FDL Book Salon Welcomes John Dean, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
I have been fortunate to get to know John Dean over the last number of years. We travel the country presenting seminars, mostly for lawyers, on the lessons and legacy of Watergate. [The Legacy of Watergate @ www.watergatecle.com]. Our particular focus is on John’s role as inhouse lawyer for the White House. What are a lawyer’s professional ethical duties when confronted with organizational fraud or crime? Watergate, we teach, changed legal ethics for the good – it is one of Watergate’s few remaining positive legacies. Most lawyers in most states are required every year or two to take an ethics course because of Watergate.
During our travels, I talked with John about his massive undertaking to transcribe and understand the Nixon tapes with regard to Watergate. How did this crisis ruin a presidency? What critical mistakes were made? Could the situation have been salvaged?
Remarkably, only about 400 of the nearly 1000 taped conversations on Watergate had been transcribed. No one had carefully chronicled the day-by-day account – and the thinking that led everyone in the Nixon presidency to historical doom. The work involved in creating The Nixon Defense cannot be overestimated. It was an incredible undertaking. The tapes are of fantastic quality for phone calls, pretty good for the Oval Office, but very difficult in Nixon’s Executive Office Building hideaway office, where many of the most damning Watergate conversations took place. Unless you know John Dean the way I do from working with him, you would not guess the Herculean effort — the raw hours – he and his transcribers put into this project. He is a workhorse, even at 75.
And this book was so needed for history’s sake. Anything written about the American presidency is suspect. Unlike any other American institution, the presidency captures our imagination, but it also makes of everyone a mini-expert. Everyone knows something about at least the more famous presidents and most of what is known was formed in civics classes in grade school or high school. Thus, myths about presidents are the most difficult to dislodge. But the truth is usually far removed from these popular myths. Presidents are human and as complex and self-contradictory as all of us.
And they make decisions laboring under the same sorts of inbred psychological biases that get most of us into trouble. John and I teach what psychologists call “loss frame” acting. All of us hate to lose more than we like winning – it has been proved over and over. We hate to lose almost three times more than we like winning. Thus, when faced with a sure loss – admitting a cover-up, for example, or having sex with an intern – we tend to act irrationally. We all so hate to take a certain loss that we will gamble and engage in magical thinking that things will just go away or get better, even when there is almost no prospect of that happening. Think of the stock market or a casino.
Richard Nixon and those around him (and it was a very small circle) were all in a serious “loss frame.” Hence the cover-up.
But the cover-up had no chance of succeeding. Too many people were involved. How could the burglars sit in prison for years or even decades while other administration officials went free? How could the payment of hush money not come out? It was destined to unravel.
John Dean, the youngest guy in the president’s inner circle at thirty-four, saw this reality before anyone else. With the help of his lawyer, Charlie Shaffer, he somehow pulled himself out of loss frame acting and extricated himself by facing one simple reality: only telling the raw truth and dealing with the consequences could save the presidency.
No one else went along.
And so Dean went from trusted insider and co-conspirator to No. 1 on Nixon’s enemy list.
It was all high stakes. Though we know today how it turned out, nothing was guaranteed when Dean first went to prosecutors and then Senate investigators. Death threats followed him; he had to enter the witness protection program. He did not know there was a taping system, though his suspicions from one fateful meeting would lead investigators to Alexander Butterfield and revelation of the tapes.
Hence this critical work, The Nixon Defense. This book will stand as the definitive work on how Nixon and his advisors tanked a presidency that held so much promise, especially in field of foreign affairs. There will never be a resource like the tapes. No study of the presidency or leadership or crisis management or the psychology of decision-making could ever be replicated like these tapes. One can literally relive the moments exactly as they happened; as opposed to reading self-serving memoirs or even contemporaneous memos. This is history without filters.
And completely needed with Nixon and Watergate. Because of its prominence, the literature about what happened and why is filled with errors and misunderstandings. This book answers most of the important questions and gives the reader a front row seat in the White House.
Though it sometimes seems repetitive and grinding (Nixon was obsessive/compulsive in the extreme), the book has all the drama of a very long and very well written HBO series.
I look forward to our extended interview with John and hope to hear from readers and those curious about this momentous chapter in American history.