For the Watergate Nostalgists Completists

From Oliva Nuzzi, at NSFWCorp:

If the fall of the Nixon Administration can be blamed on one man, that man is not Bob Woodward. Nor is it Carl Bernstein, nor Deep Throat. It’s a soft-spoken, bespectacled lawyer with a mind like two steel traps named John W. Dean III, who served as White House Counsel for Nixon between 1970 and 1973 — the eye of the Watergate storm. As the events in the Watergate timeline click past their fortieth anniversary, Dean is finalizing what may be The Book of The Scandal.

He has also been conducting a series of workshops for lawyers on the Pandora’s box of legal ethics opened up by Watergate. Addressing more than 100 legal professionals in a packed auditorium near New York City’s Battery Park, Dean recently spent three hours speaking about his famous “cancer on the presidency” conversation with Nixon on March 21, 1973. Shortly afterwards, I asked him to tell me even more…

NSFWCORP: When you joined the Nixon Administration in 1970, did you have any sense that it might meet the fate it ultimately met?

John W. Dean: Not a clue. The president to me was the public-image Nixon, who was not the real person I later discovered.

NSFWCORP: Did it occur to you at any point before the establishment of the Plumbers Unit that there was something wrong with the way Nixon dealt with leaks?

JWD: Before creating the Plumbers Unit, Nixon dealt with leaks much as President Obama has — through the Justice Department and FBI. This was a proper procedure, and national
 security leaks are a serious problem. No president can operate in a fish bowl. Because
 I had been involved in stopping a senseless burglary of the Brookings Institute, I was 
excluded from the Plumbers Unit. Those running this Unit had been told not to tell me of 
their activities. Indeed, I would have told them they were crazy, had I known they were
 going to break into Dan Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office after leaking the Pentagon Papers, 
just as I did with the Brookings. I did not learn until long after Watergate that Nixon 
had ordered the break in at the Brookings to look for leaked material….

NSFWCORP: At any point did you think the cover-up could be successful?

JWD: Before the election and until the trial of the Watergate burglars plus Hunt and Liddy.
After that I knew it would only work if I was willing to lie, and since I was not willing to do that, I knew it was doomed — it was only a matter of time…

NSFWCORP: Did Watergate ever end for you? Certainly Nixon thought it had ended for him when he made his comeback; others tried to hide from it. 

JWD: For about thirty years, I never talked (nor thought) about Watergate. The bogus
 Watergate revisionists forced me to address it, [I couldn’t] allow them to distort this history
 beyond reorganization. When that first happened in 1991, I was in a fortunate position 
where I could take them on and did. I used civil litigation to open files of the Watergate
 Special Prosecutor’s office that might have been decades in the future before they became
 accessible. Because of this litigation, today I know far more about Watergate than when 
I lived it. As the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation approached, it occurred
 to me, and my publisher agreed, that I should try to answer a question that had long
 bothered me: How could anyone as politically and media savvy as Richard Nixon create 
the deeply flawed defense that he was unaware of the Watergate cover-up until I told
him on March 21, 1973? This was the core of his defense, along with efforts to discredit 

To answer that question I found I had to do what no one had done — catalog and
 transcribe all Nixon’s Watergate conversations. I discovered there are just under one 
thousand conversations. The Watergate Special Prosecutor transcribed some eighty
 conversations, all but about a dozen are merely first drafts by FBI secretaries. Historians 
have done partial transcripts of another 320 conversations. So I decided to do them all
 from scratch. It has taken my team of graduate students four years, and we are almost
 finished. While I am not writing a book of transcripts, rather writing an account based
 on all the Watergate conversations, which will be in your bookstore next year, shortly
 before August 9, 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s departure from office. Title: “The
 Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.”

One hopes future historians will be appropriately grateful. Much more at the link, for the next 47 hours or until you subscribe.

60 replies
  1. 1
    Yatsuno says:

    I was born at the tail end of the Nixon interregnum. My only regret is Ford pardoned him.

  2. 2
    dr. bloor says:

    I’ll buy the book, and pay full retail to boot if necessary. Watergate was the watershed event in the development of my political consciousness as an early adolescent, and the story has just grown increasingly fascinating as I get older, more information emerges, and I see how the big players at the time lived out the rest of their lives.

  3. 3
    trollhattan says:

    Like John Ashcroft in the hospital bed, sometimes people’s better nature comes to the fore in surprising fashion, despite tremendous forces against. Good for Mr. Dean.

    Suppose anybody from Dubya’s administration will ever come completely clean? Not sure I can handle it, but it needs telling.

  4. 4
    dr. bloor says:


    Suppose anybody from Dubya’s administration will ever come completely clean? Not sure I can handle it, but it needs telling.

    Don’t hold your breath. A good deal of Dubya’s administration still hasn’t come clean about their fealty to Tricky Dick. Rummy, Cheney et al are the bastard children of that era.

  5. 5
    Redshirt says:

    @Yatsuno: Me too. Reading “Nixonland” brought me back to 1974.

  6. 6
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @dr. bloor: My thinking too, the ones who really know what happened, Cheney, Rummy and the little Chummys like Addington and Libby, will never tell the truth.

  7. 7
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @dr. bloor:

    Absolutely. Cheney and von Rumsfailed drew all their political conclusions from the mistakes Nixon made, and vowed to do their evil in a less detectable manner.

    Both should go the way of Keitel and Jodl.

  8. 8
    trollhattan says:

    @dr. bloor:

    I hear you. Honestly don’t expect it in my lifetime, if ever. My presumption is they put considerable resources into erasing the entire eight years–like Willard’s absurd buying and destroying his administration’s hard drives, times infinity.

  9. 9
    Higgs Boson's Mate (Crystal Set) says:

    Anecdote: Shortly after my return from Vietnam I found a vet’s preference Summer job cleaning classrooms for a local school district. I bought a boombox (Only needed a dozen or so “D” batteries to work) and I put it on my cart so I could listen to NPR by way of catching up. I heard the Watergate hearings, gavel to gavel, every day they were held.

    John Dean is a hero, as were Senators Sam Ervin and Daniel Inouye.

  10. 10
    Ash Can says:

    This seems like a good time to resurrect this national treasure.

  11. 11
    NotMax says:

    For about thirty years, I never talked (nor thought) about Watergate.

    Baloney. I drove to Kutztown, Pa. sometime in the very late 70s specifically to attend a long talk and Q&A Dean gave about Watergate.

  12. 12
    Botsplainer says:

    In 74, those hearings consumed summer TV. I was 12 that summer, and got seriously hooked.

    Somebody like Ken Burns needs to give it some serious documentary treatment while some players are still around.

  13. 13
    Higgs Boson's Mate (Crystal Set) says:

    @Ash Can:
    Damn, you must be old! Oh shit, I am too.

  14. 14
    lamh36 says:

    OT, but I’m so damn mad right now. WTF is going on in this damn country. Seems to me Black folk got more to fear from white folk than vice versa! She was shot in the fuckin’ back of the head!!!!!

    Once Again, a Black Person Is Shot and Killed While Looking for Help

    Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old from Detroit, is presumed to have been asking for help when she knocked on the door of a Dearborn Heights home at 2:30 A.M. on Saturday. McBride’s family says McBride had been in a car accident and her cellphone was dead. Rather than offering shelter to McBride, however, the homeowner came out and shot her in the head with a shotgun. The buckshot entered McBride’s head from the back, according to statements from her aunt, as the girl had already turned to walk or run away from the home. Police reports say the teenager was found dead on the home’s front porch.

    While the initial stories around McBride’s death dubbed it a “possible case of self-defense gone wrong,” today police sent a request to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office asking for charges to be filed against the unnamed resident who shot McBride.

  15. 15
    NotMax says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate (Crystal Set)

    Have a true anecdote about how a homeless bag lady was instrumental in getting certain evidence delivered to the House committee. A little rushed right now, but shall try to condense it and post it in a bit.

  16. 16
    Chris says:


    At the moment I’m more curious to hear Perlstein’s take on the next criminal enterprise to take over the White House (a.k.a. the Reagan administration, he’s supposedly working on a book on that right now).

    If he keeps going, though, love to hear what he has to say about the W. Bush era.

  17. 17
    wvblueguy says:

    I met John Dean at Netroots Nation a few years back. He had just spoken to all of us at the convention and was signing copies of his books. I brought all 3 of his books from home at the time with me for him to sign. It was a pleasure to spend a few minutes talking to him and to tell him that I was in Washington DC the day Nixon left office and that I was able to see the helicopter leaving the White House. His comment was “so you were there that day in 1974.” I was able to thank him for having the courage to do what was right at the time. He was a hero to me and still is. He asked me which of the 3 books I had brought was my favorite. What a treat it was to meet such a good and brilliant man. I felt then and I feel now that he was the one who brought Nixon down.

  18. 18
    Long Tooth says:

    “If the fall of the Nixon Administration can be blamed on one man..”.

    Should read: ..”credited to one man..”.

  19. 19
    hitchhiker says:

    Another anecdote: I was 22 years old when the Nixon presidency collapsed. The books written during and about those years became my introduction to formal education, in the sense that I — trailer trash girl that I was — learned through them to see a world nobody in my crazy-ass life had ever imagined.

    I seriously think that reading those books was a sort of personal graduate seminar. Who knew? You could look at a thing from a variety of angles and form your own well-informed opinions! It was a revelation that changed everything for me.

    Thx for this post. CanNOT wait to buy this one.

  20. 20
    Ash Can says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate (Crystal Set):

    Oh shit, I am too.

    Well, you are tuning in on a crystal set… ;)

  21. 21
    Higgs Boson's Mate (Crystal Set) says:

    Please do. I’m a Watergate nostalgist simply because that was the last time the system worked when dealing with a sitting president.

  22. 22
    dww44 says:

    @lamh36: That is just so awful and tragic and wrong. I hope that justice is served but it will never bring back this young person’s life. Really senseless.

  23. 23
    scav says:

    @Botsplainer: Was slightly too young to understand fully, but it wasn’t entirely clear to me how people could iron without the hearings — and we had very flat clothes for a while. And didn’t all pantry doors come with the Richard Nixon Countdown calendar on them?

  24. 24
    Yatsuno says:

    @lamh36: And of course Michigan has a Stand Your Ground law similar to Florida’s. If the shooter is white (article doesn’t say) he’s off scot-free. Fucking murdering scum.

  25. 25
    Gin & Tonic says:

    Watergate was, like the denouement of the Vietnam war and the bombing of Cambodia, defining for me politically as well. Way back then, I knew a guy at my college who purchased from the Government Printing Office (the only way you could get this in pre-Internet days) the entire transcripts of the Ervin committee hearings. Took up most of a bookcase.

    Nixon’s resignation was on my father’s birthday. Kind of weird juxtaposition. I remember sitting with him (no fan of Dick, he) and watching the helicopter take off from the White House lawn.

  26. 26
    KG says:


    WTF is going on in this damn country.

    How much time you got?

  27. 27
    Omnes Omnibus says:


    She was shot in the fuckin’ back of the head!!!!!

    No way you are standing your ground when you shoot someone in the back of the head with a shotgun. Damned unlikely you are defending yourself when you shoot someone in the back of the head with a shotgun.

  28. 28
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    How many of you have seen the movie Dick? A retelling of Watergate that pokes fun at everyone, particularly Woodward and Bernstein. A good counterpoint to the Redford/Hoffman All The President’s men, which gave us journamalism instead of journalism.

    As Nixon’s helicopter leaves the White House for the last time, he flies over one of the protagonists’ home, where the two of them have written ‘You suck, Dick!” in large white letters on the roof.

  29. 29
    Ash Can says:

    @lamh36: As for this, this once again points up everything that’s wrong with the second amendment at this point in American history, and makes me say again, “THE SECOND AMENDMENT: FIX IT OR FLUSH IT.”

    Seriously, maybe every person of color in the US needs to start applying for gun permits. Not necessarily get guns. Just permits. And maybe let slip to the news media that there’s this great groundswell of non-white folks getting permits. No big deal, just second-amendment rights and all, yo… Then let’s see what happens to the all-sacred and holy second amendment in the courts.

  30. 30
    scav says:

    @Yatsuno: If we’re lucky (heh), a jury of his peers will decide if they prefer the publicity of being scaredy-cat gun-totin’ mavericks or appalled soft-on-crime-and-accident-victims un-‘mericans. 1% doctrine now applies to random neighbors at doors — gunshots now being the official echo to doorbells. Might not be the year to attempt to sell Girl Scout cookies.

  31. 31
    catclub says:

    @Ash Can: The second amendment was designed to implement slave patrols.

  32. 32
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @efgoldman: To me, Dean has earned status since Watergate. During Watergate, it seems to me that he was a guy who was willing to go along with a certain amount of sleazy, but then drew a line. I was too young at the time to know – I had just turned ten a week before Nixon resigned – so almost everything I know about it comes from reading later.

    @scav: Wayne County, MI, is only 50% white. There won’t be an all white jury for this trial.

  33. 33
    max says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: No way you are standing your ground when you shoot someone in the back of the head with a shotgun. Damned unlikely you are defending yourself when you shoot someone in the back of the head with a shotgun.

    Unless they have a Florida-style stand your ground, that still ought to be manslaughter, at least. (‘Self-defense gone wrong’ is still manslaughter.)

    @lamh36: Seems to me Black folk got more to fear from white folk than vice versa!

    Ain’t no seems about it.

    [‘Fucking ALEC.’]

  34. 34
    Violet says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: I loved that movie. It’s silly in a lot of ways, but still fun to watch. I remember the helicopter leaving scene.

  35. 35
    MikeJ says:


    : I was born at the tail end of the Nixon interregnum.

    One of my earliest memories is being on vacation in the mountains with my parents and Watergate stuff was on TV all the time. I was far more interested in the putt putt course the resort had.

    Completely unrelated, many years later I rode my bike the length of the C&O canal path (180 miles) and was thrilled to arrive at the site of the original “water gate” lock where the canal emptied into the Potomac.

  36. 36
    Ash Can says:

    @catclub: Yet more evidence that it needs to be repealed, and firearms ownership severely circumscribed.

  37. 37
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Hilarious movie.

  38. 38
    joel hanes says:


    I was born at the tail end of the Nixon interregnum

    I was privileged to cast my first vote against him in 1972.

    I was in the Army all through Watergate — the coverage in the Stars and Stripes was, shall we say, “subdued”.

    One of the nicest moments of my life came in late spring 1974 — mail call, and a letter from my parents:

    Watergate drags on. And from far away in Germany, we can hear the voice of our son, reminding us: “I told you so!”

    Because I had. At length.

    I tried to tell them about Reagan, but they couldn’t hear it (and still can’t, to a large degree. He made them feel good about themselves.)

    I tried to tell them about W, but they didn’t really catch on until Schiavo.

    I didn’t need to tell them about McCain — Palin drove them right out of the Republican party.

  39. 39
    scav says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Well then, all sorts of ways things could get interesting. The amount of heavy drinking that’s erupted up there should be off the scale. Merited. And with this being the second case, damn well better get even the blond-obsessed fickle-media’s pious attention.

  40. 40
    Omnes Omnibus says:


    Michigan’s self-defense act, which bears a resemblance to Florida’s infamous stand-your-ground law, says that an individual “may use deadly force against another individual anywhere he or she has the legal right to be with no duty to retreat” as long as that person “honestly and reasonably” believes deadly force is necessary to prevent imminent death, great bodily harm, or sexual assault.

    From lamh36’s link. If you are shooting someone in the back of the head, it is hard to have a reasonable belief that deadly force is necessary. Best case for the shooter is manslaughter.

    ETA: But then I thought the same about Zimmerman.

  41. 41
    scav says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I have the bad feeling this will be driven more by PR motivations by any number of actors rather than mere law, let alone common sense which somehow manages to rarely intersect with the law. wasn’t even the feint toward looking what might have happened a second thought by the police? “body dumped” was the first pr move “nothing to see here, move along” and now it’s bumped to token investigation to prove justifiable fear but we’re earning our keep policing.

  42. 42
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @scav: PR concerns can work both ways. Do the authorities want Detroit to erupt? I doubt it.

  43. 43
    trollhattan says:


    I’m up (or is it down) for that. It’s well beyond time for us to confront and deconstruct the Criminal Enterprise Commonly Known as the Reagan Administration. 1. knock down the happy, false memories of that vile fucker and 2. assure Nooners meets her fate via a lethal gin dose.

  44. 44
    NotMax says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate

    Shall try to make it succinct.

    For those ho weren’t around, you’ve likely seen movies with banks of computer equipment using large spinning reels of tape. Those reels are what the story is about. Direct form the horse’s mouth at the time, as told by a step-uncle who was a counsel to the committee.

    He was delegated to fly to New York City to obtain and transport back several reels of financial transaction computer data from a very large bank.

    Juggling several of the large items, he grabbed a cab to the airport.

    The airline, however, would not let him on unless he checked the items (there was no way in hell he was going to be let them out of his sight) or had them bundled together in something so they could be carried on board.

    Having no luggage and pressed for time, he tried to come up with a solution. Then a bag lady, wheeling a cart filled with stuff, caught his eye.

    After a bit of haggling, he convinced her to sell him a couple of large shopping bags for (if memory serves) $25, and managed to stuff the computer reels into them.

    The airline allowed him to board with those, which he stowed under his seat on the flight back to D.C.

  45. 45
    Higgs Boson's Mate (Crystal Set) says:

    Thank you for adding a marvelous detail to the Watergate story. I love it when I learn about a small, human part of a big event.

  46. 46
    scav says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: That provides a large part of the interest, which way they’ll jump. I thought that was clear, especially as there’s not an unambiguous answer that will please the general mass of people. The general level of of rabid gun nuts with tough on crime ambitions provide the flip side to shooting accident victims in the back of the head is a bad idea crew.

  47. 47
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @NotMax: Cool story.

  48. 48
    piratedan says:

    was just breaking out of adolescence growing up in the DC Area suburbs when Watergate broke. Parents (staunch Republicans) were appalled that Nixon felt the need to sabotage a political opponent to win an election and then to have to lie about it. Nixon is a fascinating character because he ceded the need for an EPA and OSHA and was (imho) a social moderate who was painfully obsessive about being in charge. Still, watching history unfold in my backyard had the effect of making me a political junkie and passionate about seeing a government for the people and by the people; which naturally saddens me when the R’s continue to fuck us over as a nation of opportunity by keeping walls between us instead of breaching the differences amongst us.

  49. 49
    Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate (Crystal Set): I was unemployed the summer after college and watched the hearings sporadically, but I do remember catching Dean and Alexander Butterfield.

    Wait, that was after I got out of college? Oh shit, I must be old too!!!

  50. 50
    maeve says:

    Dean was a keynote speaker at the Alaska state democratic convention in 2008 at which I was a delegate. It was held at the Alaska state fairgrounds in Palmer.

    How I became a delegate — Alaska is a caucus state, at our local caucus in 2008, held in an old folks rec center with capacity 200 or so (sign on the wall) we had over 300 people (in a town of 8000 – a really big town for Alaska – we had also had a snowstorm that day) – when we did the presidential fan-out, we had to shuffle to the side of the room we were voting for – people stood on tables to count the people in the fanout. Almost all of us were for Obama or Cliinton – after the intiail fanout, we could reshuffle and revote- one lone guy for Richardson on principle stood alone for him – but we ended about 2/3 Obama and 1/3 Clinton (with phone in from two other communities in our district but not connected to us by road) – and thats how our intial votes in the state caucus were delegated – then almost everyone left – I stayed for intellectual curiosity as much as anything else – and the actual delegates to the state convention were elected – I ended up volunteering because delegates had to pay their own way and I had airline miles to get there. So that’s how I became a delegate without very much political party experience.

    This was the first time I lived in a caucus state for a presidential election and it is really strange but also enthralling because it is so personal.

    PS – I was in high school during the watergate hearings, they were in the summer and I was on vacation – my family is pretty political (I marched in civil rights demonstrations as a child) and I watched them while crocheting an afghan which grew longer and longer as the hearings went on). So I also remembered Dean from then.

  51. 51
    Death Panel Truck says:

    @Botsplainer: The Senate Watergate Committee hearings dominated the summer of 1973, and I was pissed. I was ten years old, home during summer vacation, and looking forward to watching color television for the first time. We’d just bought a new Sylvania 26-inch set the previous spring. Our previous set was a (don’t laugh) DuMont B&W that had seen better days. So we finally had color, and there was nothing to watch except for the hearings. We had four channels then. This meant I actually had to go the fuck outside to find something to do. I watched some of the hearings, but I was decidedly not a political junkie then. In retrospect, I wish I had been.

  52. 52
    fuckwit says:

    Wait, what? Olivia Nuzzi? The Olivia Nuzzi who worked for Anthony Weiner’s campaign and got her picture on the front page of the Daily News?

  53. 53
    Death Panel Truck says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate (Crystal Set): Three words for you:


    Three more words for you:


    “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.”

  54. 54
    Aimai says:

    @lamh36: this is beyond horrible. That poor child. Her poor family! This country has gone nuts.

  55. 55
    the Conster says:

    Remember when Republicans were responsible and felt accountable to the country? I was 19 that summer and that’s what I remember about the final vote to impeach – that because members of his own party voted to impeach, that we lived in the best country in the world and that no one was above the law. Oh well.

  56. 56
    debbie says:

    @Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason:

    I was a college dropout at that time, working at Boston University typing up biology exams. A grad student brought in a small tv and asked me to let him know if anything important happened at the hearings.

    As soon as I heard Butterfield say that, yes, Nixon taped everything, I ran down the hall to find the guy. I think Dean’s taking too much credit for himself; I think the real break was Butterfield’s testimony.

  57. 57
    Bill in Section 147 says:

    @the Conster: Also note how all of the ‘traitors’ were primaried or forced out of the party. Like someone mentioned above the true Republicans who were complicit in the affair were all rewarded like Rummy and Cheney or put on wingnut welfare like Liddy. Truly, the lesson learned was hide your dirt more carefully and shut up or do not even testify when asked to do so.

  58. 58
    Rex Everything says:

    Did you ever read Renata Adler’s piece on Watergate? It’s the only writing I’m aware of that satisfactorily explains why it was such a mess, & does so by addressing the implicit cui bono? behind the messiness.

  59. 59
    Fellatio Alger says:

    @Ash Can: I have always maintained that we need a second NRA – the Negro Rifle Association – that advocates just as fiercely for gun rights for AAs and the rights to shoot on sight if threatened, would immediately have the entire country calling for a ban on guns.

  60. 60
    Jebediah, RBG says:

    @Fellatio Alger:
    It worked in California.

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