America is about to be reintroduced to John Dean, the man whose cool, calm and controversial testimony in the Watergate investigation began the public demolition of President Richard Nixon.
As he spoke to the Senate’s special investigating committee on June 25, 1973, Dean and his owlish glasses were imprinted on the national consciousness, his appearance carried live on all three TV networks and watched by tens of millions.
Dean had been the White House counsel when he had warned Nixon there was “a cancer growing on the presidency” that could prove fatal. Dean’s diagnosis was based on his own involvement, and by turning against his boss, he was helping his prognosis come true as well.
Dean will be back on Capitol Hill Monday, called by the House Judiciary Committee, where he briefly worked as junior staffer for the Republican members more than 50 years ago.
That was before he worked for Nixon, and before the scandal that would send Dean to prison and create a lifetime of curious notoriety. Before the 1970s were over, Dean’s memoir (Blind Ambition) had spawned a TV miniseries in which Dean was played by a young Martin Sheen.
Dean is being called because the House Judiciary committee and its chairman, Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York, are looking into the substance of the report by special counsel Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — and the actions of President Trump in response to Mueller’s investigation.
Some of those actions showed up in Mueller’s report as potential instances of obstruction of justice. That category of offense was the focus of Dean’s days of testimony under the bright TV lights 46 years ago this month.
Monday’s hearing is not part of a formal impeachment proceeding against Trump, and Chairman Nadler has complied with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s preference for terms such as “inquiry.” At least, so far.
Still, it is worth noting that when Dean had his celebrated moment of accusing Nixon in 1973 he was also not testifying before an impeachment proceeding. It was, rather, a committee of the Senate seeking information on “campaign practices.”
That Senate panel had no power to commence a formal impeachment process (which must begin in the House). But over the course of that long summer, the findings of that panel changed many minds and made impeachment all but inevitable.
For viewers of cable news, Dean should need no reintroduction. Now 80, he has been a regular contributor on CNN and a frequent guest on other news programs as well. (He has been interviewed on NPR several times, most recently on Weekend Edition Sunday on Dec. 2, 2018.)
Dean has been a sharp critic of the Trump administration, calling the president “worse than Nixon,” especially with regard to Trump’s handling of Mueller.
So Nadler & Company want some of that perspective for their own purposes. And if they also hoped Dean would get the president’s goat, they didn’t have long to wait. The president tweeted his reaction on Sunday, saying the Democrats wanted a do-over on the Mueller report so badly they “are even bringing in CNN sleazebag attorney John Dean.”
In January 2018, in one of his CNN appearances, Dean compared the Russian election interference to the burglary at the Watergate office complex in 1972 that began the Watergate scandal. He said presidential efforts to frustrate investigators in both cases could be considered obstruction of justice.
Obstruction was one of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” alleged in the impeachment articles against Nixon. Obstruction was also a key charge against President Bill Clinton when he was impeached by the House in 1998 (he survived a trial in the Senate early in 1999).
In that same CNN appearance in January 2018, Dean predicted Democrats would win control of the House in the November midterm elections, as they did, and “start the education process so the people are ready to deal with the very serious issue we have with this president” – meaning Trump.
Dean noted that, given the Justice Department’s official policy against indicting a president, both in the Watergate era and today, the only remedy was impeachment.
Dean’s willingness to compare Nixon and Trump, and to link their handling of investigations into their election campaigns, explains why he is expected to prompt live TV coverage again.
As one Fox News host said on Saturday, the Democrats want to have people talking about impeachment, and “nothing says impeachment like Watergate and nothing says Watergate like John Dean.”
Dean was a key Watergate insider – and whistle blower – due to his special role as White House counsel. That important position has often been an uncomfortable one in the past. The office is filled by the president’s choice, but its first responsibility is to the institution of the presidency rather than to the president himself. That has forced difficult choices on quite a few of the lawyers who have held the position over the years.
Dean was one whose choices cost him dearly. Sentenced to serve up to four years, he had his sentenced reduced after testifying against several former White House colleagues. He served only four months before being released.
More recently, White House counsels struggled with their dual responsibilities in the Clinton years. And Trump’s first White House counsel, Don McGahn, has been extensively interviewed in the Mueller investigation. The Mueller report indicates Trump tried to involve McGahn in efforts to fire Mueller, efforts that might constitute obstruction of justice.
Nadler’s committee has issued a subpoena for McGahn, but he has refused to testify at the direction of the White House and may yet be cited for contempt of Congress. McGahn left the White House in 2018, his departure being announced by the president on Twitter. In a subsequent reference, the President said McGahn was not a “John Dean type ‘RAT.'”
Dean joined the White House in 1970, after graduating from Georgetown Law Center in Washington. Just 32 when he became counsel, he had spent two years at a law firm and four more as a Republican staffer in the House, where he re-encountered an old friend from military school: Barry Goldwater Jr., then a freshman House member from California. Dean had become friendly with the Goldwater family, and traveling in GOP circles led to meeting John Mitchell, a longtime Nixon confidant and his first attorney general, and eventually to the counsel’s office in the White House.
Dean was in the job in June of 1972 when five burglars were caught attempting to plant listening devices in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, then located in the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C.
Dean was involved in the cover-up in the months that followed the burglars’ arraignment. That included destroying evidence and supervising the payment of “hush money” to the burglars as well as misleading outside investigators.
At first, the cover-up seemed successful. Despite the reporting of the legendary team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post, most of the country was not interested in the Watergate story that fall. Nixon was re-elected that November with 49 states in his column.
But Dean sensed himself in legal peril in the early months of 1973, as the cover-up was fraying on several fronts. There were questions from the trial judge and the Senate Judiciary Committee brought it up in confirmation hearings for the FBI director.
Dean came to suspect he was being set up as the fall guy for the cover-up and conspiracy. He later recalled Nixon saying “No, no, no John you’re the law here…the lawyer doesn’t go to jail.”
But Dean was fearful enough that he hired his own lawyer in April and began cooperating with investigators he had been resisting. Later that month, Nixon went on national TV to announce the resignations of two top aides (who would eventually serve time for their own roles in the cover-up) and the firing of Dean.
Soon thereafter, the Senate formed a “Select Committee On Presidential Campaign Activities” chaired by conservative Democrat Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Despite the name, the panel was soon known as the Watergate Committee and understood to be aimed at the White House.
Dean was known as the star witness of those hearings, although his testimony came at the start of what became a weeks-long ordeal. Another pivotal point came with the revelation that Nixon had recorded all his Oval Office meetings. Investigators wanted those tapes, as did Congress. The legal battle over them would eventually be resolved by the Supreme Court, which ruled without dissent that Nixon had to turn them over. The president resigned less than two weeks later, in the summer of 1974.
Dean by then had pleaded guilty to his own charges and been sentenced. But by early in 1975 he had served his reduced time and returned to private life. Disbarred as a lawyer, he has since been an investment banker and written a number of books, including on Chief Justice William Rehnquist and President Warren Harding, who hailed from his own hometown of Akron, Ohio.
He has also written condemnations of the administration of President Ronald Reagan (over the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal) and that of President George W. Bush for offenses “worse than Watergate” (for lying to Congress to set up the Iraq war).
Dean also published Conservatives Without Conscience (2006), a deliberate reference to the classic Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater, Sr.