Opinion: Seeing the Other Side of the John Dean Retort
By Alex Romano, Associate Editor
At the end of summer break, there arose a new kerfuffle in the news, courtesy of- surprise, surprise – Donald Trump’s legal team. The president posted a tweet, this time coming from the boss himself in response to a New York Times article reporting how White House Counsel Don McGahn testified for hours in front of the Special Counsel: Trump called McGahn a “John Dean type RAT,” prompting the president’s detractors to rush to the former Nixon White House attorney’s defense. Chris Cuomo had Dean on his radio show, and I tuned in to listen to the host and guest counter Trump’s latest ad hominem and shamelessly exonerate Dean for his role in the Watergate scandal.
John Dean entered the Nixon White House as White House Counsel, one of many young men to form Nixon’s circle. While the president had most of his advisors to handle domestic matters such as environmental protection, welfare reform, governmental reorganization, labor relations, and civil rights, and while the president personally took care of foreign policy, Dean was left a specific niche: keeping the members of the president’s inner circle out of legal trouble.
Nixon tasked Dean with this specific job because the administration regularly violated public statutes. Illegal and extralegal activity had become so commonly accepted so soon in the Nixon White House that it was as routine as managing the affairs of state. One day the president would be politely asking staffer Barbara Franklin to start up a task force for women’s rights in the White House, the next he would be calling up Chief of Staff Haldeman to firebomb the Brookings Institution.
The Watergate burglary occurred on June 23, 1972. The ensuing cover-up included laundering money through banks in Mexico to pay off the burglars for their silence, ordering a CIA official to pressure interregnum FBI Director L. Patrick Gray to kill the agency’s investigation of the break-in and wrongdoing from within the White House, refusing to comply with subpoenas from Senator Sam Ervin’s investigating committee, and arranging the hush money payments for the burglars with Dean in person.
In spring 1973, President Nixon had Dean write a report to end the ordeal that might implicate the president’s inner circle. Dean knew that in putting together such a comprehensive report, he would essentially be exposing himself. So when Gray fumbled the ball and made repeated mention of his name during his swearing-in as official director of the FBI, Dean cooperated with the prosecution.
That summer, Dean’s “relentless, vengeful testimony,” as Hunter S. Thompson described it, did irreparable damage to the president’s credibility.
Liberal pundits rallied to defend Dean from Trump. Nixon was going to scapegoat his counsel and get away with the whole ordeal. Dean turned on an incorrigible tyrant, selflessly incriminating himself and exposing his evil accomplices in one fell swoop, knowing that doing so would not guarantee him immunity. He even spent time in prison for his actions after admitting to them, according to one talk show host from MSNBC.
Not really. Dean never spent so much as a night in jail. He did get off easy, and he was not the selfless martyr in some righteous quest for truth and justice. What really happened to spur Dean to testify against his employer was not a moral summons, but the human species’ biological desire for self-preservation. The counsel’s situation in the summer of 1973 was thus: either way you cut it, Dean was caught. On the one hand, Nixon would have saddled Dean with the blame for his henchmen’s myriad “White House horrors,” and on the other hand, the president’s tapes would have revealed that Dean had willingly participated in organizing hush money payments for the Watergate defendants. And Dean had not been bullied into the position of covering up the crime; he even encouraged it.
Dean aside, what this piece is really trying to get at is the uselessness and distraction of comparing people and events from now to people and events in the past. Users of the Internet will find themselves swimming in articles on how Trump is Nixon, no, sorry, worse than Nixon! Trump’s McCarthy! No, he’s Harding! No, he’s Hitler! Mueller is Cox; McGahn is Dean; the firing of Tom Price is like the Saturday Night Massacre; the Madman Theory was Nixon’s; Trumponomics are just Reaganonomics 2.0; Russiagate is like Bill Clinton’s Chinagate, etc.
Bringing up John Dean’s name did nothing except give CNN another excuse to have a familiar face on air. It is a face that Americans associate with action and controversy, so its showing on TV would make viewers feel that “something big is about to happen” in the immediate world at large.
It is not. Big things tend to happen over time, not all in one night. Watergate finally ended more than two years after the break-in, coming to a head when Nixon made a moving speech to a gathering of bewildered press and tearful family and staff, and then jetted off on Air Force One to exile in California. The unabridged story of Nixon’s departure in early August 1974 is the stuff of Shakespearean high tragedy, and that kind of climactic farewell does not happen in a snap of Thanos’ fingers. Give the characters in this tale time yet to arrive at their own ending, whether it be the end of a presidency or merely the end of an investigation.
I love to relate the present to the past, but I know that it serves only to stimulate the intellect, not to effect change in the contemporary political scene. Learning from the mistakes of the past is the best preparation to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future, not the cure for having already repeated them. Instead of splitting our vision part to the past and part to the present, it would likely be wisest for us to focus only on now. Because now is all we’ve got.