Richard Nixon’s forced resignation from the presidency forty years ago this August was, in addition to being one of the greatest moments in the history of liberal Schadenfreude, also a turning point in the history of the American national security state.
It’s not as if previous presidents, particularly Lyndon Johnson, Nixon’s predecessor, were somehow scrupulous in observing the constitutional limits on executive power. It’s just that, thanks to his taping system—and his utterly incompetent cover-up efforts—Nixon showed us just how rotten the core of our system had become. And yet, to the degree that anything has changed in the past four decades, it has almost always been for the worst.
John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, went to prison for his part in the Watergate cover-up. Since then, however, he has assumed the role of the scholarly conscience of the Nixon post-presidency. His most recent contribution to the historical record is a remarkably meticulous recounting of what Nixon said and did behind the scenes. Using transcripts of approximately 1,000 conversations he secretly recorded at the Nixon White House and Camp David—of which roughly 600 have never been heard by anyone other than the National Archives staff—plus an additional 150,000 Watergate documents at the National Archives, Dean has produced a 784-page book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, that gives us the clearest account yet of the man behind the curtain. The picture of Nixon that emerges is not only frightening and depressing; it bears little if any resemblance to the thoughtful, occasionally obsessive character created in the media by conservatives and gullible mainstream journalists.
Dean says he listened to or read some 4 million words, 8,500 pages, twenty-one volumes, for his account—almost all of it filled with “obsessive compulsive” behavior as Nixon repeats the same things to the same individuals, as if trying to convince himself of his own innocence. “He’s not in command,” Dean observes. “I just keep wondering how widespread this was.”
Nixon, apparently without thinking, decided to play dumb about the Watergate break-in after Dean, in his famous meeting with the president on March 21, 1973, explained to him the breadth of criminality being undertaken by the White House in his name. “I’ve been able to see how Nixon operated and how his decision-making functioned,” Dean told me when I called him about the book. “This isn’t a guy who is a gifted decision-maker. He just misses it with Watergate totally…via a combination of character mixed with his horrendously flawed decision-making, by forming his entire defense of Watergate in the March 21 conversation with me, [even though that] conversation itself puts the lie to that defense.” Nixon “didn’t even listen to it” when the taping system was discovered; instead, his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, “did it for him.”
Listening to the tapes today, Dean says, “I can hear myself sighing and I am frustrated by the shit I’m hearing. What in the hell do you have to tell this man? When you’re in your early 30s, you don’t just say, ‘You are really full of shit, Mr. President.’”