In the premiere episode of KCRW’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig’s editor-in-chief sits down with John Dean, the former legal adviser to President Richard Nixon who blew the lid on Watergate scandal.

–Posted by Roisin Davis


Robert Scheer:

Hi, this is Robert Scheer. Welcome to my new podcast called Scheer Intelligence. I know it sounds a bit arrogant, but it’s what the station KCRW decided might catch your attention. And you know what, after half a century of practicing journalism and confronting some pretty powerful and arrogant people, there is a certain intelligence to the enterprise. Some of you know me through 30 years working at the L.A. Times as a reporter and columnist, or editing magazines like Ramparts and currently, and others from the show “Left, Right, and Center,” where I am proudly the left, and have been for almost 18 years. The idea of this podcast is to engage what I consider to be American Originals. That this country, without glorifying it, because of its crazy quilt of different immigrant groups and different cultures and different people that have come here as political refugees, or people we made political refugees, has been a great pressure cooker. We’re turning out, again, what I call “American Originals.” My first guest is John Dean, exactly an American Original, a person who grew up as a conservative. Barry Goldwater was an early influence on his life. And then, as a very young man, as a young lawyer, he went to work for the Republicans at the House Judiciary Committee, and then he went to work at the Justice Department for the attorney general, and he ended up being Richard Nixon’s White House counsel. And it was John Dean who famously said, “There’s a cancer on the presidency.” And that represented the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon.

The reason I wanted John Dean to come in is not only does he know about the imperial presidency, but he’s a man who’s become a very significant presidential scholar, has written a number of important books, and, most recently, one based very largely on the final cumulative revelation of the Nixon tapes. So why don’t we begin there, with your latest book, and why you decided to devote so much attention to the Nixon tapes?

John Dean: Well, what happened, Bob, was that my editor said to me, as we were approaching the 40th anniversary initially of the Watergate break-in, which occurred in June 17th of 1972, he said, “Are there any questions you have about Watergate, you’d like to get the answer to? It’d be worth looking at in a book.” And I said—I wasn’t sure there was anything—I said, “The really only mystery to me about it is how somebody as shrewd, savvy, and seemingly capable as Nixon could let his presidency be destroyed on a bungled burglary at the Watergate, where nobody at the White House was directly involved in it. How did we get in that mess? How did he let it get so far?” And I said, “I think the answer’s on the tapes.” Well, I assumed at that time, that over the years that they’d been available, that there’d be enough of them that had been transcribed that I’d be able to find the answer. Well, that was a bad assumption, because as soon as I started looking at them, I realized that you really had to know what happened the day before the recording that you listen to as to why they’d be talking about a given event on any given day. So I literally had to go almost back, I did, I went back to the first day of the arrest at the Watergate on June 17, 1972: The President is not in town, he’s in Florida, at his Key Biscayne retreat, and start right there when he gets back, and listen to them. Found many of the transcripts that were available were not accurate. I was able to also do something that no one’s ever done, because they were available, and this is almost 40 years after the fact, and that was to catalogue these tapes. No one had ever put them altogether as to which were the Watergate conversations, and how many had been transcribed. I found about 600 that nobody probably outside the archives ever listened to. So it became a massive project, four years, I had grad students helping me, and we tackled it, and I tried to keep them always in front of me so the story would be interesting. I would tend to do second drafts, or look at existing transcripts and correct them. And it’s much easier—it’s an awful process. The recording equipment is pretty primitive by today’s standards. It’s all analog instead of digital.

Scheer: But just to remind the listeners, what we’re talking about is the most voluminous recorded record of any president. We know Lyndon Johnson had his tapes—

Dean: Actually, the taping system goes back to FDR. FDR had a Movietone sound system. An old, very primitive system where he put it in the basement of the White House. So he’s the first. Truman has it for a while, listens to it, says, “I don’t want this in here,” and throws it out immediately. Eisenhower has selective recordings that he made. JFK made recordings as president. Lyndon Johnson is the one who actually recommend that Nixon put the system in. All those presidents had, actually, control over when they were listening—or, excuse me, when they were recording, and when they were not, with a switch somewhere. Nixon did not. He had a voice-activated system. In other words, if he was in a given room that was wired, he had a very small device in his pocket that he carried for the Secret Service so they’d know his location, what room he was in in the White House. When they put the recording system in, they tied it in with the locator system, so if he’s in the Oval Office, then the voice activation works. Otherwise, you’d have the cleaning crew at night and they’d be recorded. Or you’d have—

Scheer: So let me understand those previous presidents you mentioned. The Lyndon Johnson tapes actually are available through the Johnson Library.

Dean: So are the Kennedy.

Scheer: But did those other presidents reveal the existence of the system? Did people working with them know?

Dean: No.

Scheer: So they were as much in the dark as you were when you were working for Nixon?

Dean: Only those who were involved in the installation of the system had any knowledge of them, in any of these presidents.

Scheer: So when you went to work for Nixon—

Dean: He doesn’t have the system in July, when I go to work in July of ’70. Let’s put the White House counsel in perspective, where this job falls. It’s a middle-level staff job. Notwithstanding a big title, a great title, for any lawyer. My predecessor had been very active in policy, and quickly wanted to drop the title of “counsel to the president” and wanted to become “assistant to the president” because he wanted to really have an influence on all domestic policy for the president. So John Ehrlichman, who was the counsel to the president, gave up the title. He really never gave up the job totally, nor did Nixon ever look to me as he did to Ehrlichman as his counsel. So I’m fairly middle-level staffer, and I’ve talked to people who were in the job before me and afterwards, and it’s always been a pretty middle-level job, notwithstanding the title.

Scheer: Yeah, but middle-level or not, you suddenly became privy to one of the biggest scandals—

Dean: Very late. You know, as far as the president’s knowledge, when I come up on the recordings, you know I transcribed about a thousand Watergate conversations. The first conversation that Nixon has is on June 19 of 1972. The first conversation I’m recorded with Nixon about Watergate is on Sept. 15 of ’72. That’s the first one. The next one doesn’t happen until the next year, in Feb. 27 of 1973. Then there’s a whole bunch of conversations, because at that point, he starts calling on me, he doesn’t want to have to call on his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, or his former White House Counsel John Ehrlichman, because he’s got them very busy working on his second term, and he doesn’t want them deflected by Watergate.

Scheer: So let me just set the stage a little bit. You’re kind of a Boy Scout at that point—you’re clean-cut, Goldwater-type kid. Right?

Dean: I was very fond of the senator. He’s the reason I was interested in government, he’s a terrific guy, he is to me, even to this day, a role model for a legislator. I look at somebody like Ted Cruz, who’s running for president, who’s trying to be independent, very conservative, and what have you. He’s made enemies with just about everybody he can in the United States Senate. When Cruz is through and loses his bid for the presidency and has to go back to the Senate, he’s not gonna be able to get anything done. You know, he’s gone on the floor and called Mitch McConnell a liar, he’s offended most—all his colleagues—that isn’t the way the Senate works. And Goldwater, who was very independent and had his own views, is one of the most admired senators that’s ever been there. When he dies, they fill two planes with people that wanted to come out to his funeral, his memorial service. He was not of the “no compromise” ilk. In fact, he spends all of his last term, most of it, working on rebuilding the Department of Defense so it’ll work. So it’s a functioning department. And today, it’s the Nichols-Goldwater law to govern the Department of Defense.

Scheer: And it should be pointed out that you’re not the only one that speaks, or that was moved by the example of Barry Goldwater. Hillary Clinton was a Youth for Goldwater, and that was, I think, what got her into politics originally. As I said before–

Dean: Today he would not be considered a conservative.

Scheer: Well, neither would Richard Nixon. So this is an interesting contemporary point. We’ve discussed this before, but Richard Nixon gave us the Environmental Protection Agency. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great reformer senator, was his, at one point, domestic adviser, and they were in favor of a guaranteed annual income for all Americans.

Dean: Health care.

Scheer: Would be seen now as a socialist idea. Yes, health care. And so—and even, I shouldn’t say even on foreign policy, particularly on foreign policy, Nixon seems very advanced by today’s standard, even in comparison to Obama, and certainly to George W. Bush, because it was Nixon who really ushered in the end of the Cold War. He was the one that originally was involved in Eisenhower’s leadership in the opening to Khrushchev, and then of course, famously, in the opening to China during the Nixon administration. So in foreign policy, he was not the raving hawk.

Dean: Now, he [Nixon] is, though, one of the last Cold War presidents. No question he has the mentality that developed during the Cold War that the country was at the brink, that there were insidious secret forces that were trying to do us in, that he’s a president that knew the terrible consequences of nuclear war, he understood that. So he adopts a lot of tactics in the name of national security that, at the time, seemed fairly extreme. By today’s standards, with NSA able to dip into the Internet at its will at any juncture where AT&T has a hookup it seems, it’s not so bad. At that time, the fact that he, for example, had surveillance of newsmen—he has surveillance of his own staff to try to find leaks, that was pretty extreme, but that was Nixon’s Cold War mentality.

Scheer: Yeah, John, as one of the newsmen who was under surveillance and had his taxes audited by Nixon, I’m familiar with that. But the fact of the matter is he was able to pivot in a very profound way, recognizing it was possible to do business first with the Soviet Union, under the tutelage of Eisenhower, who certainly was very open to that. And then, amazingly enough, and I’ve documented, other people have, he actually, the idea of opening to China was something that came from Nixon, not Kissinger—he had developed the idea and written about it in Foreign Affairs magazine before he even met Kissinger. And it was an incredible bold idea, probably any Democrat who had said, “We can get along with Red China”—remember the whole argument used to be: We can’t even let them have their seat in the U.N. We can’t have diplomatic recognition with China, and here was Nixon, comes along and says, “I can go over there and have drinks with Mao and, you know, cut a deal.” Well, that took some kind of courage.

Dean: That’s why even today the metaphor’s often used: It’s a move that is unpredictable and thought of as impossible as being referred to as “Nixon going to China.” It’s where somebody does something that Nixon would’ve been the chief critic of somebody other than himself who would’ve gone to China, and might’ve torn them up. So that analogy is still used today.

Scheer: Yeah, and what’s interesting about it —and you mention the NSA and you mention surveillance and so forth. Then there was an enemy. There was an international communist conspiracy in a timetable for the takeover.

Dean: The Soviet Union.

Scheer: Well, you know, the Sino-Soviet dispute. There were hardly two communist governments that were on speaking terms anywhere in the world, but nonetheless there was an enemy that had massive weaponry, and you were on high alert, and so forth. And what Nixon did, in the modern parallel, Nixon provided an example of misuse of national security to silence your opponents, to investigate people who weren’t doing anything wrong. The example of the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg. Daniel Ellsberg was the whistleblower who told us about the existence of the Pentagon Papers, showing that the war in Vietnam made no sense whatsoever, and that we were being lied to. And then when Nixon administration makes charges against him, they break into his psychiatrist’s office in the name of national security. So it’s a startling example—

Dean: It didn’t work, though. The judge ruled that this was not national security. There was no justification. In fact, even if Nixon had authorized it, which he had not, it wasn’t national security. But what happened in that instance, staff assumed that was what Nixon would like. And they did it and made very clear, in writing, that they were authorizing it. And they would go to jail for it.

Scheer: So let me just remind people. I’m talking to John Dean, who was the counsel to the President Richard Nixon. He’s a major scholar on the presidency, has written about Warren Harding, has written about George W. Bush. A visiting scholar, by the way, at USC, and I can say, the Goldwater Chair of American Institutions at Arizona State University. So the reason we got into Watergate is not only that you were witness to it in an incredible moment in American history, but there are lessons to be learned. And one of those lessons is the misuse of national security. So under Nixon, clearly he was quite willing to play the national security card to silence critics, to intimidate them, and so forth. Now we have a situation where we’re in a post-Cold War world, where our enemy has primitive means of hurting us. They don’t have the nuclear arsenal that Nixon was confronting. And yet, the same tricks, the same devices, the same procedures of invoking national security are used by a Democratic administration, and have been used by a Republican administration.

Dean: One of the most surprising of the Obama administration, for me, has been using what was really pulled together as an official secrets act, which this country doesn’t have. Under George W. Bush, his attorney general, John Ashcroft, assembled all the statutes that could be used to prevent leaking. And just before they had come in, Bill Clinton had come very close to approving an official secrets act. But for the fact that the media suddenly discovered what was going, at the last minute Clinton vetoed the bill and that was it. But then what Bush did, post-9/11, was assemble his own official secrets act just by taking existing statutes, and cobbling them together and making them, in effect, an official secrets act.

Scheer: Tell us why that’s important, the official secrets act.

Dean: Well, that’s a law in Great Britain that makes it a crime to leak information. We have a First Amendment, and so that’s been a very difficult situation. We don’t have such a law. We never have had such a law. And the media has enjoyed a certain freedom of access, and freedom to use official information without consequence. So, but it’s very difficult for presidents to govern in a fishbowl. They can’t. They do need some secrecy; we clearly do have enemies, we always will have enemies as a powerful nation. So it’s a balancing line. What has been surprising is the aggressive use of the statutory collection that Ashcroft pulled together used by the Obama administration, who [Obama] has prosecuted more people for leaking information than any prior president.

Scheer: Well, more use of the Espionage Act.

Dean: Well, of course that law was adopted—when?, in 1913, under Woodrow Wilson. And at the time it was, or maybe it was later—

Scheer: Seventeen. 1917.

Dean: 1917, right. But at the time it was adopted, they tried to get an official secrets act. And it was expressly rejected by the Senate, yet they’re using that statute for the very purpose it was rejected, which is to broadly read the language and make it a tool to prosecute leaks.

Scheer: You know, this is a really interesting point here. Because although you started out as a Republican, we had moderate Republicans, we didn’t use to have this sharp division between Republicans and Democrats on civil liberties; in fact, some of our Republican presidents, one could argue, were more sensitive to civil liberty concerns than others, and sometimes were less hawkish. But we’re now in a situation where the Republicans are pictured as the people who are more threatening, and in this election they’re all described as “the great evil” to people rallying around the Democrat. And you bring up some very interesting history, here, because the basic argument for free speech is a conservative, limited government argument, that this is the assumption of the whole American Constitution, that limit on state power is essential to freedom. And that you need to write it down, and you need to make it very clear. And the great enemy of that, we know the founders warned about the dangers of empire, as opposed to republic. They warned about foreign expansion and when you have foreign entanglements and so forth, you’ll have an excuse for undermining freedom. And the reason I bring up when you were White House counsel, John Dean, to Richard Nixon, you were at a point where now we look back and say, “Gosh, that was threatening to mock democracy.” I mean, Nixon and Watergate, that becomes a signature issue, right? You were there, and wow, these guys, they were gonna use the FBI against people, they were gonna use national security—

Dean: I don’t think that—that wasn’t the sting of Watergate. It’s his abuse of power to prevent the uncovering of a crime.

Scheer: Right, but the abuse of power, going to J. Edgar Hoover, using the security agency—

Dean: Hoover’s dead [at that point].

Scheer: Well, originally, their government was using state power—and yes, Hoover’s dead—was to make the nation secure. That was the excuse for breaking in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. And here, the irony there, was Ellsberg had been in the Marines, Ellsberg had all the national security clearances, he’d been in the government—he was like the modern whistleblower we have now, a Bill Binney over at the NSA, or other people, Edward Snowden or what have you. And the argument that was used—

Dean: Can I stop you on a point? You made the point that the reason for the Ellsberg break-in was national security.

Scheer: No, the excuse.

Dean: The excuse. Well, the rationalization of these people. I don’t think it even got that sophisticated. What they wanted to do was, they were given a mission: go nail Ellsberg for leaking the papers. Make an example out of him. So what they did, and there’s zeal to do this, was to use any means and methods available. And they thought the president could have the kind of power to do this. And so that’s why they’re going after his psychiatric records. They used the pretext, at the time, that they wanted to find out what else he might be doing. In fact, they were seeking out those psychiatric records to embarrass him, to somehow discredit him. And it was not as sophisticated as saying, “Well, national security calls for this.” These were a bunch of zealots who were doing this, Bob. They didn’t have the national security in their interest. They had their zeal of nailing somebody—prosecutors get this mentality, too. They’re not worried about upholding justice; they’re trying to get notches in their belt. So let’s get the mentality of people in government: it’s not always highly noble.

Scheer: Well, I’m not suggesting it was, I’m just suggesting—

Dean: Well, putting it under the “national security” umbrella sounds like they have a good justification or rationalization to do it. I don’t think it even got that far. I knew these people, and Gordon Liddy, who was selling this plan, is a psychopath, to get to the bottom of it.

Scheer: OK, but we’ve had psychopaths who can use the national security argument. Hitler was one, and he claimed he was making Germany safer by getting all these evil people.

Dean: That’s why he [Liddy] was a fan of Hitler’s.

Scheer: But anyway, my point is that taking it up to the contemporary period, both parties have used the national security argument to justify executive branch power.

Dean: Well, that’s what Obama is saying with prosecuting all these people who leak—that it’s to protect national security. I agree that there is a need to protect the president [against] leaking. I just don’t think he had to send people to jail to enforce it.

Scheer: I’m talking to John Dean who was the counsel to the president under Richard Nixon. He’s gone on to write some of the most important books on the presidency. And is now a professor—the Goldwater Chair—at Arizona State University in Tempe. But let me ask you, John, you wrote a book called “Worse Than Watergate.” And you actually concluded that the behavior of the George W. Bush administration was more threatening. Would you extend that to Obama? And first of all, why don’t you defend that position?

Dean: With “Worse Than Watergate,” the subtitle of that book is “The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.” And what prompted that book was how post-Watergate government had been relatively transparent. But when Bush and Cheney came in, they closed the blinds, pulled the drapes, slammed the doors, and went to the basement and started a whole different operation in deep secret. And people weren’t aware of what was going on. It became worse than Watergate when they began writing these bogus legal memos out of the Department of Justice to justify torture. I don’t think Richard Nixon in his darkest mood would have authorized torture. I just—even in a 9/11 situation. He’d been in World War II, he was aware of waterboarding from his service in the South Pacific, and knew how awful it was. And the repercussion it’d have for the country. If we used it, somebody was gonna use it against us. And that’s exactly what’s happened. Because Bush used torture, our people are now getting subject to torture. It’s been a game-changer in warfare. We have, to me, a number of war criminals running around. That’s why it was worse than Watergate. I just think Watergate, by comparison, is a pretty piddling affair. While Nixon was abusive in his exercise of his presidential powers, it didn’t go as far as it’s gone in recent years. Now, I think Obama has rolled back a lot of the authority that Bush had granted for that kind of interrogation—in other words, I don’t think that’s the standard operating procedure today. But we’re having secret drone flights, and there’s just no telling what’s happening out there. Today there are different techniques that are available.

Scheer: Well, we have secret drone flights, we have officially condoned assassination without trial, people that we just say are “bad actors” the same way George W. did, now we’re just doing it under a Democrat. We also have the surveillance state ramping up just as effectively, maybe more so—you’ve seen the worst of the Republican Party—you were a Republican at that time, and you’ve developed a much more objective, cautious look. How do you appraise what’s going on now with the Republican Party, with the resignation of Boehner as speaker. Is there room for moderates? Is there a fundamental difference between the Republicans and Democrats? What’s your assessment?

Dean: There’s a huge difference between the parties. They have never been more polarized; there is no room for any dissent within the Republican ranks. I did a book called “Conservatives Without Conscience” to try to understand the mentality of these people. I think that the Trump phenomenon, that 23-25 percent he’s reached right now, I think those are the authoritarian personalities in the Republican ranks. That’s the base that’s being so demanding, so uncompromising. That’s the tea party element of the Republican movement at this point. Boehner, theoretically, is a moderate by their standards; that’s why he indeed was ousted from his job in a power play where they wanted to scalp [him] because he wouldn’t use extortion as a means to obtain ends. Since they don’t have the votes, this small block in the Republican caucus—I think it’s about 40 members, in fact there’s a great quote in The New York Times just a few days ago about one of the members, a non-hard-right member, but a more moderate Republican member, saying there’s somewhere between two dozen and four dozen Republicans who do not want to govern in any given moment. In fact, they want to do everything they can to destroy the government, make it not work. Now, that’s just, to me, a mind-blowing attitude to even get into government if you want to destroy the government, and try to obstruct the government. I think it is unconstitutional, I think there may be criminal implications in what these people are doing, and no one’s ever dug out the fact that this is a near treasonous type of mentality that this party has at its core. And it’s very troubling, because these people are incapable of governing. I did also a book called “Broken Government,” the subtitle being “How Republican Rule”—and I use that word as opposed to “governing”—it destroyed the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, cause this mentality doesn’t work in a democracy.

Scheer: This is our new podcast. I’m talking to John Dean, who was, at one point, rather important in a Republican presidency—that of Richard Nixon. But, and this is a good way of sort of wrapping it up, but are you optimistic for this country? Do you think that we will preserve civil liberty and liberty government, and do you think the Republicans will be able to reform and be more moderate? Will the Democrats reform and be more moderate?

Dean: Let’s say I have some days I’m more optimistic than others. Some days, you know, what’s happening in government is deeply troubling. Any thoughtful person who’s watching the dysfunction that now exists in Washington, and has for a number of years, and it’s traceable directly to Republican misbehavior, where you set out to obstruct the president who’s a Democrat, and happens to be the first black we’ve had in that office, as Mitch McConnell did. That’s just not an intelligent way to run a democracy. And democracy, as tough as it is, can be gamed and the system can be broken. And if something doesn’t turn around the direction we’re going, if we had, for example, if John Boehner hadn’t left the House, we might’ve well been here today with a government shutdown and out of business. That move looks like it kept the government open again. But you know, there’s an element in the Republican Party today that doesn’t want the government to work. That’s pretty frightening.

Scheer: If you had to give your final assessment of Richard Nixon, the man and the president, what would that assessment be?

Dean: He’s a president who had a criminal mentality, just that clear. It comes through on the tapes. He sought revenge against his perceived enemies, was gonna use his presidency to that end. Had he not have been removed from office, it’s no telling what he would’ve done to his so-called enemies.

Scheer: Well, thank you, John. This is a great way to end our first podcast, rather depressing, but nonetheless it’s a warning about power and the kind of people that sometimes get to misuse it in profound ways. That’s it for Scheer Intelligence! Our engineer is Mario Diaz, our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer, and, for more, check out Scheer Intelligence on

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