Is Comey Telling the Truth? Was John Dean Telling the Truth?

Forty Three Years Later, We Still Wonder What Dean Knew and When He Knew It

John Dean, James Comey
John Dean photo portrait as White House Counsel. James Comey testifying before Senate Intelligence Committee. John Dean testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973. Photo credit:  The White House  / Wikimedia, C-SPAN and US Capitol Visitor Center

Looking back on Watergate is about more than just reminiscence. Many still are trying to seek the truth about what really happened, what was really on all the tapes, and should Nixon really have been forced to resign.

Not unlike Comey, back then John Dean was the “white knight.” Since then, Dean claims to have listened to and helped catalogue all 3700 hours of the Nixon tapes. That makes him one of the greatest living experts on Watergate. Why has he stayed close to this story for so long? Was Dean really trying to endlessly protect his version of events?

Three years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, Dean spoke with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the chronology of those events, the smoking gun tape that wasn’t, and Dean’s contention that he was the only one in the White House that could see what was coming.

This conversation is from August of 2014, but its relevance to the events of this day are remarkable.

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Full Text Transcript:

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Just like yesterday morning, 45 years ago we were glued to our TV sets watching the Watergate hearings. Then is now; we watched as a president with bad character made bad decisions surrounded by people also of questionable character. Then, just as James Comey did yesterday, one man tried to be the white knight to expose the evil and ride off as a hero. At that time, it was John Dean. Over the years, maybe to protect his own position and his own story, he devoted years to listening to all 3,700 hours of the Watergate tapes. He may be the greatest living expert on Watergate and he may be the only one left to tell his version of what happened. But just as with the president, we’re left to ask: what did Dean really know and when did he know it? 3 years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, I spoke with John Dean about his version of events. Some of the parallels to events taking place today are truly remarkable, so let’s go back and listen to that conversation.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about what’s new in the Watergate story after all of these years. What are those holes? What are those places that have been filled in as a result of your research and listening to so many of these tapes?

John Dean: What happened is when I agreed to take this on, I had no idea of the dimensions of what I was taking on. I was curious to know how somebody as savvy as Nixon, politically, seemingly a highly intelligent man, could just make the mess he made of his presidency. It was just a bungled burglary that he had not directly ordered. I had always sensed that and I’ve now confirmed that after going through the tapes but that’s where it started. I realized, to do it I was going to have to listen to some of the tapes that had not been transcribed, so I first needed to catalog all the tapes. Nobody had done that, to my surprise. It is possible because of the way the National Archives has, for forty years they’re unsung heroes in preserving this history and making it usable and workable, they’ve gone through and prepared subject logs on every conversation, where they name who Nixon is talking to and while they don’t prepare transcripts, they do put the gist of what the conversation was. They get keywords and what have you. So, I went through and pulled out all the Watergate conversations. That turned out to be a thousand conversations. Some of them were fleeting and brief, some of them, as it progresses, become all consuming: they go on for hours where there’s nothing but Watergate. Once I got that catalogued, I looked to see what was transcribed and I found about 80 Watergate special prosecution trial transcripts that were of varying quality. The ones that were used in trials were all very good. The other ones were just FBI secretary first drafts and not good at all; they often had the wrong person attributed to speaking. So, those I knew I had to redo. Stanley Cutler, the historian who forced the Archives to release – he was the plaintiff in an action by the Public Citizen law group – he did a book of transcripts and he had about 320 Watergate conversations. I asked Stanley: how did you select them? He said, well, I selected the conversations that looked interesting. I said, that’s a pretty good criteria for doing a book, but what I discovered when I listened to the conversations of Stanley’s transcripts, often there would be an ellipsis and that could be 20, 30, 40 minutes of what I found to be very interesting and important material. I also knew, since Stanley had done his, that the Archives had released some of the withdrawn material, where people were talking about personal matters. Because those people were not deceased, a Martha Mitchell and John Mitchell come to mind. A lot of that material Stanley did not have access to because it had been withdrawn. I discovered that they had been returned and put back into the recordings. I then looked at the other 600 conversations and realized nobody had seemed to even pay any attention to these and they were not unimportant conversations. I decided that I had to redo all 1,000 conversations, just from scratch. I got a team of grad students started on it. I did a number of them myself. I found it was easiest if I worked from somebody else’s draft; the most time-consuming is the blank page, if you will and starting from scratch. Correcting them was faster for me to spend my time than trying to do them from scratch. So, I had the grad students, if I wasn’t working with Stanley’s transcripts and tweaking those, or the prosecutor’s, soon my transcribers caught up and started feeding me their supply. But, it was a huge project.

Jeff Schechtman: Is one of the things that makes this story more confusing, a little murkier, is that there is not a crystal clear narrative line to the extent that people wanted to believe for a long time, of Nixon simply ordering the burglary; that it had more to do with the atmosphere that was created that all the various things that Nixon wanted to do, that he talked about, the paranoia, the things that he couldn’t even remember, that he told Chuck Colson and the general sense of everything, including selling ambassadorships that was going on in the White House at the time?

John Dean: I think that’s a good point. He doesn’t order the break in, so why is he covering it up? What’s his concern? The White House hasn’t ordered the break in, so what’s his concern with the White House? One of the things I try to avoid was a lot of commentary as I told this story. Just let the tapes – I convert them to narrative and dialogue – just let them speak for themselves. There’s very clear things that come through to me. Nixon is not so sure in those first days whether in fact, he has told Colson to break into Watergate. He just keeps probing and pushing until he gets the answer and until he’s satisfied, he hasn’t through Colson. Colson isn’t a concern. He then becomes concerned with John Mitchell and I understand that, because Haldeman told me once that Richard Nixon did not believe he would be president if John Mitchell had not in essence left his law practice, which was a very successful law practice, and taken over his campaign in ’68. So, he was indebted to Mitchell. He is the one who insisted Mitchell become Attorney General and come to Washington and that hadn’t worked out so well. Mitchell had not been a terribly good Attorney General. Here was now the fact that Mitchell could go to jail and clearly, on a very human level, Nixon is saying this just can’t happen, but he’s very deeply concerned about it. So, that’s how he really gets in and starts approving the cover-up in the early days. He tries to stay out of it initially but for obvious reasons of Mitchell and he’s not so sure about Haldeman. What’s also very telling to me, Jeff, is that these guys are not telling him the truth. They’re not giving information he needs to make decisions, he doesn’t know the White House is actually involved with the same people who’ve been arrested at the Watergate, that they have been authorized by Ehrlichman to break into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist office. So, there are a lot of mixed things going on.

Jeff Schechtman: But even for Colson and Liddy and others, Watergate wasn’t even the end point. Watergate was something that was supposed to be just en route to what the object was that night, which was to go to McGovern’s campaign headquarters.

John Dean: That’s right, you’ve got it. That’s exactly the point. They had screwed up the initial one. They didn’t even know where Larry O’Brien’s office was when they went into the Watergate, in the Democratic headquarters. They had gone back to repair a bug that didn’t work and if they had been arrested at McGovern’s headquarters, you can trace that right back to Nixon because there’s a tape of Nixon telling Haldeman to put a plant, not a flower, a p-l-a-n-t – it could be an electronic device – that’s the way Liddy would have certainly interpreted it, but it could be an intern, it could be a secretary, it could be a chauffeur, but to get somebody inside the McGovern headquarters – Haldeman takes that directive from the president and has his aide, Gordon Strong, call Liddy to the White House and reads the note to him that he’s gotten from Haldeman. That is, change your intelligence gathering functions from Senator Muskie – who had been the primary and most likely candidate that would be opposing Nixon – to McGovern, who is now pulling way ahead in the primary race of the Democratic party. Had that arrest occurred in McGovern headquarters – they had tried daylight and earlier efforts to get into McGovern’s headquarters – it’s traceable directly to the oval office.

Jeff Schechtman: The other part of that, coming back to the point you made before about Mitchell, that the actual break-in at Watergate was more likely ordered by Mitchell or McGruder.

John Dean: Clearly was. What happened is when McGruder presents the final plan for Liddy’s schemes, the first two had been shot down. I sat with amazement through the first one and when Mitchell winks at me, I know this isn’t going anywhere. They ask me to come back, I get late to the second meeting where Liddy is presenting his plan and I hear him talking about illegal things and of course, this is all on tape so I’m totally corroborating as I testify to this. I said you shouldn’t even be discussing these things in the office of the Attorney General. I went back and told Haldeman, I actually know today I told Haldeman after the first meeting as well, this would just be insanity. I had earlier turned off another insane potential break-in at the Brookings Institute, which is why I had been excluded from knowing about the plumbers and why they even had people like Hunt and Liddy working at the White House. But anyway, when I learned the fact that it had been approved from McGruder, he said that he presented the plan to Mitchell – and he’s testified to this, that included the Watergate break-in and one other. They hadn’t designated it. The reason they wanted to go into Watergate is because Larry O’Brien was causing them such fits at that time with the ITT scandal, so they were looking for financial information that they could somehow embarrass O’Brien. That was also happening at the White House. Every time that they discuss in these conversations what was going on, I put a flip note and then collected them all into an appendix so people can read exactly what the White House understood was going on and why they were breaking in. It’s clearly to get some sort of financial dirt on O’Brien. It’s a pure fishing expedition. Liddy goes in with the authorization the first time from McGruder, who tells him to go in and take pictures and what have you. The second time, nobody ordered it. Liddy has been chewed out by Mitchell during a phone conversation. McGruder’s present and Liddy was told that the stuff he’s getting is junk and it’s not worth the money. Well, Liddy just takes him on himself and decides rather than go into the McGovern headquarters first, we’ll go to the Watergate and fix the bug and find Larry O’Brien’s office. They had not even been in Larry O’Brien’s office. You know there’s a myth about Liddy, who has in the years since Watergate, presented himself like some sort of James Bond character that Nixon has hired. Well, this guy isn’t up to the Maxwell Smart level. I mean, he’s a joke. He doesn’t know what he’s doing and people who ascribed professionalism to him just don’t know what a ham-handed operation this really was.

Jeff Schechtman: What about the Hughes material that they allegedly wanted from Larry O’Brien’s office?

John Dean: Well, Nixon is interested in Howard Hughes, having O’Brien on a retainer. Liddy apparently, unbeknownst to anybody at the White House, he and Howard Hunt – Hunt worked for a guy by the name of Robert Bennett, who later became a Senator. He was the son of a Senator. He had the Hughes account in Washington. Liddy and Hunt cook up a scheme to break into a Las Vegas publisher, who’s got apparently some information they think are of political nature that would be of interest to use. It’s just a convoluted plot. This has nothing to do with the White House. Nobody at the White House knew anything about it and they were just flabbergasted when they hear about it.

Jeff Schechtman: As all of this kind of takes over, you have this conversation with the president talking about the cancer on the presidency, thinking that this is going to be the penultimate conversation that really gets him to realize what’s going on and you talk about the fact that he had an answer for everything at that point.

John Dean: When I went in on March 21, to lay that out, I really didn’t know how much he knew. Today, of course listening to all these tapes, I knew he knew everything. He is not as active in the early stage, but he’s fully knowledgeable. I don’t think anybody had pointed out to him – he sort of thinks he’s his own lawyer and that he’s able to handle these things. He really doesn’t. I’m learning about obstruction of justice by reading just the code and some of the cases and what have you because after the election, I became concerned we were on the wrong side of the law and sure enough, when I find we are I go up to Ehrlichman again and say: “Listen, we’re violating the obstruction statute. We’re probably involved in a conspiracy.” He didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to hear it. He said, “I don’t have a criminal intent.” I said, “I don’t either, but John, that isn’t the way you get on the wrong side of the law.” I reminded him of some law school 101, but he didn’t want to discuss it. In fact, there’s some conversation where that comes up even later, where I’m walking around with Xerox copies of the statute and trying to convince him that we’re breaking the law. He raises, in front of Nixon in some of those conversations, as council here reads the statutes but I don’t think he reads them well. Behind my back, they say well that shows you how far off the track he’s fallen and of course, I’m dead-on right. But anyway, when I go in on March 21, I don’t know what he knows. Today, I know he knows it all and that’s the day I think I really meet Richard Nixon. I went to work for an image of a man I thought was a hell of a president. I think the curtain came back that day and I realize this is not who I thought he was. I tell him, everything is going wrong. I’m speaking in blunt criminal terms and he has an answer for everything. Everything I say like “one of the aides who is involved has committed perjury.” He says, “Well John, perjury is a tough rap to prove.” That is what I expected to hear from him.

Jeff Schechtman: That conversation was on the 21st. On the 23rd, there’s the tape that really is sort of the smoking gun tape. Talk about that.

John Dean: That smoking gun tape happens real early. The March 21 conversation of course is 8 months later. The smoking gun tape, I don’t believe was an obstruction of justice, even. By the time the smoking gun tape surfaces, I’m out of there, Haldeman’s out of there and Nixon doesn’t really remember what the conversation is about. He probably could have survived that conversation being released publicly if they had ever understood fully. I did about a 50 page, single spaced note on that: why it wasn’t the smoking gun, but it wasn’t. It was totally misread at the time as being Nixon trying to stop the FBI investigation. Nixon was savvy enough to know that not even the CIA could stop the FBI investigation. It’s a battleship and once it starts, you can’t turn it around.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that becomes clearer and clearer as this narrative unfolds is the degree to which the White House was literally taken over by this issue and the whole decision making process that was going on at the time, which hardly seems well thought out or deliberate, but very seat-of-the-pants.

John Dean: One of the surprises to me is how seat-of-the-pants these decisions are. Nixon will make a decision; he’ll make a bad decision and then he tries to impose the facts of that bad decision and make them into a reality. This goes on time after time after time. I’m one who thought this man used to sit down with either option papers or his yellow pad and write down the pros and cons on one side of the sheet versus the other. Not at all. He’s just shooting from the hip, not thinking them through, not looking at the implications, not getting all the information. In fact, really avoiding the information he needed to make good decisions. That’s a surprise. As I said, I was trying to figure out why somebody as savvy as Nixon could get into the trouble he got into. Well, he’s just not as savvy as I thought he was and most people think he is.

Jeff Schechtman: Is it about not being as savvy or is it about a fundamental character weakness that really is at the core of this story?

John Dean: Well, there is that. No question. I’ve said when summarizing this, it’s a combination of his character and his decision making. His savviness might have gotten him around his character flaws if he had been really clever, but he’s not that clever. He wraps himself in the office of the president and thinks that power can protect him from far more than it was ever able to protect him.

Jeff Schechtman: That’s the famous line: when the president does it, it’s not illegal.

John Dean: That’s right.

Jeff Schechtman: There really seems to be no moral line as this story finicks it, as this story continues to unfold.

John Dean: You’re right. There was just no move that he was not willing to take. Along the line you’re saying: if the president does it, he thinks it’s legal. He thought it’s sort of like the power of the king. In fact, there was an amazing brief argued before the Supreme Court. The Solicitor General, Erwin Griswold, refused to argue that the Attorney General did not need statutory power to wiretap. The Justice Department took that case all the way to the Supreme Court and they had an Assistant Attorney General by the name of Marty. He literally goes back to King George as the basis. I think that this is the thinking of Nixon, that he has those kinds of royal powers: that he is a lawmaker. Of course, that isn’t the way it works.

Jeff Schechtman: Sort of the icing on the cake in some way in all of this, is the story you tell in the tapes in his conversation with Tom Pappas. Talk about that.

John Dean: That’s another shocker. I had no idea that Nixon was personally raising money. On March 2, Haldeman explains to him that Mitchell – that I’ve reported that Mitchell is having trouble raising money for the Watergate defendants to keep them on the reservation, to keep them in place, as Haldeman explains. Tom Pappas, a former ambassador to Greece in the Eisenhower years and a very successful American businessman in Greece, now or at that time has been helping Mitchell out. That’s on March 2. On March 6, Nixon has a dinner for the heavy contributors. Pappas and he start talking. Pappas says, I would like to talk to you. Nixon, having this in the back of his mind says “absolutely” and puts him on the schedule for 10:00 next morning. Just before that meeting, there’s a conversation with Haldeman where Nixon said, “Somebody told me about Pappas helping out,” and Haldeman says, “Yeah, I did.”  Nixon said, “I got him coming in,” and he says, “Well, I didn’t do that for reason of him coming in.” But the first time it had come up, Haldeman had mentioned that Pappas was telling Mitchell that he wanted to keep the ambassador to Greece, by the name of Henry Tasca in Greece and they had planned to move him out to another post or some other function or even let him go. But Pappas wanted to keep him and Nixon said “Keep him, good.” So, he recalled all that and before Pappas comes in, they have this conversation. Then Pappas arrives. The interview behind the scene’s story for me is when I wrote that up and after listening, I said: “This sounds like it’s straight out of The Godfather,” because Pappas has kind of a raspy voice and it’s just very conspiratorial sounding when you hear it.

Jeff Schechtman: In the couple of minutes we have left here, got in John, most of the Watergate reforms are out the window today. What do you think is the lasting legacy of Watergate?

John Dean: That’s a real interesting question. I have been, not in California, but almost all the west of the country. I’ve done one in California. The one reform that seems to have lasted is the American Bar Association and the professional bars of all the states, have insisted the lawyers not get in the kind of trouble that those involved in Watergate got in and then later in Enron and what have you. Look, I developed what they call a CLE, a continuing legal education program and did a couple of them. I do them with a friend of mine, a trial lawyer from Cleveland that helps break it up and he’s gotten some real expertise in some of the areas that are now requirements of the ethics laws that really came directly out of my testimony. By taking this history and reminding the audience or those who didn’t live through it, I am exposing them to these things with a lot of audio-visual, playing some tapes. We’ve really been shocked at how popular this program is. We’ve done about 85 of them. I’ve done one in Los Angeles, none in California, but all over the rest of the country. It’s just primarily not in California because I haven’t really explored it in California. But clearly, the bar associations are not going to let this sort of thing happen again. The reforms they made because of Watergate are really ‘real world’. The few that they could not get through the House of Delegates at the time in the post-Watergate years, Enron enabled them to close that gap. So, that’s the one legacy of Watergate that I’m sure is going to be lasting. The others are the Independent Council Law, the number one recommendation of the Senate Watergate Committee, gone. It sufficiently caused problems for both parties that they let the Sunset Provision take the law off the books. The Campaign Finance, another major reform. The Supreme Court, for its own reasons under the First Amendment in Buckley vs. Valeo followed by a series of cases down to most recently, Citizens United has eviscerated the post-Watergate campaign reform laws, which even Nixon as you know, talks about how dangerous and how all this money in these campaigns, it’s just asking for this kind of trouble. We haven’t solved that problem, that’s for sure. One legacy I can assure you is a level of ethical and professionalism in the bar that came out of Watergate is still being pushed by the bar. The other, I can’t be sure, other than the fact that unacceptable behavior, clearly that the American public won’t tolerate.

Jeff Schechtman: John Dean. John, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.

John Dean: Always a pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from John Dean (Tullio Saba / Flickr) and Watergate (Indutiomarus / Wikimedia).

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