John Dean has lived a charmed life. His rise from an educationally unprepossessing background and a brief and dubious legal career to the office of White House Counsel (1970-1973) was such an extreme example of the Peter Principle that it should have been renamed the Dean Principle.
Then, having served with dishonor in that position, his determination to obtain immunity and avoid punishment for his crimes, combined with his conveniently flexible memory, enabled him to become the stick with which the Watergate investigators and prosecutors preferred to beat his erstwhile bosses, his mentor, and, finally, his President.
As his quest for immunity became more desperate his story began —in the anodyne but devastating words of a Watergate Special Prosecutor’s Office memo— “changing dramatically from his previous stance.”
In the end he came close to getting what he wanted. The man who had been present at the creation and was in charge of the cover-up served only four months — the lightest sentence of any Watergate defendant; and he got to serve them in the comfort of a holding cell for high-profile criminals.
He emerged from this process —at first willy nilly and now, thirty-seven years later, as the result of careful cultivation— as the all-but-hero of Watergate.
In order to buttress his credibility for congressman and cameras and jurors, he had to be presented as a man whose guilty conscience —albeit kicking in a bit late and only when it looked like he was about to get caught— led him to blow the whistle on the men who were only a few steps away from successfully subverting the Constitution.
Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox had John Dean’s number. He saw his guilt as the one basic fact and factor of the whole business. Referring to the cases against Haldeman and Ehrlichman —and even the President— he said: “If everything else goes down the drain the one thing I can cling to is Dean’s venality.”
It is only one of the many ironies of Watergate that the man who —unlike many of his subordinates— was reluctant to allow John Dean to wiggle off the hook, was fired in the Saturday Night Massacre.
When President Nixon learned about the Watergate break-in —reading about it the following morning on the front page of the Miami Herald in his house in Key Biscayne— his first reaction was one of disbelief.
Not —as he later told me in the interviews I conducted with him in 1983— so much because it was wrong, as because it was stupid. No one who knew anything about politics would expect to gain any useful information by bugging the opposition Party’s headquarters; anyone who knew what they were doing would have bugged the opposition candidate.
One of the burglars arrested red handed —or, more accurately, latex handed— in the DNC offices in the Watergate building was James McCord, a former CIA bugging expert who was head of security for the Nixon Re-Election Committee.
The President tasked his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman to find out what had happened and who was responsible. His first concern was to make sure that no one on the White House staff had been involved. McCord’s connection to the Re-Election Committee was bad enough; but any White House involvement could be disastrous.
Haldeman, in turn, called on the young White House Counsel —the President’s lawyer— John W. Dean. Despite his exalted title, Dean was far down on the White House food chain; he undoubtedly saw this assignment as an excellent opportunity to show off his abilities on a matter that might even bring him to the President’s attention.
What he neglected to mention was that he didn’t have to do much investigating to find out what had happened and whether anyone on the White House staff had been involved.
It wasn’t until some time later —and not fully until 21 March 1973— that he revealed that he was their worst nightmare.
He was the White House staff member who had hired burglar-in-chief Gordon Liddy specifically to prepare an intelligence plan for the President’s re-election campaign; and he was the White House staff member who had been present in the Attorney General’s office on the two separate occasions —in January and February 1972— when Liddy first presented, and then refined, his plan that included mugging, prostitutes, kidnapping, and bugging among its components
In order to keep his superiors happy —and in order to continue hiding his own involvement— Dean then became (as he described it) the chief desk officer of the Watergate cover-up. In that duplicitous capacity he suborned perjury, destroyed evidence, and improperly revealed government information. It was, of course, involvement with the cover-up that eventually enmeshed so many, including the President himself.
Watergate covered a multitude of sins, many of which had nothing to do with John Dean. In the poisonous partisan atmosphere of those days, there is no way of knowing whether things would have ended differently.
But one thing is certain. If John Dean had admitted his guilt when he was assigned the task of finding out who was guilty, he would have been removed from that position and things would have developed completely differently.
John Dean has long since been widely consecrated and rewarded as a blower of whistles, a champion of conscience, and a defender of civil liberties. He has, indeed, managed to make a cottage industry out of his ill-deserved reputation, and even latterly emerged as an arbiter of ideological integrity.
But if an objective —and complete— examination of his record were ever made, his scam would be revealed and his life would fast become less charmed.
The strict may decide that John Dean was a bad man. The more compassionate might say that he was only a weak one. Either way, he was in very deep and very far over his head. And he was, to coin a phrase, blindly ambitious. At the outset it probably never occurred to him that, with the power of the presidency behind him, he wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on this problem —and escape punishment for his crimes— for at least the four months until the election, after which it would evaporate with the rest of the conventional campaign controversies.
President Nixon, in my 1983 interviews, was both strict and compassionate. In my inimitable way (if I had it to do over I would be a tad less inimitable) I asked him, “How do you feel about John Dean, in twenty-five words or less, today?” He replied, “I don’t need twenty-five words. He did what he did to save himself, and I understand that.”
Understanding is one thing; but forgetting is something else. John Dean has spent the last three decades trying to make people forget what really happened and what he really did.
Dante reserved the worst, ninth, circle of hell for the betrayers —Judas, Brutus, Cassius. And, to this day, John Dean remains the object of particular contempt and contumely by those who served in RN’s administration. His felonies were illegal, but his betrayals were immoral.