Watergate and the Downing of Nixon, Part 5

Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush
Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush Photo credit: The White House / Nixon Library and DoD

As prior Watergate excerpts from Family of Secrets have shown, there is every reason to distrust the accepted story of this seminal event. In fact, Watergate teaches us to be much more skeptical of what we are told by the establishment — the government, academia, big media. Turns out that self-interest, conformity, and suppression of alarming insight are more common than even the most cynical of us may suspect.

Previously, we saw that the notion of President Richard Nixon brought down by his own fatal flaws may be a fairy tale. And we saw that certain mythic characters, like super-journalist Bob Woodward, were misrepresented.

Below, we learn that another key character in the saga, John Dean, also deserves much closer scrutiny.

Introduction by WhoWhatWhy staff.

For Part 1, go here; Part 2, here; Part 3, here, Part 4, here.

Excerpted from Russ Baker’s Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.

Notes: (1) Although these excerpts do not contain footnotes, the book itself is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (2) To distinguish between George Bush, father and son, George H.W. Bush is sometimes referred to by his nickname Poppy, and George W. Bush by his, W. (3) Additional context can be found in the preceding chapters.


Poppy Enters, Stage Right

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If someone did want to undermine the president from outside the White House, he couldn’t have found a better perch than the chairmanship of the Republican Party.

Right after the election, Poppy Bush, again utilizing his pull with Nixon, had persuaded the president to bring him back from his cushy U.N. post and install him at the Republican National Committee. This put him at the very epicenter of the nationwide Republican elite that would ultimately determine whether Nixon would stay or go.

As chairman of the RNC, Poppy was expected to be the president’s chief advocate, especially to the party faithful. He would travel widely, interact with big donors and party activists. If anyone would have their finger on the pulse of the loyalist base, it was Poppy. He would have a good sense of what would keep supporters in line, and conversely, what might convince them to abandon ship.

But Poppy was unique among RNC chairmen over the years in that he had convinced Nixon to let him maintain an official presence at the White House. Just as Nixon had permitted him to participate in cabinet meetings as U.N. ambassador, he now continued to extend that privilege while Poppy ran the RNC. This was unprecedented for someone in such an overtly partisan position.

Here was a man closely connected to the CIA, as we have seen, now both running the Republican Party and sitting in on cabinet deliberations. An intelligence officer couldn’t have asked for a better perch. Moreover, this put him in the catbird seat just as Watergate began heating up.

But Poppy was even more wired into Nixonworld. When he came to the RNC, he hired Harry Dent and Tom Lias, the top officials of Nixon’s Political Affairs office, which had established the Town house Operation. Dent was the architect of Nixon’s Southern strategy, with which Poppy Bush and his backers were closely allied. Lias had ties to Poppy from before working in the White House. He had been a top organizer for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, strategizing how to elect people like Poppy to formerly Democratic seats in the South.

Skull and Bones

Skull and Bones emblem Photo credit:  Unknown / Wikimedia

After Poppy came to Washington, the two often socialized. According to Pierre Ausloos, stepfather of Lias’s daughter, and a friend of the family, “On weekends, Bush would always invite [Lias] for a barbecue party at his house here in Washington.” Ausloos also remembers that during the 1968 Republican convention, the Liasís daughter’s babysitter was Poppy’s son, George W. Bush.

Thus, at the time Dent and Lias were installed in the White House Political Affairs office, they were already close with Bush. Indeed, right after the 1970 election and the termination of the Town house Operation, Bush took Lias with him to New York, where Lias served as a top aide on Poppy’s United Nations staff. The U.N. choice struck people who knew Lias as odd. Lias had no relevant qualifications or knowledge for the U.N. post, just as Poppy himself didn’t.

Poppy’s decision, once he moved to the RNC, to hire both Lias and Dent — the two men supervising Jack Gleason’s Town house Operation — is surely significant. Meanwhile, Poppy Bush and his team had already been in contact with John Dean.

In a brief 2008 conversation, in which a prickly Dean sought to control the conditions of the interview, I asked him whether he had any dealings with Bush. “I think there are some phone calls on my phone logs, but I never met with him personally,” he said.

Indeed, phone logs show that on June 24, 1971, Ambassador Bush called Dean, and on December 6, 1971, Tom Lias of Ambassador Bush’s office called. The logs show other calls from Lias as well. It is not clear — nor did Dean volunteer an opinion — why Bush and Lias would have been calling him at all.

Slumming in Greenwich

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When the Senate created a committee to investigate Watergate, there was no guarantee that anything would come of it. The perpetrators — the burglars and their supervisors, Hunt and Liddy — were going on trial, and it was uncertain whether the hearings would produce any further insights. Moreover, the committee featured four rather somnolent Democrats and three Republicans, two of them staunch Nixon loyalists.

This left only one wild card: Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican from Connecticut.

A freshman, and an independent one, Weicker was not disposed to knee-jerk defense of Nixon. Furthermore, he saw himself as a crusader. At six feet six, Weicker was imposing, considered basically well-intentioned, a little naive, and in love with publicity. He had gotten his political start in the Bush hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut; and like the Bushes, he was heir to a family fortune, in his case from two grandfathers who owned the Squibb pharmaceutical company. But there the similarities ended.

Weicker chose for his base Greenwich’s Third Voting District, which consisted almost entirely of working-class Italians. “Just decent, hard-working, down-to-basics families,” Weicker would say. “Had I been raised as a typical Republican in the salons of Fairfield County, discussing international issues at teas and cocktail parties, I know my career would have been a short one once off the Greenwich electoral scene.”

Senate Watergate Committee, Watergate Burglars

Left to right: Senator Lowell Weicker, Senator Edward Gurney, Minority Counsel Fred Thompson and Senator Howard Baker. Lowell Weiker portrait. Second row: James W. McCord, Virgilio R. Gonzales, Frank A. Sturgis, Eugenio R. Martinez, Bernard L. Barker and G. Gordon Liddy. Photo credit: US Senate Historical Office, US Congress, Unknown and National Archives / Wikimedia.

In 1960, Weicker aligned himself with Albert Morano, a congressional candidate opposed by the Bush family. Now the Bushes saw Weicker as a traitor to his class. Over the years, Weicker and Bush would generally maintain a cool but civil relationship, driven by political expediency.

“I think he was viewed as an outsider from day one, and it was a perspective he relished,” said Townhouse operative Jack Gleason. “Because he always used to joke about ‘the Round Hill boys out to get me again’ every time he was up for reelection.”

Weicker had arrived in Washington in 1968, following his election to the House of Representatives. Given the past, this would have made him a not-very-welcome colleague of Poppy Bush. And Poppy probably was not enthused when, after only two years in the House, Weicker was elected to Prescott Bush’s old Senate seat — in the same year Poppy lost his second Senate bid. Weicker’s star was rising faster than Poppy’s — and in the Bush home state to boot. It must have rankled.

Still, Weicker’s least endearing qualities — his considerable ambition, love of publicity, and penchant for self-aggrandizement — would shortly prove useful in at least one respect: as a champion of the “truth” on the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, commonly known as the Watergate Committee. The same Republican maverick who had no qualms about challenging his party’s leadership in Connecticut would soon debut his maverick persona on the national stage.

In his memoirs, Weicker writes that he was given the Watergate Committee assignment because he was one of only two Republicans who volunteered and that his interest in “campaign financing” and dwindling faith in the democratic process spurred his personal interest. Interestingly, the other Republican volunteer, stalwart conservative Edward J. Gurney of Florida, had won his seat with the help of Bush’s top political lieutenant, Jimmy Allison — and eldest son George W. Bush, who took the extraordinary step of securing a leave from his National Guard unit in 1968, when he had barely begun his military training.

The other Republican on the committee was Minority Leader Howard Baker, a moderate. Weicker was the only Republican on the committee with the inclination to prove his independence from the party and openly challenge the president.

By the spring of 1973, six defendants had been sentenced in the DNC burglary, and the Watergate hearings were due to begin. There was now an opportunity for Nixon to put the whole Watergate affair behind him, without mortal damage to his presidency. Weicker, however, already saw his role as an honest broker, and he criticized Nixon’s attempts at tamping down the matter.

“I think the national interest is achieved by opening, not closing, the White House doors,” he said. He added that he would vote in favor of subpoenas for White House officials to appear before the committee.

Justice Potter Stewart, Barbara Bush, George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon.

Justice Potter Stewart, Barbara Bush, George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon, February 26, 1971. Photo credit:  The White House / Nixon Library

Poppy Bush apparently agreed. On March 20, the day after Weicker’s remarks, Poppy went to see Nixon at the Oval Office. In his usual oblique way, ascribing his advice to others, he urged Nixon to send John Dean to testify.

BUSH: We’re getting hit a little bit, Mr. President… It’s building, and the mail’s getting heavier…

NIXON: What do you think you can do about it?… We’ve got hearings coming up. The hearings will make it worse.

BUSH: …I was speaking with the executives at the Bull Elephants…The guy said to me,… why doesn’t the President send Dean?… The disclosure is what they’re calling for.

NIXON: We are cooperating… They don’t want any cooperation. They aren’t interested in getting the facts. They’re only interested in [political gains?]… I wish there were an answer to Watergate, but I just don’t know an…  I don’t know a damn thing to do. [emphasis added]

John Ehrlichman remembers that meeting well, as noted in his memoirs:

“Bush argued that the only way to blunt the current onslaught in the newspapers and on television was for the president to be totally forthcoming — to tell everything he knew about all aspects of Watergate.”

This was a significant moment, where Poppy demonstrates a possible connection to and interest in Dean. It was a sort of specific advice that warrants attention, because it is an indication that the outsider Bush is unusually well informed about who knows what inside the White House — and encourages Nixon to let Dean begin confessing his knowledge. When I asked Dean in 2008 why he thought Poppy Bush was suggesting he testify, he said he had no idea.

Nixon resisted Poppy’s advice to have Dean testify because, Nixon maintained, there was no White House staff involvement in Watergate, and therefore Dean’s testimony would serve only to break executive privilege, once and for all. “The president can’t run his office by having particularly his lawyer go up and testify,” Nixon told Poppy.

If Poppy Bush seemed to have unusually good intelligence as to what was happening in the Oval Office, it might have had something to do with a good friend of his who was right in there with Nixon and Dean during the most critical days of Watergate. Richard A. Moore, a lawyer who served as a kind of elder statesman off of whom Nixon and Mitchell could bounce ideas, was, like Poppy, an alumnus of Andover, Yale, and Skull and Bones.

Moore served as special assistant to the chief of military intelligence during World War II and is believed to have transitioned to civilian intelligence after the war. Over the years, Moore was practically a member of the extended Bush clan, exchanging intimate notes with Poppy and even joining family dinners.

Moore shows up in background roles on a number of Nixon tapes, and phone logs show a flurry of phone calls between Moore and Dean, especially in the final weeks before Dean turned on Nixon.

In a little-reported taped telephone conversation from March 16, Dean tells Nixon that he and Moore are working on a Watergate report; he also mentions that he and Moore drive home together. On March 20, in an Oval Office meeting featuring Nixon, Dean, and Moore — just prior to Nixon’s meeting with Poppy Bush — Moore can be heard typing the report in the background. Dean would later write that the term “cancer” as used in his famous “cancer on the presidency” briefing had been suggested by Moore — who though a close Nixon adviser in these sensitive days, managed to emerge from Watergate obscure and unscathed. His Watergate testimony did not support Dean, but he tended to be ambiguous. As Time magazine noted on July 23, 1973,

“The Moore testimony was certainly not evidence that the President had had prior knowledge of the Plumbers’ felonious break-in. But it seemingly betrayed a curious nonchalance on the President’s part toward questionable activities by White House staffers.”

Later, with Nixon departing and Ford preparing to become president, Moore urged Ford to make Poppy Bush his vice president, arguing that Bush had strong economic credentials. Moore specifically cited Poppy’s ties to Wall Street through his father and grandfather, “both highly respected investment bankers in New York.” Moore would go on to work on all of Poppy Bush’s presidential campaigns, including his unsuccessful 1980 bid, and would in 1989 be named by Poppy as his ambassador to Ireland.

Repeat After Me

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Immediately after Poppy tried to convince Nixon to send Dean to testify, Dean himself telephoned the president. Dean asked to urgently meet the following morning and carefully explained to Nixon that there were important details of which the president was unaware and that he would tell him about these things — but did not yet tell him:

John Dean

John Dean, 2007. Photo credit:  socaltimes / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

DEAN: I think that one thing that we have to continue to do, and particularly right now, is to examine the broadest, broadest implications of this whole thing, and, you know, maybe about thirty minutes of just my recitations to you of facts so that you operate from the same facts that everybody else has.

NIXON: Right.

DEAN: I don’t think — we have never really done that. It has been sort of bits and pieces. Just paint the whole picture for you, the soft spots, the potential problem areas… [emphasis added]

In other words, Dean was admitting, nine months into the scandal, that he knew quite a bit about Watergate that he had never revealed to the president. Now Dean planned to clue him in. Nixon then inquired about the progress on a public statement Dean was to be preparing — and was made to understand that the statement was going to try to avoid specifics, i.e., employ a common practice, stonewalling:

NIXON: And so you are coming up, then with the idea of just a stonewall then? Is that—

DEAN: That’s right.

NIXON: Is that what you come down with?

DEAN: Stonewall, with lots of noises that we are always willing to cooperate, but no one is asking us for anything.

Nixon went on to pressure Dean to issue a statement to the cabinet explaining, in very general terms, the White House’s willingness to cooperate in any investigations. Without going into detail, Nixon wanted to publicly defend the innocence of White House officials whom he believed were innocent:

NIXON: I just want a general—

DEAN: An all-around statement.

NIXON: That’s right. Try just something general. Like “I have checked into this matter; I can categorically, based on my investigation, the following: Haldeman is not involved in this, that and the other thing. Mr. Colson did not do this; Mr. So- and- so did not do this. Mr. Blank did not do this.” Right down the line, taking the most glaring things. If there are any further questions, please let me know. See?

DEAN: Uh huh, I think we can do that.

But Dean apparently didn’t intend to “do that.” He was seemingly waiting for the right moment to create the right effect — and that moment would not come until he had jumped the wall to the other side and become the key witness for the prosecution. In Haldemans diary entry of the same day, he observes that Nixon wants to come clean, but that Dean is warning him not to:

[The president] feels strongly that we’ve got to say something to get ourselves away from looking like we’re completely on the defensive and on a cover-up basis. If we… are going to volunteer to send written statements… we might as well do the statements now and get them publicized and get our answers out. The problem is that Dean feels this runs too many leads out. [emphasis added]

Thus, according to this account, Nixon was interested in facing his problems. This included, it appears, telling what they knew — Nixon’s version, in any case.

And John Dean was urging Nixon not to do that. To make that case, Dean was feeding Nixon’s paranoia. In other words, Dean seemed to be saying: Too many leads out. Let me control this process.

In response to a combination of events — Weicker’s call for more disclosure, Bush’s intervention with Nixon aimed at forcing Dean to testify, and Dean’s own insistence that there was more to the story — Nixon met with Dean the next day. That conversation, together with the smoking gun episode, would help seal Nixon’s fate.

Richard Nixon, Tapes

President Richard Nixon near stacks of White House tapes transcripts April 22, 1974. The Uher 5000 was one of the tape-recording machines used in the White House. Archivist Samuel W. Rushay, Jr. listens carefully to a Nixon presidential tape, preparing tape subject logs, or detailed outlines of the conversations. Photo credit:  The White House / Nixon Library, The White House / Nixon Library and The White House / Nixon Library.

On the morning of March 21, Nixon’s White House counsel stepped into the Oval Office and proceeded to deliver a speech that would make Dean famous for the rest of his life. He would dramatically warn the president of a “cancer on the presidency” soon to become inoperable. This speech, which would shortly become Dean’s principal evidence against Nixon, may have been carefully calculated based on Dean’s awareness that the conversations were being taped. (Dean would later say he suspected he was being taped, but as we shall see, he may have known for certain.)

In fact, for this dramatic moment, Dean had begun performing dress rehearsals some eight days earlier. This is borne out by earlier taped conversations — ones whose very existence has been largely suppressed in published accounts. In these earlier tapes, we hear Dean beginning to tell Nixon about White House knowledge related to Watergate.

(Most of these tapes are excluded from what is generally considered the authoritative compendium of transcripts, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, by Stanley Kutler, who told me in a 2008 interview that he considers himself a close friend of John Dean.)

In one unpublicized taped conversation, from March 13, Dean told Nixon that Haldeman’s aide Gordon Strachan had foreknowledge of the break-in, was already lying about it in interviews, and would continue to do so before a grand jury. The Watergate prosecutors, for whom Dean was a crucial witness, had the March 13 tape, but did not enter it into evidence.

DEAN: Well, Chapin didn’t know anything about the Watergate, and—

NIXON: You don’t think so?

DEAN: No. Absolutely not.

NIXON: Did Strachan?

DEAN: Yes.

NIXON: He knew?

DEAN: Yes.

NIXON: About the Watergate?

DEAN: Yes.

NIXON: Well, then, Bob knew. He probably told Bob, then. He may not have. He may not have.

DEAN: He was, he was judicious in what he, in what he relayed,

and, uh, but Strachan is as tough as nails. I—

NIXON: What’ll he say? Just go in and say he didn’t know?

DEAN: He’ll go in and stonewall it and say, “I don’t know anything about what you are talking about.” He has already done it twice, as you know, in interviews.

This is significant since Strachan, a junior staff member, was essentially reporting to Dean — a fact that Dean failed to point out to Nixon. Although Strachan was Haldeman’s aide, when it came to matters like these, he would, at Dean’s request, deal directly with Dean. “As to the subject of political intelligence-gathering,” Strachan told the Senate Watergate Committee, “John Dean was designated as the White House contact for the Committee to Re-elect the President.”

Thus, if Strachan knew anything about Watergate, even after the fact, it seems to have been because Dean included him in the flow of “intelligence.”

On March 17, in another tape generally excluded from accounts of Watergate, Dean told Nixon about the Ellsberg break-in. He also provided a long list of people who he felt might have “vulnerabilities” concerning Watergate, and included himself in that list.

NIXON: Now, you were saying too, ah, what really, ah, where the, this thing leads, I mean in terms of the vulnerabilities and so forth. It’s your view the vulnerables are basically Mitchell, Colson, Haldeman, indirectly, possibly directly, and of course, the second level is, as far as the White House is concerned, Chapin.

DEAN: And I’d say Dean, to a degree.

NIXON: You? Why?

DEAN: Well, because I’ve been all over this thing like a blanket.

NIXON: I know, I know, but you know all about it, but you didn’t you were in it after the deed was done.

DEAN: That’s correct, that I have no foreknowledge…

NIXON: Here’s the whole point, here’s the whole point. My point is that your problem is you, you have no problem. All the others that have participated in the Goddamned thing, and therefore are potentially subject to criminal liability. You’re not. That’s the difference.

In the heavily publicized “cancer” speech of March 21, Dean essentially reiterated what he had told Nixon previously, if in more detail. But he added an important element — one which would cause Nixon serious problems when the “cancer” tape was played for the public: a request for one million dollars in “hush money” for the burglars.

Informed by Dean of a “continual blackmail operation by Hunt and Liddy and the Cubans,” Nixon asked how much money they needed. Dean responded, “These people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years.” There is debate as to whether Nixon actually agreed with Dean’s suggestion to pay money or merely ruminated over it. He never did pay the money.

Dean’s behavior did not appear to be that of a lawyer seeking to protect his client, nor did his advice seem appropriate for the conduct of the presidency.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Watergate (Indutiomarus / Wikimedia), George H.W. Bush (George Bush Presidential Library) and Richard Nixon (The White House / Nixon Library)

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