To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, we talked with John Dean—he had been counsel to the president, and it was his Senate testimony that led to Nixon’s resignation. His new book is The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.
Jon Wiener: You set out to reconstruct the day-to-day history of Nixon’s actions from the beginning of Watergate to the end, and you had a great source, the White House tapes. We know a lot about the tapes—the racism, the anti-Semitism, the plotting and scheming—but you listened to tapes no one else had heard before. How many tapes did you find–and how long did it take you?
John Dean: When I agreed to do the book, I was trying to figure out how anybody as savvy and intelligent as Nixon could have destroyed his presidency on a bungled burglary. But had I known how long it would take—four years—I might not have undertaken the assignment. I found a thousand conversations that no one had listened to except the archivists; there were partial transcripts for only 400. There isn’t a page in this book that doesn’t have something new to me—and I’ve been pretty close to the story since 1972.
What did you discover about the motivation for the original break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex: what were the burglars looking for? And, most important, did Nixon send them?
There’s not a scintilla of evidence that Nixon had advanced knowledge. Nixon is concerned in the early days that he might have instructed Charles Colson to do this. But Colson tells him “no.” The burglars’ original mission was to break into McGovern’s headquarters. That is traceable back to Nixon. He tells Haldeman to plant a bug in McGovern’s headquarters. But the burglars started out that night with Gordon Liddy’s original plan: to find financial information to embarrass Larry O’Brien, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, at his office in the Watergate complex. It’s just as stupid as it sounds.
How bad would it have been if they had succeeded in finding that Larry O’Brien had taken illegal money? Would that have significantly damaged the McGovern campaign?
I really doubt it.
The first big decision was to pay hush money to the burglars. What did you learn about that?
Certainly Nixon knew it from the outset. On June 20, same day as the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap, Nixon suggests they set up a “Cuban committee” to raise money for the Watergate defendants. What’s ironic is that that plan could have been legal.
You were the president’s lawyer. When did he call you? What did you know, and when did you know it?
I don’t see the president until eight months after the arrests.
That’s when you told him “there’s a cancer on the presidency.” What did you learn from the tapes about his reaction to what you told him?