Last week, The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins wrote up a rollicking interview he had with former Nixon lawyer John Dean.
A quick refresher is probably in order: During his stint as White House counsel, Dean acted as the “master manipulator of the [Watergate] cover-up,” according to the FBI, before eventually becoming the star witness against Nixon. By the time Dean got around to writing “Blind Ambition,” his contrite 1975 memoir, all was forgiven about whatever role he may have played enabling Watergate. Even better than forgiveness, Martin Sheen played Dean in the 1979 TV miniseries based on the book.
While Dean did some laudable things to expose Watergate, we’re going on year 42 of his 15 minutes of fame. McKay Coppins is a talented and creditable reporter, and he’s hardly the first to shoot the breeze with Dean in search of a drive-by byline. By now, Dean’s pronouncements on the scandals du jour have become one of the most predictable tropes in political journalism.
Contain your surprise, but here’s what Dean has to say about Trump: “I don’t think Richard Nixon even comes close to the level of corruption we already know about Trump.” And how’s this for gripping reportorial detail? “Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves.”
Certainly, no one who’s followed Trump’s rise in business and politics would rule out the possibility of a corrupt administration. Trump could be worse than Nixon. However, Dean’s 2004 book on George W. Bush’s administration was also titled “Worse Than Watergate.” In another book, Dean approvingly quotes a friend saying of Newt Gingrich, “He’s Richard Nixon, glib.” Okay, fine. Maybe Trump, Bush, Cheney, and Gingrich are big controversial figures, and no strangers to scandal.
But what about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? In 2012, Dean wrote a column where he said of Walker, “If I lived in Wisconsin, I would be uncomfortable with this man, whom I find more Nixonian than even Richard Nixon himself (the authoritarian leader with whom I was, and am, so very familiar).” Walker’s only alleged crime is taking a principled political stand against organized labor. For this, Walker was subject to one of the most outrageously lawless witch hunts in American political history.
These Watergate Comparisons Seem to Run Only One Way
Of course, Dean doesn’t always say that politicians provoking Watergate comparisons are worse than Nixon. Quite the opposite. See Dean’s New York Times op-ed from October 31, just over a week before the presidential election: “No, ‘Emailgate’ Is Not Worse Than Watergate.” The rather demonstrable charge in “Emailgate” is that Clinton endangered national security for selfish reasons, and lied repeatedly about what she did.
Without diminishing Watergate’s significance, it was largely a self-contained domestic partisan scandal. Is calling what Clinton did “worse than Watergate” really indefensible? According to Dean, “her actions bear no similarities whatsoever to Nixon’s criminalization of his presidency.” No similarities? Personally, I wonder what stands a better chance of being recovered—Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails, or the missing 18 minutes of Nixon’s tape recordings.
Dean has also responded to comparisons of President Obama scandals to Watergate by saying “It’s absolutely sillyness.” In fact, Dean recently said he doesn’t believe Obama’s tenure had even “a hint of scandal,” even as he reiterated unproven smears about Trump’s alleged perverted tryst with Russian prostitutes:
Obama leaves after 8 yrs w/o a hint of scandal showered in admiration. Trump enters office w/ a golden-showers in Russia scandal unfolding.
— John Dean (@JohnWDean) January 11, 2017
Now, there are Obama scandals aplenty, and some of them, such as the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal and Benghazi, have both dead bodies and White House cover-ups, so saying they’re “worse than Watergate” isn’t saying much that isn’t obvious.
Are you beginning to sense a trend? Republicans always seem to be worse than Watergate, but you can lie about what caused the body of an American ambassador to be dragged through the streets of Libya, and Dean can’t bring himself to find anything wrong. (For more on how it’s always Republicans’ fault, check out Dean’s 2007 book, “Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches.”)
All Watergate, All the Time
The truth is that Watergate was an amateur burglary of the Democratic headquarters located at an overrated piece of Washington real estate. In practical terms, a lot of scandals since then have been “worse than Watergate,” whether or not they get the official John Dean seal of approval. The real tragedy associated with Watergate is the tarnishing of the office of the president. Because of Watergate we’ve lowered the bar for what we expect from presidents, and are inured to them far exceeding their constitutional restraints.
It’s obvious Dean remains financially dependent on the fact the scandal looms large in our political imagination. (Still flogging a dead horse, Dean’s 2014 book was called “The Nixon Defense.”) More than that, it seems he’s let Watergate consume his life. In 1991, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin published “Silent Coup,” a book that purported to upend the conventional Watergate narrative. The book argued that Dean personally ordered the Watergate break-in to cover up his wife’s involvement in a call-girl ring.
The irascible former Nixon “plumber” and talk-radio host G. Gordon Liddy, who had scores to settle with Dean for testifying against him in Watergate, seized on the book. Liddy began promoting this version of events far and wide. This led to years of legal proceedings against Colodny, Gettlin, their publisher, and Liddy. Gettlin and the publisher settled. Colodny and Liddy did not.
Dean eventually settled with Colodny’s insurer, but Liddy never gave up. In 2000, Dean withdrew charges against Liddy, who maintained Dean was lying about his involvement in Watergate. In 2001, a federal judge declared a mistrial and dismissed the $5.1 million defamation lawsuit against Liddy brought by the secretary at the Democratic National Committee accused of hiding a package of call-girl photos in her desk.
What we’ve subsequently discovered about Watergate has disproven much of the narrative laid out in “Silent Coup.” Yet Liddy spent the better part of a decade in and out of a courtroom calling Dean’s wife a whore, and Dean was never able to explain what happened during Watergate such that what Liddy was saying sounded convincingly absurd. That is no small failing when you consider that Liddy’s on-the-record testimony in court included such gems as, “I wouldn’t consider [Dean] worth the quarter it would cost to buy the cartridge that would propel the bullet to kill him with.”
Contradict Me, Face a Lawsuit
This wasn’t the only time Dean’s had trouble explaining Watergate, nor was it the only lawsuit he’s instigated. In 2009, Dean sued Luke Nichter, the Texas A&M professor behind Nixontapes.org. Nichter had posted the recording of a 1989 phone call, where Dean apparently disavowed the accuracy of his own memoir, “Blind Ambition.” “What happened is, the editors got real excited, interesting, wanted to make it more intriguing. That’s why all that s–t got in there,” Dean said in a phone call. “I never actually went back and re-read my testimony when I was writing my book.”
Nichter took the recording down as a result of Dean’s legal threats, but told Fox News, “It’s an incident of a much broader pattern that this is how Dean treats people who present information contrary to his views. … I merely wanted to bring these contradictions to light and thought I was doing a service, but Dean was absolutely mortified when he found out that I had these materials.”
Dean seems willing to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve his self-image as the conscience of the Republican Party, regardless of whether that reputation was ever deserved. Here I refer you to Dean’s 2006 book, “Conservatives Without Conscience,” the cover of which featured black and white photos of dastardly Republicans such as Dick Cheney, Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, and… Bill Frist? At least when Dean makes the requisite comparison of the milquetoast former Tennessee senator, it comes in the form of a backhanded compliment: Frist is “Richard Nixon with Bill Clinton’s brains.”
That media types would now go running to Dean for Trump denunciations is expected even if it’s not necessarily warranted. Again, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that a Trump administration could be corrupt, but the fact that John Dean, drama queen, is having nightmares about it doesn’t make this possibility any more certain or pressing.
Until Trump actually does something wrong as president, it’s more scandalous for journalists to continue leaning on Dean to be the moral arbiter of what’s “worse than Watergate,” when it’s plainly obvious he’s lost all perspective. Also, maybe it’s worth considering whether Dean, who ricocheted from pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in Watergate to becoming a disingenuous liberal scold, ever had any perspective to begin with.
Everything Is Always Worse than Watergate
The really disconcerting legacy of Watergate might be that we define all future scandals according to narrow partisan criteria determined by a liberal press. Naturally, Dean is all too happy to validate this knee-jerk process by trading his guilt at being a bagman for Nixon in exchange for media affirmation. (God forbid we all acknowledge that the only truly, sincerely repentant Nixon aide was Chuck Colson, who spent the rest of his life ministering to prisoners after he became one.)
But it appears we really do live in a world where you can make the astonishing assertions that Obama is leaving office without a “hint of scandal,” and Walker is an “authoritarian leader” who’s “more Nixonian than even Richard Nixon,” and journalists will still call you up and beg you for more ridiculous pronouncements.
Still, Dean isn’t altogether wrong. In an alarming number of respects, the current political era really is worse than the one that produced Watergate. But when everywhere you turn, something is worse than Watergate, at some point you’d think the comparison would become irrelevant. If nothing else, 45 years have passed since the Watergate break-in. When you read political coverage from the 1970s, you don’t see the press tripping over themselves to compare every facet of corruption to the Teapot Dome scandal 50 years earlier. (If you really want to go there, you can read the introduction to Dean’s 2004 biography of Warren G. Harding, where he discusses how “Richard Nixon’s ‘Watergate’”—third-person attribution, no mention of being the mastermind—”replaced Harding’s ‘Teapot Dome’ as the most serious high-level scandal of the twentieth century.”)
Surely Watergate, like other pivotal historic events, continues to offer instructive lessons, even if the likes of Dean pop a blood vessel every time a political outgroup makes an honest attempt to apply those lessons fairly. The truth is that a Watergate moratorium would do everyone in politics, and especially Dean, a world of good. The unrelenting insistence that we keep redefining the same ancient scandal to suit today’s unrelated political ends has had a profoundly corrosive effect on our political debates. After decades of sanctimony and hypocrisy, we might even be approaching a time where we can honestly say, “John Dean is worse than Nixon.”