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John Dean and 'The Nixon Defense'

Thursday, August 7, 2014, 7:00pm - 8:30pm
The Crawford Family Forum 474 S. Raymond Ave. Pasadena, CA 91105 Map and directions
KPCCRadio (via YouTube)

Richard M. Nixon didn’t order the burglary that brought down his presidency in 1974, but he did authorize others, and was intricately involved in the Watergate cover-up, former White House counsel John W. Dean told a packed audience at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum on Aug. 7.

Dean, who now lives in Beverly Hills, came to promote his new book, “The Nixon Defense,” which relies on 1,000 secretly taped conversations from the Nixon White House to answer the question Sen. Howard Henry Baker Jr. posed 40 years ago at the beginning of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Actually, Dean said, the question he wanted to answer was more basic. “How could somebody as savvy as Richard Nixon let his presidency implode over a bungled burglary?”

By the time he finished listening to all the tapes, which he said surprised him with new insights every day, he had his answer. “Well, he wasn’t so savvy, is what it boils down to.”

Dean thanked the National Archives for the work it did in cataloging the secret tapes in the Nixon White House. but he alone was responsible for finding a machine to digitize the tapes. That, he said, made it easier for him and his staff of transcribers to understand. He found the best way to work was for his staff to transcribe the conversations and then print them out for him to read over while he listened to the audio.

By the time they were done, he said, they had 8,500 pages of transcripts, “single-spaced, with very small margins, about 4 million words that I reduced to 635 pages of narrative and dialogue. I’m not sure what’s tougher: transcribing them or boiling them down into narrative and dialogue.  

"I’ve been criticized because I didn’t publish all the transcripts, but I’m not sure many people want to read 4 million words of Nixon about Watergate. There’s no telling how many volumes that would take,” he said

The microphones in the Nixon White House were installed in 1971 to make it easier to keep track of presidential conversations, Dean said.

Other presidents had used recording devices, like Lyndon B. Johnson, who could flip a switch under his desk to start recording or “just holler to his secretary, ‘Turn it on.’”

The Nixon recordings were different, because they were automatic, Dean said. Recording devices were installed in the Executive Office Building, the Oval Office, Camp David and on the president’s telephones. Only a handful of people knew of their existence besides Nixon, Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, his aid Larry Higbee. and Deputy Assistant to the President Alexander Butterfield, who revealed the tapes during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings.

Toward the end of his time as White House Counsel, Dean said he came to suspect that he was being taped by the way Nixon conducted some of their conversations.

“But clearly, 99 percent of time Nixon forgets this system is there. Occasionally he remembers it. There was one conversation," Dean said. "I think on April 14, when he’s talking to Haldeman, and he’s saying, ‘Bob, you knew about the coverup. John Ehrlichman knew about the coverup, and, of course, I knew about the coverup,’ and there’s about two beats and he says, ‘I didn’t know about the coverup.’ It’s just pure doublespeak, because he’s remembering that this is probably recorded.”

Dean’s wide-ranging talk with KPCC’s politics reporter Frank Stoltze includes insights into the famous “cancer in the presidency” talk in March of 1973 and bluntly negative assessments of G. Gordon Liddy the alleged mastermind of the Watergate burglaries; and W. Mark Felt, the former deputy director of the FBI would would later be revealed as Deep Throat. You can watch the entire 90-minute interview above.

In the meantime, here are a few excerpts:

Dean turned 75 this year, Stoltze noted, but was just 30 years old when he joined Nixon’s team in July, 1970: 

“So there’s a reason you don’t hire young counsel,” Dean interjected, “because they might still be around writing about you 40 years later.”

On who ordered the June 17, 1972 Watergate break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee: 

Dean had been in The Philippines giving a speech that Saturday night, and didn’t learn about the burglary until he returned on Monday.

“I thought immediately it was Chuck Colson….Chuck was a guy who did dirty tricks for Nixon and, as I write in the book, a lot of people like [Nixon’s domestic affairs advisor] John Ehrlichman, were immediately worried that Colson may have gotten an order from the president... but who’s really worried about it is Richard Nixon. He doesn’t know for sure whether or not he might have ordered the break-in. You’ll be playing a tape, a little segment here, about the fact that Nixon did order a break-in [to the office of the psychiatrist of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg], so that break-in made him have concern that he might have indeed ordered Watergate, which I have pretty well established in my mind, and I think the evidence is absolutely conclusive, that he did not order the [Watergate] break-in.”

The White House quickly figured out that the Watergate break-in was organized by G. Gordon Liddy, who had been reassigned from the White House to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) : 

“Liddy presented himself, when he first came to the White House, as a James Bond character, but as history pretty well documents, Gordon Liddy isn’t quite up to the Maxwell Smart level in his skills. Liddy was a (FBI Director J. Edgar) Hoover speech writer who didn’t do well with it, and was moved to the field where he misbehaved and then was moved out of the FBI. He’d been moved off [the White House] staff because he was causing problems, but nobody shared with anybody [at CREEP] that Liddy is a nut, which they call him on the tapes. He has, really, a little less common sense than the average juvenile delinquent.”

Examples of Liddy’s ideas for spying on the Democrats, as presented to Attorney General John Mitchell while Dean was in the room:

“One of his ideas is that he would have chase planes follow the opponent’s campaign plane and intercept their ground-to-air communications. He had a plan where he would use not just simple electronic surveillance, but laser beams that would go against the windows and somehow pick up the internal conversations in those rooms, I looked over at Mitchell at one point and he winks at me, so I think, ‘O.K., he’s got it. He knows this isn’t going anywhere.’ 

"And then Liddy says, ‘We also have a plan General'—that’s what he called the Attorney General—’that we think is pretty foolproof to get the innermost secrets of the Democratic Party. We’ve hired a squad of prostitutes to go to the Democratic Convention and lure high officials in the Democratic Party onto a houseboat, where we have two-way mirrors, so we can catch them in compromising positions while they’re sharing the innermost secrets of the Democratic Party.’

"I said, Gordon, you’re surely jesting.’ And he looked at me, he shot daggers at me, and then he looked at Mitchell and said, ‘General, I want to assure you these are the finest girls from Baltimore.’”

The White House knew early on that the deputy director of the FBI, who would later be revealed as the “Washington Post’s” anonymous source Deep Throat, was leaking information to at least one news organization. Dean:

“[In October, 1972], I was talking to Henry Peterson, the head of the criminal division of the Justice Department  and he tells me, ‘I haven’t told the Attorney General or the Acting Director of the FBI Pat Gray, the fact that the No. 2 man at the FBI, Mark Felt is leaking like a sieve. In fact, the reason I know this is because the general counsel for the organization to whom he’s leaking is very concerned that they could get swept into a conspiracy to obstruct justice by publishing some of the information that Felt is sharing…..”

Stoltze: “You’re talking about the lawyer for the Washington Post?”
Dean: “You know, Felt actually didn’t really leak his best stuff to the ‘Washington Post.’ It was to the ‘Time Magazine,’ and that’s where we think the general counsel was from.”

On why Dean is not impressed with Mark Felt:

Dean: “As a Machiavellian character, he’s good.”

Stoltze: “That’s Interesting someone from the Nixon White House would say that. A lot of folks say Mark Felt was a hero.

Dean: “Well, if doing black bag jobs is OK….To show you what kind of man he was, he claims he was authorized to do a black bag job against the Weathermen, and he claims that Pat Gray had authorized it, but Pat Gray had never authorized it. He had a clear motive, he wants the job of director (of the FBI)  and he was trying to undercut Pat Gray to get it. There’s a small cabal in the FBI who don’t want outsiders coming in to find the true skeletons in Hoover’s closet. If you think it’s worth supporting the Hoover FBI, you’re not going to find many friends, and that’s what Felt was doing.”

On the secret microphones in the Nixon White House:

“In the Oval Office, there were five microphones around the president’s desk, and two by the fireplace, in the candelabras. Nixon sat at M1 — he would usually sit with his feet on the desk so he talked through his pants a lot, and that made  him a little harder to hear.

"I tended to sit at M5, so I was always over a microphone….Haldeman usually sat at M2, Ehrlichman would sit at M4 and Kissinger at M3. Nixon was using Woodrow Wilson’s old desk, and they literally drilled holes in these historic desks to put in these tiny microphones....If you hear the president drag a coffee cup across the desk it literally sounds like a train going through the Oval Office; it makes just horrendous noises.

"You can hear his dog, King Timahoe, barking on the South Lawn, and what cuts the conversation off totally is when a helicopter lands on the South Lawn. Then you can’t hear anything.”

Nixon and his advisers knew Dean was cooperating with investigators in the spring of 1973:

“I tell them exactly what I’m going to do. I got a lawyer who is a criminal lawyer and I tell them...’I don’t know the criminal law, and I’d like to find out what laws I’ve violated.’

"I’m open. I’m honest, and I tell them what I’m learning from the prosecutors, so they’re not surprised….

"I was just not going to play the cover-up game. I knew I was on the wrong side of the law. I regretted my incompetence in not looking at the statutes earlier and I regretted that I’d let someone like Ehrlichman talk me out of it.

"I had argued with them from two days after the burglary, telling Ehrlichman that we should hire a criminal lawyer….and he dismissed it.”

On his famous 100-minute “cancer in the presidency” talk with President Nixon on March 21, 1973:

“What I had hoped to do in this conversation was to have the president tell me, ‘We have to end this matter (cover-up) now...’ but Nixon, to my surprise, wants the cover-up to go on. 

"I had no idea what I was going to say when I went in there. It was totally extemporaneous, the metaphor I used about the cancer on the presidency,  because he was sitting there with his feet up on the desk, totally relaxed. I decided to make sure I had his attention, and when I finished, I noticed his feet were on the floor...

"And his reaction that night, he writes in his diary, ‘There wasn’t much of interest that went on today, excepting for the fact that Dean came in with this ‘cancer on the presidency’ thing'.

"So he did remember that, and it did catch his attention. He hears the sighs in my voice and he thinks somehow that’s emotion, but it was frustration, unbelieveable frustration. I think this is the day I meet Richard Nixon. The curtain comes back, and he’s not the man I expect.

"I’m talking bluntly to him about obstruction of justice. I’m telling him..., this is the sort of thing the Mafia does, and he has no reaction to it. I’m pulling out every stop so I can to be an advocate to ending the cover-up, and I’m just not carrying the day.”

—Jeanette Marantos