughout the text of the book. The publisher is Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, but you’d think it was put out by some fly-by-night publisher, if not self-published. They really ought to be ashamed.

Another quick observation is that, based on the tapes, almost everyone almost all the time is a total kiss ass with the president, always agreeing or feigning agreement with him. I assume it’s the office more than Nixon as an individual, but I can’t imagine this makes for effective leadership. I would think the president should make every effort to have at least some people around him who are not in awe and do not think their job is to be as deferential as possible. Maybe that’s why presidents have friends and advisors with whom they can consult outside of official channels, like Nixon had Bebe Rebozo and others. Maybe those folks still treat you as an equal and communicate frankly with you even after you’re elected president.

When the President and others discussing Watergate on the tapes bring up Gordon Liddy and to a lesser extent Howard Hunt, they speak of them like they’re lunatics. They clearly knew what unstable kooks they were all along, which raises the question of why people like that were allowed to rise to fairly important levels in the Administration.

It may have to do with the atmosphere the people at the top created intentionally or semi-intentionally. I think a lot of the various instances of wrongdoing loosely categorized under the umbrella of Watergate were like how the Chris Christie scandal concerning the George Washington Bridge and related political retribution matters were often described—objectionable things were not necessarily explicitly ordered from the top, but they came out of a political environment that was purposely made sufficiently corrupt that underlings would do things like that whether ordered or not.

If your people engage in such dirty tricks without your having to order them or even know about them in advance, that’s advantageous to you in terms of giving you deniability and maintaining the impression that your own hands are clean. But the disadvantage lies in the type of people you need working for you. Goody two-shoes, good government types are unlikely to take the initiative to engage in effective but unethical or illegal behavior while you conveniently look the other way. What you need for that are people like Gordon Liddy or, in the case of a later administration, Oliver North. But people like that who will do the dirty work tend to be loose cannons you’re unlikely to be able to control.

But, yeah, leaving aside the cover-up and looking just at the Watergate break-in, the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and the various other nefarious doings that necessitated a cover-up, my impression reading this book is that a lot of that was vague, winking, non-specific, “do what you need to do but don’t tell me about it” kind of stuff. It seems like in terms of ordering or knowing in advance about specifics, Nixon himself was largely out of the loop, the next highest people like John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman, John Mitchell, etc. were a bit more involved but still left most of it open-ended for their subordinates, and at each level down things got a little more specific until only Liddy and the Cubans and others at the lowest operational level knew all the details.

The Nixon Defense came out after “Deep Throat” was finally definitively identified as FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, but at least as Dean tells it, that should have come as a surprise to precisely no one in the know. He claims that Felt was well known in and outside the Administration as a notorious leaker.

Dean has little use for Felt, dismissing him as a Machiavellian character who used leaks as one of his tactics to try to further his own career and punish those who had denied him what he felt he was entitled to—the Directorship of the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover died. Dean says he and his colleagues knew all along that Felt was the source for much that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were writing in the Washington Post. But he claims that Woodward and Bernstein were merely two of many reporters Felt was planting information with, and that furthermore a great deal of it was inaccurate anyway.

Dean says that if you examine those Post pieces and All the President’s Men, the book that came out of them, and compare them with what has since become known about the details of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein really got a great deal wrong, and that is in large part because they overrated the reliability of Felt. (He does say, though, that their follow-up book The Final Days was much more accurate, as they had more reliable sources than Felt for that work.)

As far as the accuracy of his own Watergate testimony way back when, Dean contends that the tapes substantively support him. He admits that you can certainly go through and find details that are wrong—e.g., he testified that something was said to him on a certain date when the tapes reveal it was really said on some other date—but that all things considered, the degree of accuracy is what you would expect from someone with a good to very good but not perfect memory who was testifying sincerely but who didn’t have access at the time to something like these tapes in order to be able to double check everything.

I certainly haven’t examined his testimony and compared it to these tapes in the kind of detail that would be necessary to confirm or disconfirm that; I’m just passing along that that’s what he claims.

There’s really nothing as far as I can see in Dean’s account of the tapes that supports the Watergate theory I read not long ago in Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative, which is that the Watergate break-in and other illegal information gathering was motivated by Nixon’s obsession with finding out who had knowledge—which they might use against him—of his conspiring with the South Vietnamese in 1968 to scuttle Vietnam War peace talks to benefit his presidential campaign, or of other nefarious doings of his.

You’d think that if that were the reason for Watergate it would be discussed on the White House tapes, but it’s not (and other than Nixon himself, these people didn’t know they were being taped, so it’s unlikely they held their tongue in the presence of the tape recorders and then conspired about this at other times). Plus as I say, much of this stuff probably wasn’t even ordered by Nixon himself, so any obsession he had would be irrelevant to a good portion of the illegalities.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of something like Watergate, but in the end what does one make of it all? Was there something truly unique about it, something so much worse than what happens in other administrations as to justify the resignation of a president and the imprisonment of numerous members of his administration? Or was it pretty much run-of-the-mill political wrongdoing in an imperfect world, only made out to be something especially bad by Nixon’s political opponents for partisan reasons?

I’m kind of pulled in both directions on that question. On the one hand, I detest the way conservatives build up every scandal—real or usually fake—as the next Watergate, if not worse than Watergate, in order to water down the import of the real Watergate. Their “everybody does it” defense is offensive in its cynical dishonesty. (Actually it’s worse than “everybody does it.” In their confidence in the ignorance of the populace about history, or just reality, conservatives typically don’t claim that Democrats and leftists cut the same corners and engage in the same wrongdoing as they do, but that only Democrats and leftists do such things.)

But whether it’s a false equivalency, or just falsehoods without the claimed equivalency, think about something like their feigned outrage over IRS behavior under the Obama Administration. During Watergate, Nixon actually sicced the IRS on his political enemies, and used the threat of IRS scrutiny to strong-arm people into donating to his reelection campaign. 40 years later, some underlings at the IRS tentatively made some moves to finally enforce long-ignored regulations about the tax-exempt status of entities that engage in politics, and did so against organizations both on the political left and the political right.

One of these is blatantly corrupt, criminal behavior on the part of a U.S. president, and one is not remotely close to that.

So a part of me resists anything that implicitly or explicitly whitewashes Watergate by referencing other alleged wrongdoing by presidential administrations.

But another part of me looks at the evidence and is indeed inclined to think maybe Watergate really was not uniquely bad compared to the misbehavior of other politicians.

The tape transcripts don’t read to me like Mafia figures or oil company bigwigs or other unambiguously evil people cynically pursuing their self-interest with no concern for the law or basic right and wrong. The people on the tapes seem quite sincere in believing that any wrongdoing they are engaged in is very minor, and that it is justified by the higher policy goods that will be achieved by their remaining in power.

If Nixon is obsessed by anything on the tapes it’s by what he perceives as the blatant injustice of so much attention being focused on Watergate when far worse has been done to him by his political enemies.

I may be totally wrong, but it just seems like there’s a peculiar kind of paranoid sincerity here in the notorious liar Nixon. It’s not like, say, climate change deniers bleating about how scientists are making stuff up out of whole cloth in order to bring about more socialism. That’s the usual right wing lying—nonsense said publicly that probably less than 1% of even them actually believe. But the White House tapes show that behind closed doors, not for public consumption, Nixon continuously returned to the idea that he had been the victim of Democratic dirty tricks his whole career that were far more egregious than anything he was now finding out (and subsequently covering up) that his underlings had done.

Or like when Dean ultimately gave himself up and urged his colleagues in the administration to do likewise, the tapes indicate not that Nixon et al were angry that he had exposed behavior that they knew constituted major crimes, but that they were baffled as to how he could make such a mountain out of a molehill. So they sought some kind of psychological explanation to account for how he could be so delusional and so intent on unjustifiably seeking to hurt good people who had always treated him well.

People talk about how the worst part of Watergate wasn’t the break-in and the other illegal surveillance and political dirty tricks and such, but the cover-up. I don’t know about that. The cover-up to me really does seem like politics as usual.

I mean, assume for the sake of argument that the behavior being covered up really is less of a big deal than the cover-up itself. Imagine members of some other administration discover that some wrongdoing of that lesser level has been engaged in by underlings with limited knowledge of their superiors and little or no knowledge of the president himself, and that there’s a risk it’ll be exposed to the public and seriously damage them politically. How many administrations are so squeaky clean that they would immediately rush to be as transparent as possible, to get all the facts out publically, to resist any temptation to hide or spin?

Maybe Carter and maybe Obama were that extreme in their lack of corruption, but that’s about it as far as I can see. (I know some will raise an eyebrow—or worse—at the mention of Obama in this context, since his administration has been painted as unusually corrupt and scandal-ridden by some, but you have to keep in mind that the people who have created that impression are people who are extreme in their dishonesty, people who decided before Obama ever took office that they would scream to high heaven throughout his presidency how horrible he was in every way regardless of whether that coincidentally happened to match reality or not.) In overall ethical terms I suspect the Reagan and W. Bush administrations were even worse than Nixon’s, but Johnson’s, Clinton’s and others’ were at least in the same ballpark. I have to think the first reaction of any of those administrations to something like the Watergate break-in would have similarly been along the lines of “Is there some way we can keep the lid on this?”

So a lot of the cover-up comes across to me as typical politicians’ maneuvering and bullshit to protect themselves. Far from admirable, obviously, but we’re not exactly talking about an admirable set of people to begin with.

I think the actual dirty tricks and such that they were covering up were considerably worse than the cover-up.

Though truth be told, I think that much that Nixon and his ilk on the right have done over the years is in turn even worse than the illegal surveillance and break-ins and such of Watergate. Can anything be worse than starting or continuing a war on false pretenses, because there’s some political or economic advantage to you or your cronies in doing so? War is so indescribably evil that I can’t imagine any even minimally morally plausible position other than pacifism or war-as-an-absolute-truly-absolute-last-resort. To pursue wars of choice, to commit the kind of war crimes Nixon and Kissinger did—or later W. Bush and Cheney and others did—puts you in conflict with not only the Constitution, but international law and any semblance of human decency. That’s the kind of thing that justifies impeachment.

Finally, what of Dean himself? Is he a hero for exposing the wrongdoing of the Nixon Administration, or a simple rat worthy of no respect?

I’m not comfortable with either assessment, but I guess I’d say he’s slightly closer to the former. The problem I have with detesting him as a rat is that doing so presupposes a certain criminal code of ethics.

I remember conversations I had with my friend Jerry and others who had spent much of their life in prison, and who unanimously despised rats more than anyone other than possibly sex offenders. As Jerry explained to me when I would raise various hypothetical questions about people exposing wrongdoing in other contexts, this is a code that applies in prison and the criminal underworld, not across the board. “Squares are supposed to tell!” he’d insist. “I’d actually have less respect for you if you didn’t. The guy who’s scared to go to the police or whatever because he thinks someone might retaliate—he’s a coward, not a stand-up guy. If you’re a square, the police, the authorities, are there for you. You’re supposed to cooperate with them. But they’re our enemies. We hate one of our own who squeals. There’s no one lower. But a square? Hell, you’re not supposed to play by our rules. You’re a part of society!”

So to me, people who despise Watergates whistleblowers like Dean are basically conceding that the Nixon Administration was a criminal gang whose members are bound by the convict code.

To a large extent behaviorally it was a criminal gang, but do its supporters really want to take that position?

The Nixon Defense is the kind of book that gives you plenty to think about. Even those who are much better versed in the minutiae of Watergate than I am would benefit from reading it, since it’s based on so much material that has never before been made public.

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