John Dean Recalled Gordon Liddy During UW-Madison Law School Speech

G Gordon Liddy in 1977 after his release from prison: he had served four years of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping CREDIT: FRED R CONRAD/NYTNS/REDUX/EYEVINE

As a Richard Nixon history buff, I would be remiss if not commenting about the death of G. Gordon Liddy. It was, after all, his character, or lack thereof, which dealt one of the harshest blows to the Nixon White House. He masterminded dirty tricks and created the upside-down burglary in the Watergate complex. Others were also more than complicit in a series of crimes and attempts to undermine the law, but Liddy holds a special place for being ruthless. I have always questioned if he had a moral anchor. He seemed to relish in the wildly absurd, without a care about the institutions of the nation that were being damaged.

As my mind flashed back over the decades of Nixon, Watergate, and the newly departed I landed on a memory from 2013. John Dean—yes, that one–spoke at the UW-Madison Law School. I attended and was really pleased to have first-hand proximity to a central figure from a chapter of history that simply enthralls me. He was White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973 and would be found guilty of a single felony of obstructing justice.

John Dean October 2013 at UW Madison Law School Credit: Gregory Humphrey

As John Dean started his presentation late that afternoon the lady introducing him had a typical-sized microphone that she was to hand over for his use.  Dean grinned, and said he had one attached to his jacket, and “my voice seems to be able to be picked up by small microphones.”

That set the tone for the time he was on stage. By being smart, agile with words, and comfortable in his own skin Dean held everyone’s attention.

Recounting Watergate to an audience that was largely older and informed made for some of the events in the mid-1970s seem almost a comedy routine.  If it all had not been so serious it might have made for a slap-stick movie.

Using a power-point style of presentation Dean showed a picture of the desk in the Watergate complex.  It was when he said this was the sight where the burglars were crouched while wearing suits and plastic gloves that made the audience break into laughter.  The fact they had large amounts of cash on them, and tell-tale signs that led them to people who worked in, or were connected with the White House, made it seem even more illogical.  No matter how many times the story is told it still seems utterly absurd.

No one could hold back, however, when Gordon Liddy was referred to by Dean as someone “not up to the Maxwell Smart test.”   

Dean concluded his remarks on a tougher and more biting topic. It was the fact that at least 21 lawyers were on the wrong side of the law in the Nixon Watergate mess that should be a prime lesson recalled about that entire episode. The reason for the high numbers of otherwise smart men being pulled so far astray, Dean noted, came down to incompetence, the arrogance of the law, and too much loyalty to President Nixon

Liddy was one of those lawyers.

I do wish to leave this post on a lighter note about Liddy. Wednesday morning on NPR someone quipped a person has to be over 60 to recall Liddy as the mastermind of the Watergate break-in, let alone that he held his hand over a flame. So the last memory from Liddy is that be made some of us feel old(er)!

John Dean Back In Spotlight

This caught my attention late yesterday afternoon as I was catching up on the news.

Senate Judiciary Democrats are calling John Dean, best known as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, as one of their witnesses for the confirmation hearings of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee next week.

Dean without doubt will be the headliner for the minority side, who have questions about nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s views about the limits of executive power.

John Dean Weighs In On Donald Trump–With Richard Nixon in Mind

“I don’t think Richard Nixon even comes to close to the level of corruption we already know about Trump.”

So says former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, in an interview with The Atlantic.  As a Nixon history buff I found this most interesting.

Dean’s near-panicked take on the incoming president is shaped in large part by his years in the Nixon White House. In Trump, Dean says he has observed many of his former boss’s most dangerous traits—obsessive vengefulness, reflexive dishonesty, all-consuming ambition—but none of Nixon’s redeeming qualities.

“I used to have one-on-one conversations with [Nixon] where I’d see him checking his more authoritarian tendencies,” Dean recalled. “He’d say, ‘This is something I can’t say out loud…’ or, ‘That is something the president can’t do.’” To Dean, these moments suggested a functioning sense of shame in Nixon, something he was forced to wrestle with in his quest for power. Trump, by contrast, appears to Dean unmolested by any such struggle.

Unchecked, Dean worries, these neo-Nixonian instincts will only grow stronger once Trump enters the Oval Office—a place where every occupant since Nixon has found new ways to expand his authority and further his reach. “Barack Obama, like most presidents, did not dispose of any of the executive powers he inherited,” Dean said. “Hang on when Trump and his crew fully appreciate the extraordinary powers they will have—it is not only going to be thrilling, but dangerous.” (Dean, who now considers himself an independent, was also strongly critical of George W. Bush’s presidency.)

Those hoping Trump’s presidency will end in a Watergate-style meltdown point to the litany of scandals-in-waiting that will follow him into office—from his alleged ties to Russia, to the potential conflicts of interest lurking in his vast business network. Dean agrees that “he’s carrying loads of potential problems into the White House with him,” and goes even further in his assessment: “I don’t think Richard Nixon even comes.

John Dean Weighs In On “The Last of the President’s Men”

One of those must reads if you enjoy a slice of history from the Richard Nixon years.  In part it reads….

It was Nixon’s vengeance that finally got to Butterfield. While he had seen it from his first days on the job, following Nixon’s overwhelming reelection, Butterfield overheard Haldeman and Nixon talking about going after their enemies during the second term. Alex confessed to Woodward that he had been complicit during the first term when Nixon asked him to arrange for the U.S. Secret Service to provide protection to Senator Edward Kennedy, whom Nixon thought might run against him, so they placed an agent loyal to Nixon on the protective detail who reported back to the Nixon White House. As Nixon tapes show, Butterfield’s instincts were correct, for as I learned in tape after tape when doing my last book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, Nixon was hell bent after the election on attacking anyone and everyone he believed had ever done him any unkindness. (It was a remarkable attitude for someone as selfishly bad-mannered as he was himself.) Alex wanted out.

Haldeman and the president agreed. He was sent to the president’s top domestic policy adviser to find a job he like outside the White House. This is not a book with laughs, rather a head shaker, but when I read what happened when Alex went to Ehrlichman, I had a “LOL” moment. When introducing Butterfield, Woodward describes him as a man who “who had been one the Air Force’s most accomplished pilots,” an officer “on the path to four stars, and maybe the top uniformed job in the Air Force.” Alex had done a lot of flying, including 98 reconnaissance missions over Vietnam. Ehrlichman suggested to Butterfield he become the head of the Federal Aviation Administration for a year before becoming Secretary of the Air Force, but I lost it when I read what Alex told Woodward, and could hear him saying it: “I felt well suited for that because I had broken so many FAA regulations in my time.” Alex also has endless stories of wild rides while flying jet planes large and small.

New Details About The Watergate Cover-Up

There is never an end to the intrigue and new information that can be obtained about Watergate.

“I am the linchpin of the conspiracy, because [John] Ehrlichman and [John] Mitchell can barely communicate,” Dean said of his role in the scandal at the time. “I’m the glue right between them all that holds it together.”

But in April of 1973, Dean dropped his allegiance to Nixon to cooperate with prosecutors and confessed to his involvement in the cover-up, in exchange for immunity and an agreement that they would not report his testimony back to the Department of Justice.

“I knew from my own dealing from Justice exactly what would happen,” Dean said, explaining the need to stay “off the record” with prosecutors. “It would go to Henry Peterson, the head of the criminal division, he would report to the Attorney General Dick Kleindienst, who would report it back to the White House.”

That same week, Nixon’s former re-election campaign deputy manager Jeb Magruder, who cooperated in planning the break-in, also cut a deal with prosecutors. And by the week’s end, prosecutors broke their deal with Dean and reported back to the Department of Justice to close in on the investigation.

Adding to the drama of the prosecution’s new discoveries was the fact that they came to a head during the same weekend of White House Correspondents Dinner on April 14, 1973.

President Nixon made an appearance at the dinner, unaware that his cover-up was falling apart, while Woodward and Post colleague Carl Bernstein took the stage for an award for their reporting on the scandal.

“Richard Kleindienst, who’s the attorney general, was at the correspondents dinner, and Carl and I went up and … he said, ‘Follow your convictions,’ In other words, he was very encouraging. And then he said, ‘Watergate’s about to explode,’” Woodward remembered Kleindienst telling him.

At the time of the dinner, Kleindienst did not know the details of what prosecutors had learned from Dean and Magruder, which included the implication of his predecessor, former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, in the cover-up.

But later that night, the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division came to his house, staying until the early hours of the morning to fill him in on the details on the unraveling cover-up.

Kleindienst reported back to the president that Sunday morning. And later in the day, Nixon met with Dean one-on-one in the White House Executive Office Building, and according to Dean, essentially confessed to his crimes.

But that piece of history has been lost, Dean said, because the recording of that meeting “disappeared.”

“What we know today … is the tape really didn’t disappear,” said Dean.

Though the official explanation is that the White House taping system failed to record the meeting, Dean said that such a failure is very unlikely, and would have been the only such failing in the history of the Nixon White House recording system. In his book “The Nixon Defense,” Dean points to additional evidence that suggests Nixon had the tape pulled, to prevent it  from becoming part of the official record.

“It might be in the Haldeman attic, for all I know,” Dean said of the tape in question.

In this meeting, he takes me through different things that are very troubling,” Dean recalled. “We had talked on March 21 about the fact, he had asked me how much money could it cost to pay these guys off, to keep them quiet,” Dean said. “He said, ‘Do you remember that conversation?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I do.’ He said, ‘Of course, you knew, when I said we could get it, I was just joking?’ And I said, ‘Well I didn’t read it that way, but if that’s what you say, Mr. President.”

At another point in the meeting, Dean said Nixon got out of his chair and crossed to corner of the office.

“In a stage whisper he says, ‘I was foolish to talk to Chuck Colson about clemency for Hunt, wasn’t I?’ And I said, ‘Yes Mr. President, that was probably an obstruction of justice.’” Dean said. “So he, in essence, is confessing, a combination of the money … and the clemency that he had authorized, clemency for Hunt. This tape was obviously deadly.”

John Dean Speaks On UW-Madison Campus About Watergate, (Signs My Book)

 

(State Representative) Lary (Swoboda): If you could choose to be one or the other would it be Bob Haldeman or John Ehrlichman?

Gregory (Humphrey): Neither. I would be John Dean.

That is how Lary, a chapter from my book Walking Up The Ramp begins.

As John Dean started his presentation today the lady introducing him had a typical sized microphone that she was to hand over for his use.  Dean grinned and said he had one attached to his jacket, and “my voice seems to be able to be picked up by small microphones.”

It seems I have always been fascinated with Richard Nixon and the times in which he lived.  As a young kid I recall the time Nixon made his famous “I am not a crook” statement.  The night he told the nation of his decision to resign to all the years that followed with books, and travels as an elderly statesman left me with even more reason to research and fathom the deeper complexities of a most intriguing public figure.  Nixon was as close to a Shakespearian character in the Oval Office as ever will be found.

So once I found out that John Dean was speaking in Madison it took me only a short time to rearrange my schedule.  Dean was White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973.  At one point the FBI even labeled him as the “master manipulator of the cover-up.”   Somehow that title has always seemed to me to have a Machiavellian charm to it, though I would be the first to say the actions that were undertaken by many in the Nixon Administration ran counter to common sense and decency.

Dean would be found guilty of a single felony of obstructing justice.  But his role in assisting the prosecution, and trying to make things right while serving in his White House job has allowed history to judge him with more charity.

Over the years Dean has reclaimed his name by authoring many books, and speaking out on the issues of the day.  He is often most pointed in his remarks about the wayward nature of Republicans.   On Friday afternoon to a packed hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus Dean made it clear what the ethical lines lawyers need to be mindful of when doing their work.

Recounting Watergate to an audience that was largely older and informed made for some of the events in the mid-1970’s seem almost a comedy routine.  If it all had not been so serious it might have made for a slap-stick movie.

Using a power-point style of presentation Dean showed a picture of the desk in the Watergate complex.  It was when he said this was the sight where the burglars were crouched while wearing suits and plastic gloves that made the audience break into laughter.  The fact they had large amounts of cash on them, and tell-tale signs that led them to people who worked in, or were connected with the White House, made it seem even more illogical.  No matter how many times the story is told it still is absurd.

No one could hold back when Gordon Liddy was referred  to as someone “not up to the Maxwell Smart test.”   Liddy is, in my view, the most twisted mind that was a part of the fiasco.

But it was the fact that at least 21 lawyers were on the wrong side of the law in the Nixon Watergate mess that came to the heart of the message in Dean’s speech.  The reason for the high numbers of otherwise smart men being pulled so far astray, as Dean noted, came down to incompetence, arrogance of the law, and too much loyalty to President Nixon.

At the end of the presentation I walked up to Dean and told him of the back-and-forth that State Representative Lary Swoboda and I use to have about Nixon and his time in politics.  I told Dean briefly how he made a portion of my book, and then opened to the page where he leads off a chapter, and asked for his signature.

It makes for another fond memory.

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