By Ruth Conniff
Here is an edited transcript of an interview with John Dean of Watergate fame.
Dean was Nixon’s White House counsel for three years and then testified again him. He is the author, most recently, of “Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.” On March 31, Dean testified in favor of Senator Russ Feingold’s censure bill. The interview was conducted on April 28 by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine. You can listen to the interview at http://progressive.org/radio_dean06.
Q: Tell me what you’re lasting impressions are of Richard Nixon.
Dean: In a way, he’s a comic figure. In other ways, he’s a tragic figure. I have a memory of a very complex man locked in my synapses.
Q: How long did you work for him?
Dean: A thousand days. When you listen to him on the tapes, he would be one person with his chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, he’d be somebody else with Henry Kissinger, he’d be somebody else with me. He had these different personae. I don’t think he ever had great administrative skills for the Presidency. He was slow to interact with his staff. He was very stiff. It was kind of like walking onto a set of an Oval Office when I used to first go into see him. But later on I’d walk in and he’d have his feet on the desk and he’d be talking to me around his shoes.
He was uneasy. In fact, one of the interesting things about Nixon is that we had to prepare something called talking papers for him. Anytime we brought someone in the office to meet the President, because he had a zero gift of gab, you literally had to have a few sentences, buzzwords, thoughts, so he could start a conversation with this person. Alex Butterfield, who ushered more people into the office than anybody else, told me that occasionally if Nixon didn’t have this he was literally speechless.
Q: And Butterfield was the guy who surfaced the tapes.
Dean: He’s the one who, indeed, corroborated the fact that there were tapes. I had speculated in my testimony that I thought I was taped. It was the only speculation I put in that testimony back in 1973, and thank god I did. Because when they were trying to discredit my testimony, they had a system where they fanned out and interviewed all sorts of people, and so they called Butterfield in, and said, “Dean made this amazing statement that he thought he was recorded. Now isn’t that impossible?” And Butterfield said, “No, I think he’s right.” What made me aware of the fact that I was being taped was Nixon’s behavior late in the game when he literally goes to the corner of his hideaway office and starts whispering around the potted palm, “I was foolish to do this” or, “I made a mistake when I did that.”
Q: Did you ever speak with Nixon after he resigned?
Dean: Never did. I think it would have been very difficult for him. I’m not the only one who never spoke to him. John Erlichman, his chief domestic adviser, never talked to him. Bob Haldeman and he had sort of parted ways. They did patch up before they both passed away.
Nixon actually was very flattering in one sense in his memoirs about me. When he started dealing with me, he’d written in his diary that I’ve got this bright young guy. But then he said I was obviously a traitor for breaking rank.
Q: How have you dealt with that accusation?
Dean: It doesn’t bother me at all because everybody for whom I had any respect I told what I was going to do before I did it. I said, “Listen, I’m not going to lie for anybody. So plan your life around that.” I said I was going to go to the prosecutors after I had told the President he was in deep trouble with the so-called cancer on the Presidency conversation. After that, people knew where I stood, and I actually had the support of some of my colleagues who said, “Do it.”
What my plan was, I thought my colleagues would do the right thing, that they would stand up and tell the truth and that would end it, and that Nixon might save himself by coming forward and saying, “Yeah, I made some bad mistakes. Here’s what I did.” But instead he just escalated the cover-up to the point where he had no choice but to resign or be impeached.
Q: Some people think he could have saved his Presidency by apologizing even at the eleventh hour?
Dean: Americans like to give their President the benefit of the doubt. If you look at the poll numbers, people knew Nixon was deeply involved in Watergate and stayed with him for a long time. It’s a natural tendency.
Q: I’m very interested in the comparisons you make between Nixon and Bush.
Dean: Both mean learned about the Presidency from men they greatly respected: Richard Nixon from Dwight Eisenhower, George Bush from his father. When both men became President, you got the very distinct impression that they don’t feel that they quite fit in the shoes of the person from whom they learned about the Presidency. Nixon would constantly be going down to Key Biscayne, San Clemente, or Camp David—he just didn’t like being in the Oval Office. I saw this same thing with George Bush, who is constantly away. The other striking similarity is that both men talk in the third person about the office of the President. It’s like the royal we. You look at other Presidents, like Reagan and Clinton, who clearly filled that office. You almost had to pry Clinton out at the end of his term. And Reagan, despite whatever weaknesses he had intellectually, filled the role of President and played it to the hilt. So Bush has a Nixonian distance from the White House.
And I was stunned at the secrecy of this Administration. I knew that there’s no good that can come out of secrecy. So I began looking closely at Bush and finding the striking Nixonian features of this Presidency: It’s almost as if we’d left an old playbook in the basement, they found it, dusted it off, and said, “This stuff looks pretty good, we ought to give it a try.” As I dug in, and still had some pretty good sources within that Presidency, I found the principal mover and shaker of this Presidency is clearly Dick Cheney, who is not only reviving the Imperial Presidency but expanding it beyond Nixon’s wildest dreams.
The reason I wrote a book with the title “Worse than Watergate,” and I was very cautious in using that title, is because there was a real difference: Nobody died as a result of the so-called abuses of power during Nixon’s Presidency. You might make the exception of, say, the secret bombing of Cambodia, but that never got into the Watergate litany per se. You look at Bush’s abuses, and Cheney’s—to me, it’s a Bush/ Cheney Presidency—and today, people are dying as a result of abuse of power. That’s much more serious.
Q: Dying in Iraq?
Dean: Dying in Iraq. God knows where they’re dying. In secret prisons. To me the fact that a Vice President can go to Capitol Hill and lobby for torture is just unbelievable. Just unbelievable! The fact that a small clique of attorneys in the Department of Justice can write how can we get around the Geneva Conventions so that we can torture during interrogations—I can’t even get their mentally. And when you read their briefs, they didn’t get there mentally.
Q: The amazing thing about your book is that it was written before Cheney went up to lobby for torture, before the NSA scandal broke, and before the Valerie Plame thing.
Dean: They just keep walking into my title and adding additional chapters.
Q: Talk a little bit more about Dick Cheney. You call him “co-President” in your book.
Dean: I do. It was evident, even at the beginning, when Cheney was very confident they were going to win at the Supreme Court. I’ve got some friends who were in there and they were telling me what was happening, and they said Bush doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Cheney’s setting things up the way he wants. He’s designing a National Security Council that’s more powerful than the statutory National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice. And it was, and it is. She was the perfect foil for him because he can roll over her anytime he wants, and he does. Putting her over at State is even better: Keep her out on the road. The Cheney-Rumsfeld connection has really been driving the foreign policy since day one.
Q: Why do you think Bush divested so much of his power to Cheney?
Dean: Bush had expertise in one thing: How to run a Presidential campaign. He understands campaigns and Presidential politics. He has no interest or disposition or I think probably—he’s not stupid, but he’s not bright, he’s not a rocket scientist—he isn’t interested in policy.
Cheney is the opposite. He loves this stuff. He’s a wonk. He gets into it, and he’s had very strong feelings about issues that he’s held for a long time.
He has been determined to expand Presidential power. I can’t find in history any other Presidency that has made it a matter of policy to expand Presidential powers.
Q: Tell me about the Feingold hearing on censure.
Dean: I’ve been invited several times over the last decade or more to testify before Congress, and I’ve always found a polite way not to do it.
Q: Why is that?
Dean: I knew it would make a certain sensation, my first return since the Watergate hearings. I thought it should be an issue that’s important. It should be an issue I felt strongly about. So when Senator Feingold invited me to appear on his censure resolution, I thought, this is a very good issue. I appeared not as a partisan. My partisan days are really long behind me.
Q: How do you identify yourself politically?
Dean: I’m registered as an independent. And I vote for as many Democrats as I do Republicans. I’m really a centrist in many ways. I don’t fly on either wing. I explained to the Senate committee that there was a lot of baggage connected with censure. But I said how important it was that the Senate do something since Feingold’s bill was addressing a blatant violation of law, the violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, he went to Congress to seek permission after the fact. We have a President who says, “Screw that, I’m just going to do it.” It’s an in-your-face attitude. And he’s rolling over the prerogatives of Congress.
Q: You made a comment that should be famous: When Bush said he was bypassing the FISA requirements, you remarked that it was “the first time a President has actually confessed to an impeachable offense.”
Dean:That’s exactly what he did. One of the provisions in Nixon’s bill of impeachment was his warrantless surveillance of media people, which is now covered directly by the FISA law. Warrantless wiretapping is an impeachable offense. It couldn’t be any clearer.
Q: In your book, you also talk about the possibility—I would say the likelihood—that Bush lied this country into war. Can Bush be impeached for that, too?
Dean: When I deconstructed his State of the Union just before the Iraq War and looked at the available information even then, it was clear that the representations he was making as fact were not fact. Is that lying? It certainly is a form of distortion. This is the highest point in a Presidency in his relationship to Congress when he reports for the State of the Union. It is a crime to lie to Congress. The founders thought that misrepresentation to Congress was to be an impeachable offense. And the way Bush did it in the follow up procedures he actually belittled Congress in sending them bogus material. It was really quite stunning when one peels it all apart. And I said, “Is there any question in my mind that this is an impeachable offense?” No.
Q: How do you respond to people who say impeachment is never going to happen?
Dean: There’s a political reality about impeachment. It’s purely a political process. The interpretation of “high crimes and misdemeanors” can reach a long way, all the way to sex in the Oval Office, which was an absurd use of the impeachment clause. Impeachment is the big cannon. As long as the same party that controls Congress controls the White House it just isn’t going to happen. I’m not sure that even if a President murdered his wife, they would impeach him. But those who are focusing on this issue are raising important questions. And one of the reasons I thought a censure resolution was appropriate was because if somebody had censured Nixon or even if a resolution of either house had passed, saying what you’re doing is unacceptable to Congress, that shot across the bow might have straightened him up. I wish Feingold’s resolution could get more traction. It might provide us all some safety because there’s two more years left of this Presidency. And I must say there’s a good possibility in November that the House or Senate or both is going to go Democratic, and it’s going to be hell for this Presidency for the last two years, and they’ve earned it. And that’s when impeachment could become a true reality. I’d settle for oversight, but impeachment’s not out of the question.
Q: I’d think, if things get hotter, and the Democrats get control of the House, that censure might be attractive to Bush, if he’s got any sense, so he could put a lid on this cauldron.
Dean: It’s not a bad idea because they have supplied a steady diet of material. It’s going to be two years of executive privilege fights. The subpoena will change the complexion of the oversight.
Q: In your testimony at the Feingold censure hearing, you said that this is the first time you’ve actually feared our government. Why is that?
Dean: Now I don’t frighten easily, but I find it frightening because Dick Cheney knows no limits. The only person he reports to is George Bush. He works behind closed doors. And I know, from little tidbits I’m picking up from friends who have to be careful not to speak out of school, that there’s more probably more covert activity going on, both abroad and maybe here in the United States, than in decades because of this so-called war on terror.
Q: Do you fear for our democratic system?
Dean: I fear for the system. And I fear for our liberties. Only a small group of people fights for our liberties. Once we start on the slippery slope and those people are put in jeopardy, then we’re really in trouble.