Ex-Nixon aide offers authoritative account of Watergate scandal

“The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It”

by John W. Dean. Viking, 2014. $35

Forty years ago, Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States, brought down by his complicity in the Watergate scandal.

John W. Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, reconstructs in this book what transpired in the 26 months between the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Complex on June 17, 1972, which White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler dismissed as “a third-rate burglary,” to Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, after which newly sworn President Gerald R. Ford proclaimed, “our long national nightmare is over.”

“The Nixon Defense” now stands as the authoritative account of the Watergate scandal.

For it, Dean transcribed the 1,116 discussions and telephone calls involving Watergate recorded by the White House and Executive Office Building taping system; 634 have never previously been released. They reveal President Nixon and the “President’s Men,” especially White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John D. Ehrlichman, and Special Counsel to the President Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, conspiring, obstructing justice, arranging bribes and suborning perjury.

Nixon was unaware of the plan to bug the DNC Watergate office, but only six days later, on June 23, 1972, he personally authorized a cover-up by having the CIA inform the FBI that the break-in involved “national security.”

He did so because any investigation of the Watergate burglary would reveal previous illegal acts approved by members of his staff, especially the effort to defame Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the “Pentagon Papers,” by obtaining medical records from the office of his psychiatrist.

During the next nine months, Nixon and his chief advisers found themselves forced to engage in ever more illegal acts to cover up the initial cover-up.

Nixon charged Dean to keep track of who had done what and when. Eventually, when pressure from judicial and journalistic investigations threatened devastating revelations, Dean confronted Nixon on March 21, 1973, with this warning: “We have a cancer, within, close to the presidency that’s growing. ... it grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself.”

Imagining whether Nixon might have survived the Watergate scandal if he had immediately ended the cover-up, dismissed his guilty advisers, and admitted limited involvement is playing history in the subjunctive. He did not do so.

Instead, he fired Dean and sought to blame everything on him. When Dean agreed to testify about the cover-up before the Senate Watergate committee, Nixon gambled that Congress and the nation would believe the president and not the president’s counsel.

Revelation of the taping system and the tapes themselves made that bet the worst in American political history.

Both Nixon and Dean had nearly simultaneous moments of epiphany about their roles. On April 30, 1973, Nixon mused to his speech writer, Ray Price, “These are all my people. If they did things, they did them because they felt that’s what we wanted. And so I’m responsible.”

On the following day, May 1, meeting with his own attorney, Dean realized, “I have been working in something of a criminal cabal, with well-meaning and intelligent people who had placed expediency and accomplishing the president’s goals above the legal rules we all might otherwise agree are essential for our way of life.”

The words of both reveal Watergate to have been a self-inflicted tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).