The impact of the resignation of President Richard Nixon is still being felt today, close to 40 years after it happened. And, to mark the anniversary of the Aug. 8, 1974 announcement, a key figure in the disgraced administration came to Greenwich last week.
John Dean was special counselor to Mr. Nixon at the time of the infamous break-in at the Watergate Building in Washington D.C. where the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters was located. But it wasn’t the break-in to correct incorrectly placed listening devices that brought down Mr. Nixon’s presidency. Rather it was the cover-up in what ballooned into the political scandal known today simply as Watergate. Mr. Dean’s testimony to the U.S. Senate during hearings on the cover-up was considered critical because he directly linked Mr. Nixon to it, paving the way for the president’s resignation.
Mr. Dean lost his law license and served jail time for his role in the cover-up but received a reduced sentence for his testimony and since then has become a best-selling author, teacher and pundit. His latest book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, has just been released and Mr. Dean gave the first lecture on the book tour as part of Greenwich Library’s Authors Live series on July 29. The book, which is Mr. Dean’s tenth, attempts to put into narrative form conversations recorded in the Oval Office on the infamous tapes that ultimately brought down the Nixon presidency.
At the outset of his speech though, Mr. Dean was quick to say there were not going to be any stunning revelations discussed that night.
“That’s what you’re going to have to buy the book for,” Mr. Dean joked to the packed audience that turned out for him, but promised the book would be full of new information, even things he didn’t know until he reviewed all the tapes.
One thing he makes clear is that Mr. Nixon had no advance knowledge of the burglary, which Mr. Dean considered to be amateurish. In his remarks, Mr. Dean took a shot at Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, with whom he has clashed many times in the past, saying that he liked to think of himself as James Bond but “he wasn’t even up to the level of” Maxwell Smart, the bumbling secret agent from the Get Smart sitcom in the 1960’s.
He noted that the target of the burglars that night wasn’t even the DNC offices in the Watergate. Rather they were stopping off to fix a bug that wasn’t working before going to their real target, the Capitol Hill office of U.S. Sen. George McGovern who was challenging Mr. Nixon in his 1972 re-election campaign. And that, Mr. Dean said, was something Mr. Nixon was directly involved with as there are conversations on the tapes where he said he wants “a plant” inside Mr. McGovern’s office, something Mr. Liddy took to mean a bug rather than have someone close to the campaign reporting on Mr. McGovern and his election strategy back to the Nixon White House.
“If they had been arrested at the McGovern headquarters, it’s traceable right back to the president and it would have been a very, very different story,” Mr. Dean said.
Mr. Dean said at first Mr. Nixon wasn’t even involved directly in the cover up, getting his news about what’s happening from his chief of staff and from the famed reporting of the Washington Post. He does not get more involved until much later in the process as the book shows and Mr. Dean described his former boss as someone with “no compunction about breaking the law” and capable of a “frightening” decision-making process.
To put this book together, it meant reviewing 1,000 tapes of White House conversations, some lasting minutes and others hours, and turning key transcripts into dialogue and narrative to drive the story. That required both the help of the National Archives and graduate students doing transcriptions. It took months just to catalog and transcribe before the writing even began. That resulted in 21 volumes of transcripts and close to four billion words that then had to be turned into a narrative and dialogue.
But the exhausting work that he and his team put into this was worth it, he said, because of his own curiosity about events he was a key part of.
“The one question I’ve always had is how someone as savvy and intelligent as Richard Nixon make a mess out of the presidency he made with a bungled burglary,” Mr. Dean said. “That’s what I started looking for.”
Several key selections of the tapes were played at the event including conversations between Mr. Nixon and his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman about wealthy businessman Thomas Pappas and his desires to see someone remain in the position of the U.S. ambassador to Greece, an arrangement that led to money being accepted to see that this happened. Mr. Pappas became a key contributor of money used for the defense, and later bribery to, of some of the burglars in the Watergate break-in. A tape of a conversation between Mr. Nixon and Mr. Pappas was also played where Mr. Nixon thanks the businessman for doing this while ever so delicately dancing around the truth they both knew of what the money was being used for.
“Almost every page of this book has something that was new to me and a surprise to me that is both interesting and unpleasant,” Mr. Dean said. “This is informative to not only what happened in Watergate but to the real human drama that goes on here. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of Richard Nixon but I really saw a much more complex figure than I even knew from my own dealings with him.”
Mr. Dean also played some of the more widely known clips from the Nixon tapes including his now-famous warning that the scandal around the cover-up was a “cancer growing closer to the presidency” and the conversation he had with the president where Mr. Nixon said “We can get that” in response to Mr. Dean’s facetious suggestion that they give Watergate burglar Howard Hunt, who was blackmailing the administration about what he knew, a million dollars for him to remain silent.
One difficulty they did run into while transcribing the tapes was how often Mr. Nixon’s voice was muffled on them. Mr. Dean explained that was because of the former president’s habit of putting his feet up on his desk, blocking the microphones of the listening devices and deflecting his voice in the process. That created a lot of extra work for people in transcribing.
In a question and answer session after his remarks, Mr. Dean was asked about the central question of his book. What drove Nixon to do this? Town resident, and Post columnist Christopher von Keyserling said that Mr. Nixon was clearly a very successful and savvy politician who was all but assured of reelection in 1972 and asked why would he behave in such an emotional fashion.
“When you work your way through as much of his behavior as I have now you see there is a constant blend of a public Nixon and a different Nixon he was with certain members of the staff,” Mr. Dean said. “Chuck Colson could always bring out the worst in him. Bob Haldeman was a pretty close second on that. He dealt with me on a rather high plane. He’s a different person. Reviewing this I heard conversations with his daughters and his wife and they’re very, very different. He has a lovely relationship with his daughters. When he thinks he has peace in Vietnam he doesn’t want to call [Henry Kissinger]. He wants to call his wife, Pat, and they have this lovely conversation.”
Mr. Dean speculated that the revelation of this “dark side” of Nixon likely stunned those closest to him.
“It seems the more successful he gets and the more reassured he is of election, the more he seeks revenge against his enemies,” Mr. Dean said. “He truly was out to get people and had plans in his second term to cause a lot of havoc for a lot of different people. You have a real mix of emotions in this man constantly… I don’t think it was fear that drove him. I think it was anger. There’s a lot of self-pity a lot of the time in these tapes when he thinks he’s not getting a fair shake. He’s a fascinating character.”
The AuthorsLive series at Greenwich Library features best selling authors from all over the fiction and non-fiction spectrum. Mr. Dean was invited not only because of the 40th anniversary of Mr. Nixon’s resignation but because of how the Watergate scandal changed politics forever in this country.
“To some of you Watergate is ancient history,” librarian Marianne Weill said as she introduced Mr. Dean before his remarks in the Cole Auditorium. “But there’s a reason why we continue to apply the suffix ‘gate’ to political and governmental scandals.”
After the question and answer session, Mr. Dean signed books for members of the audience. And for those who missed it, the entire speech will soon be available as a podcast from the library at Greenwichlibrary.org.