This month marks the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the US presidency due to the Watergate scandal. But only recently have the tapes Nixon kept of his own Oval Office conversations become fully available, offering new insights into the Watergate narrative.
Former legal counsel to Nixon – and key Watergate figure – John W. Dean recently discussed the tapes and his new book "The Nixon Defense" in an e-mail exchange with Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe.
Q. What surprises were there for you as you listened to the tapes?
Literally hundreds, in countless conversations, which I had not expected. Surprises even with conversations where transcripts had previously been available because today with digital audio you can hear things you could not before (including material that had been previously withdrawn but is now available because people are deceased). I mentioned the fact of these surprises to a friend with whom I do continuing legal education programs based on Watergate. He is very familiar with the story, yet he too had a similar reaction. This may be because I have placed these conversations in context, so it is surprising to learn what Nixon knew when he knew it to paraphrase the catch phrase of the time.
Q. Can you single out a particularly significant revelation that comes from these tapes? Is there something that significantly changes the narrative?
With few exceptions I did not highlight new revelations, although there are many. Previously unknown information I found striking is Nixon’s involvement in the subornation of Jeb Magruder’s perjury before the grand jury, which was essential to the success of the cover up. Nor was I aware of Nixon’s blatantly illegal sale of an ambassadorship to raise money for the Watergate defendants, followed by use of his personal secretary Rose Mary Woods to cover it up. But in tracking all Nixon’s Watergate related actions from start to finish nothing is more disquieting than his repeated seat-of-the-pants, ill-considered, fact-ignoring decision-making. The reason this presidency failed becomes obvious.
Q. What misconceptions about Watergate have prevailed through the decades?
The most prevalent misconception has been the belief that the news media in general, and The Washington Post in particular, cracked the case and sent Nixon packing. The Post did report the story when others ignored it, thus making it an important story within the Beltway. But, as "The Nixon Defense" reveals, the news media merely reported leaks from investigators and that no one did more to destroy this presidency than Richard Nixon’s imprudent, if not foolish, defenses.
Q. Had Nixon been quicker to turn on his own people – John Mitchell, for instance – might he have saved himself? Or was he simply hiding too many secrets right from the start?
The recordings show Nixon feared turning on any of his top aides – Mitchell, Bob Haldeman or John Ehrlichman – lest they might turn on him. The only aide he turned on was me, after I warned him of his problems, believing he could destroy me. (The tapes prevented that.) Nixon had a brief opportunity after the Watergate arrests to keep his White House out of it all. To do so, Nixon needed facts he was never given by Haldeman or Ehrlichman. The White House was involved with the Watergate operatives through Ehrlichman, who had earlier authorized the White House “Plumbers” (looking for national security leakers) to undertake an illegal covert operation seeking information about Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the “Pentagon Papers,” a classified study of the origins of the Vietnam War. Thus, four men involved in the Watergate break-in (Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez) had earlier broken into and destructively rummaged the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist with approval of Ehrlichman, and two of his White House aides. In short, had John Ehrlichman come forward about the Ellsberg operation, and John Mitchell about the Watergate operation, Nixon could have survived. Instead they stonewalled everyone, including Nixon.
Q. Why weren’t the tapes destroyed?
As the book reveals, Nixon instructed Haldeman to destroy all but the national security recordings, yet Haldeman never did so. Nixon knew Haldeman had not done it, and when Nixon had the equipment partially turned off at Camp David in early April 1973, it remained in place at the White House. The April 1973 recordings included many of the most incriminating discussions that later convicted Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and would have led to Nixon’s impeachment. Nixon’s Watergate decisions were consistent, virtually all of them remarkably bad.
Q. Over the course of 40 years, have your own thoughts and feelings about Watergate evolved? Or your thoughts and feelings about Richard Nixon the man?
The president I thought I went to work for in July 1970 was not the man I came to know by March 21, 1973, when I tried to warn him of a cancer on his presidency – Watergate. Today, having listened to all Nixon’s Watergate conversations (as well as others during the process) I better understand both Watergate and Nixon. The Watergate break-in occurred not because Nixon ordered it, but because his top advisers knew he played politics unscrupulously. The record shows that Nixon approved the Watergate cover up(s) every step of the way, engineering his own downfall through blatant dishonesty, duplicity, and criminality far exceeding what I had known or even suspected before undertaking this book. This presidency failed because Nixon’s worst got the better of him.