By Jason KUROSU
John Dean, now a retired author living in Beverly Hills, served as former White House counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, an ordeal which left Dean out of the White House and eventually testifying before a Senate committee, implicating members of the Oval Office in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up.
Dean also made an appearance at the Glendale Central Library Thursday night to discuss his latest book, “The Nixon Defense,” which details his experiences and accounts of nearly 1,000 conversations from Richard Nixon’s secret recordings of his conversations with Dean, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and numerous others. Dean was available to sign copies of the book, but also spoke in the library auditorium, discussing the four-year process of writing the book and his thoughts on Watergate and its legacy as a textbook example of abuse of power.
The major question Dean tried to answer with his book was “How could anybody as savvy and intelligent as Richard Nixon let a bungled burglary destroy his presidency?” He discovered that Nixon was not so intimately involved with the cover-up as the public might think, nor as shrewd.
“He’s just not as savvy as I believed he was. He is a terrible decision maker. I think scholars can use this book to look at other decisions he made and say, ‘Is this Nixon? Or is this the staff who is carrying it out and doing the things he got right?
“One of the surprises for me is how little he is told by his top aides. He is getting his information from Haldeman, [assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John] Erlichmann and the Washington Post. Other than that, he has no sources for Watergate.”
But Dean showed that Nixon did his part to raise money for the men apprehended during the break-in, lobbying for funds that would pay their legal fees and other expenses. One of the key figures for raising money was Tom Pappas, who contributed more than $100,000 to Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign.
Dean played a few recordings for the audience, one of which features Nixon and Haldeman discussing Pappas’ desire to have Henry J. Tasca remain U.S. Ambassador to Greece, a favor to be repaid in more funds for the administration, specifically the Watergate defendants.
“One of the major problems on the business John’s [Dean] working on is the question of continuing financial activity in order to keep those people in place,” said Haldeman in the recording. “And the way he’s working on that is via Mitchell to Tom Pappas.
“Our plan was to move him [Tasca] and put someone else in Greece, but Mitchell said it would be a useful thing to not disrupt that,” said Haldeman. Nixon agreed.
Other recorded conversations which Dean played occurred between Haldeman and Nixon, with Haldeman reiterating that Pappas needs to be thanked and reminded of what they’ve done for him in Greece.
The recordings also showed different shades of Nixon, who seemed to freely flaunt his private and public selves for the microphones.
“We’ll never have another source like that, particularly of presidential wrongdoing,” said Dean, in reference to the recordings.
“He’s recording himself being a racist, a bigot, anti-Semitic, he’s foul mouthed.”
But with his daughters, Nixon “had a lovely father-daughter relationship. Same with his wife. I was never sure about their relationship. It always seemed very awkward; he never wanted to show any public displays of affection. But in private, he was very affectionate with her.”
The creation of “The Nixon Defense” was the result of months of transcribing about 600 conversations, in addition to some 200 already-transcribed conversations from historian Stanley Kutler and other conversations transcribed by Watergate prosecutors.
“I was writing a book a year until I got to this one, which took me four years,” said Dean, who recounted the years it took to go through all the recordings, transferring them from audio tapes to digital versions and transcribing them with the help of Cherity Bacon, an archival science graduate student who oversaw a team of students through the transcription process.
Dean, Bacon and the students went through 21 volumes of tapes, which Dean estimated to total four million words. The process was made even more difficult because many of the recordings contained redacted sections due to material deemed “personal” or concerning national security.
Deciphering the audio recorded out of this “crude system” of microphones planted throughout the Oval Office was rife with difficulties.
“If the President would drag his coffee cup across his desk, it literally sounded like a freight train going through the Oval Office, picking up all the vibrations in the wood where the microphones were embedded,” he recalled.
Similar difficulties arose from Nixon’s penchant for putting his feet up on his desk and also from a nearby ticking clock, which drove one transcriber mad, according to Dean.
Despite the cover-ups and secrecy that surrounded Watergate, Dean insisted that “I have no outstanding questions about Watergate. I think there are answers for everything.”
Conspiracy theorists have posited multiple ideas of what the five men who broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters were searching for.
“It’s very clear that they were fishing for financial information about [DNC chairman] Larry O’Brien. They want to nail him. He’s caused them a nightmare.”
Dean said that some of these theories stem from what appears to be manufactured distance between Nixon and Watergate, implying that there are more secretive motives at work that Dean said don’t actually exist. Dean insisted that though Nixon had his hand in other schemes, the Watergate break-in was masterminded by his aides.
“It’s very clear that Nixon has created an atmosphere in which [G. Gordon] Liddy and [E. Howard] Hunt think that this is what their President wanted,” said Dean.
Regarding the conspiracies, Dean simply said “Watergate was ripe pickings for those who want to create mysteries where there are none.”
“The Nixon Defense” is available in bookstores now.