REVIEW: Nixon, on the record
By John W. Dean (Viking, $35)
In a taped June 22, 1972, conversation with Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff, President Nixon compared the Watergate break-in to “a comic opera, really.” Nixon and Haldeman were discussing the rumors that were starting to surface around the bizarre burglary attempt at Democratic headquarters in Washington. The operation, Haldeman said, was “so badly done, that nobody believes we could have done it.”
The break-in by James McCord, Bernard Barker, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez and Virgilio Gonzalez has the elements of comedy, at times resembling a Coen brothers script. The burglars (all with previous covert operations credentials) taped the door latches to prevent them from closing. Watergate security officer Frank Wills saw the tape, removed it, then after seeing that new tape had been placed on the doors, called the police, who arrested the burglars. The scandal that would end Nixon’s presidency had begun.
The June 22 conversation is one of the few moments of true humor in John W. Dean’s new book “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It,” being published on the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. The overriding tone to Dean’s exhaustive book is one of desperation as Nixon and his loyalists devise a way to stall an investigation that would lead to knowledge of their connection to Nixon’s re-election committee, and then cover up their knowledge.
Dean was White House counsel during the Nixon administration, and handling Watergate became his full-time job until his resignation in April 1973. He has chronicled much of this story before in his memoir “Blind Ambition,” but Dean breaks new ground in “The Nixon Defense.” Most historians’ accounts of Watergate have come from reports and papers by investigators and prosecutors, Dean writes. They have not pored through Nixon’s White House tapes about Watergate, despite their longtime availability. “Before now, no one has attempted to catalog and transcribe all of Nixon’s Watergate conversations …,” Dean writes. This book is based on all of those conversations as contained in the tapes, covering the period of June 20, 1972, to July 12, 1973, just after Dean testified before the Senate Watergate Committee, and the president’s secret taping system became public knowledge.
“The Nixon Defense” is not for readers who are new to Watergate (Dean provides a good capsule of the major events in an epilogue and a list of the main characters). Dean (with much able assistance) has done an exhaustive job of transcribing these tapes, presenting them in digestible form, and discussing his role in the scandal. It’s exhaustive, but also exhausting: The detail and intrigue, the plots and subplots, will make the heads of the most diehard Watergate addicts hurt.
It’s still a gripping read, a must for students of Watergate, and a vital new look at the initial months of the Watergate story. Dean sets out to show, letting the primary historical record do most of the talking, that Nixon, rather than being blind-sided by the cover-up, was an early and willing participant in it. Dean chronicles the first conversations with Nixon, Haldeman, Chuck Colson and other White House staff. At that stage, the goal was to make sure the burglary investigation did not prevent the president’s re-election. The players go through intense mental gymnastics to convince themselves that the money being paid to the burglars, along with Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, is not “hush money.” The stage is already being set for two phrases that Nixon will use for the rest of his presidency as he fights Watergate in the courts and Congress – “executive privilege” and “national security.”
Years after Nixon’s resignation, it became common to laud Nixon’s foreign policy achievements while chastising his conduct during Watergate. Dean’s book should give many people second thoughts. In these conversations, Nixon is often combative and paranoid: In a January 1973conversation with Colson, he says the election had undermined his political enemies. “Now is the time to really, really clamp down, just not let them get up off the ground,” he said, and banged his fist on a desk to make his point. As the press began paying more attention to Watergate, he told former attorney general and re-election campaign manager John Mitchell, “I want you all to stonewall it, let them please the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else, it it’ll save it, save the plan.” He is contemptuous of Sen. Sam Ervin, who had begun seeking White House papers. “I’m not going to allow this slick Southern a—hole to pull that old crap on me,” Nixon told Henry Kissinger (national security adviser) and Al Haig (chief of staff after Haldeman). “He pretends he’s gentle and trying to work things out. Bull----.” When Dean resigns, Nixon and his press secretary Ron Ziegler undertake a campaign to smear their once loyal counsel (Dean even got death threats, and was given federal witness protection).
Nixon did not just disagree with his opponents – he was willing to use espionage and the legitimate tools of government to destroy them. Without his tapes, which corroborated Dean’s testimony, Nixon might have succeeded. “Fortunately for everyone,” Dean writes, “his defense failed.”
AUTHOR VISIT: John W. Dean will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 5 at Meredith College, Raleigh “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It”