FDL Book Salon Welcomes John W. Dean, Blind Ambition: The End of the Story
Blind Ambition is—if you haven’t read it already—a great book for any member of the Firedoglake community to read. The entire complex of events that ended up with the shorthand name “Watergate” is incredibly convoluted; think of the Plame affair, multiply it by twenty, and extend the drama over twenty-six months—or twenty-six years, because really, the story did not end with Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974, and it hasn’t even ended yet, as John’s splendid afterward (which offers the most convincing explanation in print of what the Watergate burglars were looking for in DNC headquarters) makes perfectly clear. And Blind Ambition, John Dean’s memoir of his participation in the events, is the best single volume Watergate book, out of the literally hundreds of them, to get a full and three-dimensional understanding of the whole thing from start to finish, from the warped executive psychology that produced it (in one of the books funnier scenes young Dean is tasked with screening the avant-garde omnisexual drag queen extravaganza Tricia’s Wedding to see if a case can be made to clamp the filmmakers in leg irons, or something) to the most gripping mystery story history has ever given us.
I blurbed this fine new edition—said, “Amid the vast wasteland that is political autobiography, John Dean’s was always a thing apart: a literary accomplishment.” That is because the author, John Dean, managed to give a fully human rendering of of the main character, John Dean. He starts as a callow and brilliant young climber, Sammy Glick in Washington, ready to do whatever it takes to win the favor of his bosses. He becomes the Nixon White House’s Mr. Fixit, running a virtual law firm out of the West Wing dedicated to solving any problem the White House staff might face. And since many in the White House staff are given to crimes, things get thick pretty fast: “Jesus Christ, John!” White House black ops specialist Jack Caulfield shouts to him, in 1971, in one of the historical record’s more memorable lines. “You’ve got to help me. This guy Colson is crazy! He wants me to firebomb a goddam building, and I can’t do it.”
Two pages later he has not yet quite proven his mettle: someone else, Bud Krogh, gets chosen to command the White House’s infamous underground “Plumbers” unit. He explains apologetically to the apparently more capable Dean: “John, I guess there are some people around here who think you have some little old lady in you.” (Krogh, the devout Christian Scientists, doesn’t have any such qualms to speak of.)
John Dean wouldn’t let that happen again. When Plumbers get arrested breaking into Democratic National Headquarters, and public suspicion naturally falls on the White House, it becomes John Dean’s full-time job to avert investigators’ eyes from the Oval Office. The newly reelected president, in a press conference, announces his capable young deputy has been assigned to “get to the bottom” of whosoever might be responsible for carrying out and covering up the nefarious deed. And, of course, since that person, basically, is the person who gave him the assignment—the President of the United States—something plainly very tricky is going on. The 34-year-old’s actual role, which ends up finding him the most important man in the Administration, finding him shuttling in and out of the Oval Office more often than most cabinet members, is personally managing the effort to contain, not carry out, the investigation.
Very soon, though, our hero realizes the extraordinary position in which this places him. He gathers more and more information that incriminates high officials. He becomes the one person in the White House with the most intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of the cover-up. And that means that should he ever be called under oath before an investigating body, he’ll be faced with an unacceptable choice: he could tell the truth, thereby incriminating himself as an accessory to crimes. Or he could lie, committing the crime of perjury.
Then dark night of the soul becomes considerable darker when he realizes that this ends up putting him exactly where the cover-up’s three top conspirators, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and the President, want him: as the patsy who can take the fall as the man responsible for the entire cover-up itself.
No spoilers. Like I said, it’s one of the most incredible stories ever told. Suffice it to say that the decision John Dean ends up making makes him perhaps the most famous celebrity in America, eligible, if memory serves, for a People magazine cover. It also makes him—and this is one more reason this book and his story is such an important one for FDL readers to assimilate—a pioneering victim of the Republicans’ nascent Karl Rove-style attack machine. The details are exceptionally foul; again, no spoilers. Okay, just one, because it’s a little bit personal. Last year I was invited to take part in an online exchange with John about my new book, Nixonland, and his new book, Conservatives Without Conscience, which argued that the modern Republican Party, following Watergate, had fallen prey to classic authoritarianism, of the sort seen in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. I disagreed, thinking this a little too much, but can certainly see where John W. Dean was coming from. As G. Gordon Liddy wrote in his own Watergate memoir, Will:
“I walked in and the door was shut behind me. When I looked at the figure sitting behind the desk I couldn’t believe my eyes…. I had been shut in the room alone with John Dean.
“I stood stock-still, trying to figure out this development. Here was the perfect opportunity to kill Dean. A pencil was lying on the desk. In a second I could drive it up through the underside of his jaw, through the soft-palate and deep into his brain. Had someone set it up? If so, why now? President was out of office. I had received no orders to kill Dean and certainly wouldn’t be presumed so irresponsible as to do so on my own initiative; his death might hurt, through reaction, the trial chances of Mitchell, Ehrlichman, Parkinson, and Mardian. I decided to consider that my being shut up alone in the room with Dean had just been an incredible error.”
Yes, if that had been my jaw, I might judge the political party that makes a G. Gordon Liddy into one of its most prominent radio spokesmen a little less generously, also.