- - Wednesday, August 27, 2014



By John W. Dean
Viking, $35, 746 pages

According to John Dean’s new book, “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It,” President Nixon knew a lot more about Watergate a lot sooner than he ever admitted. However, the question one should ask before plowing through Mr. Dean’s 746-page “definitive” history is, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” Nixon admitted he engaged in activities that amounted to obstruction of justice. His guilt was fixed within a few days of the break-in. The rest of the story, as Mr. Dean tells it, answers no important questions and solves no lingering mysteries.

Mr. Dean has transcribed 1,000 Watergate-related taped conversations, many of them previously ignored. These he has digested and condensed to tell the story of the president’s involvement in the evolving scandal from June 17, 1972 (the day G. Gordon Liddy’s crew was arrested at the Watergate) to July 16, 1973 (when the taping systems were shut down). It is a story from which Mr. Dean purports to absent himself, which is quite a trick for the guy who recruited Mr. Liddy to run the campaign committee’s intelligence operation and who orchestrated the cover-up.

That Mr. Dean is the central figure in the Watergate narrative is grounds for caution when weighing his evidence of presidential perfidy. Sensitive to the inverse relationship between his reputation and that of his former boss, the author has reason to supplement his original false-flag narrative. Shading here, omitting there, falsifying as necessary, Mr. Dean from the beginning has relied on his superior command of the facts to spin a tale that is completely plausible but fundamentally dishonest.

Mr. Dean expects his readers to take his word for the accuracy of his transcriptions and the fairness of his editing. If you’re unwilling to do so, his solution is simple: listen to the tapes yourself. In refusing to share his transcriptions, he wagers that few are going to undertake the effort necessary to determine how closely he has hewed to the record. A similar wager carried him scot-free through his Ervin committee testimony.

As Frank Gannon has noted, Mr. Dean omits a number of mitigating statements made by the president during their “cancer on the presidency” conversation of March 21, 1973. This should not be a surprise. Mr. Dean’s purpose here is to discredit the president and to deflect attention from his own role. In realizing this purpose, omission is a necessary tool.

A number of assertions by Mr. Dean are demonstrably false. For example, he claims that he knew “almost nothing” about the Kissinger wiretaps prior to the president instructing him on April 16 that they were a national security matter not to be discussed. To the contrary, Mr. Dean was briefed on the details of the operation at a Feb. 29 meeting in his office with former FBI Associate Director William Sullivan. Mr. Dean says he was only “vaguely aware” of the June 23 meeting of H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman with CIA Director Richard Helms and Deputy Director Vernon Walters. This is strange since Mr. Dean proposed the meeting, and the effort to use the CIA to limit the FBI investigation was integral to Mr. Dean’s containment strategy. Of marginal historic interest, Mr. Dean disavows any knowledge of the 1970 Huston Plan until after Huston left the White House staff in June 1971 and insists he did nothing to implement it although instructed by Haldeman to do so. Neither of these assertions is true.

While Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.’s reduction of the purpose of the Ervin Committee investigation to two questions may have appeared incisive at the time, three other questions have subsequently become critical to understanding the president’s role in Watergate: From whom did he learn what he knew, how truthful was what he was told, and did he understand the significance of the information he was given?

These questions can’t be answered based solely on the transcripts. Much of the information the president received was hearsay: Mr. Dean told Mitchell who told Haldeman who told Nixon. Moreover, much of the information was vague, conflicting and filtered through the president’s eagerness to hear what he wanted to hear. More critically, much of the information he was given was untruthful, deliberately shaded to mislead or maliciously designed to shift blame. Two things, however, are clear from these tapes: The president sought from the beginning to contain the political damage, and the president was badly served by his staff.

Mr. Dean’s book is agitprop, not history. Self-righteous and self-serving, this latest contribution to a 40-year misinformation campaign will gather dust on the shelves of Nixon-hating masochists. It is, as the title confirms, a work of deception: He affords Nixon no defense. His is a prosecutor’s brief. There is, however, a credible defense of the president to be made — a defense which, while conceding the failures, is nuanced, fair and places Watergate in the larger context of the Nixon presidency. Such a defense will put Mr. Dean back where he belongs: at the center of scandals he orchestrated and in the pantheon of world-class snitches.

Tom Huston served on the White House staff from Jan. 20, 1969, until June 18, 1971. From September 1970 until his departure, he was associate counsel to the president and a member of John Dean’s staff. He is mentioned in the book.

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