An Interview with John Dean


Richard Moore

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An Interview with John Dean
By Matthew Rothschild
May 20, 2006

Here is a transcript of an interview with John Dean of Watergate fame.

Dean was Nixon¹s White House counsel for three years and then testified again 
him. He is the author, most recently, of ³Worse than Watergate: The Secret 
Presidency of George W. Bush.² On March 31, Dean testified in favor of Senator 
Russ Feingold¹s censure bill. The interview was conducted on April 28 by Matthew
Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine. You can listen to the 
interview at

Q: Tell me what you¹re lasting impressions are of Richard Nixon.

Dean: In a way, he¹s a comic figure. In other ways, he¹s a tragic figure. I have
a memory of a very complex man locked in my synapses.

Q: How long did you work for him?

Dean: A thousand days. When you listen to him on the tapes, he would be one 
person with his chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, he¹d be somebody else with Henry 
Kissinger, he¹d be somebody else with me. He had these different personae. I 
don¹t think he ever had great administrative skills for the Presidency. He was 
slow to interact with his staff. He was very stiff. It was kind of like walking 
onto a set of an Oval Office when I used to first go into see him. But later on 
I¹d walk in and he¹d have his feet on the desk and he¹d be talking to me around 
his shoes.

He was uneasy. In fact, one of the interesting things about Nixon is that we had
to prepare something called talking papers for him. Anytime we brought someone 
in the office to meet the President, because he had a zero gift of gab, you 
literally had to have a few sentences, buzzwords, thoughts, so he could start a 
conversation with this person. Alex Butterfield, who ushered more people into 
the office than anybody else, told me that occasionally if Nixon didn¹t have 
this he was literally speechless.

Q: And Butterfield was the guy who surfaced the tapes.

Dean: He¹s the one who, indeed, corroborated the fact that there were tapes. I 
had speculated in my testimony that I thought I was taped. It was the only 
speculation I put in that testimony back in 1973, and thank god I did. Because 
when they were trying to discredit my testimony, they had a system where they 
fanned out and interviewed all sorts of people, and so they called Butterfield 
in, and said, ³Dean made this amazing statement that he thought he was recorded.
Now isn¹t that impossible?² And Butterfield said, ³No, I think he¹s right.² What
made me aware of the fact that I was being taped was Nixon¹s behavior late in 
the game when he literally goes to the corner of his hideaway office and starts 
whispering around the potted palm, ³I was foolish to do this² or, ³I made a 
mistake when I did that.²

Q: Did you ever speak with Nixon after he resigned?

Dean: Never did. I think it would have been very difficult for him. I¹m not the 
only one who never spoke to him. John Erlichman, his chief domestic adviser, 
never talked to him. Bob Haldeman and he had sort of parted ways. They did patch
up before they both passed away.

Nixon actually was very flattering in one sense in his memoirs about me. When he
started dealing with me, he¹d written in his diary that I¹ve got this bright 
young guy. But then he said I was obviously a traitor for breaking rank.

Q: How have you dealt with that accusation?

Dean: It doesn¹t bother me at all because everybody for whom I had any respect I
told what I was going to do before I did it. I said, ³Listen, I¹m not going to 
lie for anybody. So plan your life around that.² I said I was going to go to the
prosecutors after I had told the President he was in deep trouble with the 
so-called cancer on the Presidency conversation. After that, people knew where I
stood, and I actually had the support of some of my colleagues who said, ³Do 

What my plan was, I thought my colleagues would do the right thing, that they 
would stand up and tell the truth and that would end it, and that Nixon might 
save himself by coming forward and saying, ³Yeah, I made some bad mistakes. 
Here¹s what I did.² But instead he just escalated the cover-up to the point 
where he had no choice but to resign or be impeached.

Q: Some people think he could have saved his Presidency by apologizing even at 
the eleventh hour?

Dean: Americans like to give their President the benefit of the doubt. If you 
look at the poll numbers, people knew Nixon was deeply involved in Watergate and
stayed with him for a long time. It¹s a natural tendency.

Q: I¹m very interested in the comparisons you make between Nixon and Bush.

Dean: Both mean learned about the Presidency from men they greatly respected: 
Richard Nixon from Dwight Eisenhower, George Bush from his father. When both men
became President, you got the very distinct impression that they don¹t feel that
they quite fit in the shoes of the person from whom they learned about the 
Presidency. Nixon would constantly be going down to Key Biscayne, San Clemente, 
or Camp David‹he just didn¹t like being in the Oval Office. I saw this same 
thing with George Bush, who is constantly away. The other striking similarity is
that both men talk in the third person about the office of the President. It¹s 
like the royal we. You look at other Presidents, like Reagan and Clinton, who 
clearly filled that office. You almost had to pry Clinton out at the end of his 
term. And Reagan, despite whatever weaknesses he had intellectually, filled the 
role of President and played it to the hilt. So Bush has a Nixonian distance 
from the White House.

And I was stunned at the secrecy of this Administration. I knew that there¹s no 
good that can come out of secrecy. So I began looking closely at Bush and 
finding the striking Nixonian features of this Presidency: It¹s almost as if 
we¹d left an old playbook in the basement, they found it, dusted it off, and 
said, ³This stuff looks pretty good, we ought to give it a try.² As I dug in, 
and still had some pretty good sources within that Presidency, I found the 
principal mover and shaker of this Presidency is clearly Dick Cheney, who is not
only reviving the Imperial Presidency but expanding it beyond Nixon¹s wildest 

The reason I wrote a book with the title ³Worse than Watergate,² and I was very 
cautious in using that title, is because there was a real difference: Nobody 
died as a result of the so-called abuses of power during Nixon¹s Presidency. You
might make the exception of, say, the secret bombing of Cambodia, but that never
got into the Watergate litany per se. You look at Bush¹s abuses, and Cheney¹s‹to
me, it¹s a Bush/ Cheney Presidency‹and today, people are dying as a result of 
abuse of power. That¹s much more serious.

Q: Dying in Iraq?

Dean: Dying in Iraq. God knows where they¹re dying. In secret prisons. To me the
fact that a Vice President can go to Capitol Hill and lobby for torture is just 
unbelievable. Just unbelievable! The fact that a small clique of attorneys in 
the Department of Justice can write how can we get around the Geneva Conventions
so that we can torture during interrogations‹I can¹t even get their mentally. 
And when you read their briefs, they didn¹t get there mentally.

Q: The amazing thing about your book is that it was written before Cheney went 
up to lobby for torture, before the NSA scandal broke, and before the Valerie 
Plame thing.

Dean: They just keep walking into my title and adding additional chapters.

Q: Talk a little bit more about Dick Cheney. You call him ³co-President² in your

Dean: I do. It was evident, even at the beginning, when Cheney was very 
confident they were going to win at the Supreme Court. I¹ve got some friends who
were in there and they were telling me what was happening, and they said Bush 
doesn¹t have a clue what¹s going on. Cheney¹s setting things up the way he 
wants. He¹s designing a National Security Council that¹s more powerful than the 
statutory National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice. And it was, and it 
is. She was the perfect foil for him because he can roll over her anytime he 
wants, and he does. Putting her over at State is even better: Keep her out on 
the road. The Cheney-Rumsfeld connection has really been driving the foreign 
policy since day one.

Q: Why do you think Bush divested so much of his power to Cheney?

Dean: Bush had expertise in one thing: How to run a Presidential campaign. He 
understands campaigns and Presidential politics. He has no interest or 
disposition or I think probably‹he¹s not stupid, but he¹s not bright, he¹s not a
rocket scientist‹he isn¹t interested in policy.

Cheney is the opposite. He loves this stuff. He¹s a wonk. He gets into it, and 
he¹s had very strong feelings about issues that he¹s held for a long time.

He has been determined to expand Presidential power. I can¹t find in history any
other Presidency that has made it a matter of policy to expand Presidential 

Q: Tell me about the Feingold hearing on censure.

Dean: I¹ve been invited several times over the last decade or more to testify 
before Congress, and I¹ve always found a polite way not to do it.

Q: Why is that?

Dean: I knew it would make a certain sensation, my first return since the 
Watergate hearings. I thought it should be an issue that¹s important. It should 
be an issue I felt strongly about. So when Senator Feingold invited me to appear
on his censure resolution, I thought, this is a very good issue. I appeared not 
as a partisan. My partisan days are really long behind me.

Q: How do you identify yourself politically?

Dean: I¹m registered as an independent. And I vote for as many Democrats as I do
Republicans. I¹m really a centrist in many ways. I don¹t fly on either wing. I 
explained to the Senate committee that there was a lot of baggage connected with
censure. But I said how important it was that the Senate do something since 
Feingold¹s bill was addressing a blatant violation of law, the violation of the 
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, he 
went to Congress to seek permission after the fact. We have a President who 
says, ³Screw that, I¹m just going to do it.² It¹s an in-your-face attitude. And 
he¹s rolling over the prerogatives of Congress.

Q: You made a comment that should be famous: When Bush said he was bypassing the
FISA requirements, you remarked that it was ³the first time a President has 
actually confessed to an impeachable offense.²

Dean:That¹s exactly what he did. One of the provisions in Nixon¹s bill of 
impeachment was his warrantless surveillance of media people, which is now 
covered directly by the FISA law. Warrantless wiretapping is an impeachable 
offense. It couldn¹t be any clearer.

Q: In your book, you also talk about the possibility‹I would say the 
likelihood‹that Bush lied this country into war. Can Bush be impeached for that,

Dean: When I deconstructed his State of the Union just before the Iraq War and 
looked at the available information even then, it was clear that the 
representations he was making as fact were not fact. Is that lying? It certainly
is a form of distortion. This is the highest point in a Presidency in his 
relationship to Congress when he reports for the State of the Union. It is a 
crime to lie to Congress. The founders thought that misrepresentation to 
Congress was to be an impeachable offense. And the way Bush did it in the follow
up procedures he actually belittled Congress in sending them bogus material. It 
was really quite stunning when one peels it all apart. And I said, ³Is there any
question in my mind that this is an impeachable offense?² No.

Q: How do you respond to people who say impeachment is never going to happen?

Dean: There¹s a political reality about impeachment. It¹s purely a political 
process. The interpretation of ³high crimes and misdemeanors² can reach a long 
way, all the way to sex in the Oval Office, which was an absurd use of the 
impeachment clause. Impeachment is the big cannon. As long as the same party 
that controls Congress controls the White House it just isn¹t going to happen. 
I¹m not sure that even if a President murdered his wife, they would impeach him.
But those who are focusing on this issue are raising important questions. And 
one of the reasons I thought a censure resolution was appropriate was because if
somebody had censured Nixon or even if a resolution of either house had passed, 
saying what you¹re doing is unacceptable to Congress, that shot across the bow 
might have straightened him up. I wish Feingold¹s resolution could get more 
traction. It might provide us all some safety because there¹s two more years 
left of this Presidency. And I must say there¹s a good possibility in November 
that the House or Senate or both is going to go Democratic, and it¹s going to be
hell for this Presidency for the last two years, and they¹ve earned it. And 
that¹s when impeachment could become a true reality. I¹d settle for oversight, 
but impeachment¹s not out of the question.

Q: I¹d think, if things get hotter, and the Democrats get control of the House, 
that censure might be attractive to Bush, if he¹s got any sense, so he could put
a lid on this cauldron.

Dean: It¹s not a bad idea because they have supplied a steady diet of material. 
It¹s going to be two years of executive privilege fights. The subpoena will 
change the complexion of the oversight.

Q: In your testimony at the Feingold censure hearing, you said that this is the 
first time you¹ve actually feared our government. Why is that?

Dean: Now I don¹t frighten easily, but I find it frightening because Dick Cheney
knows no limits. The only person he reports to is George Bush. He works behind 
closed doors. And I know, from little tidbits I¹m picking up from friends who 
have to be careful not to speak out of school, that there¹s more probably more 
covert activity going on, both abroad and maybe here in the United States, than 
in decades because of this so-called war on terror.

Q: Do you fear for our democratic system?

Dean: I fear for the system. And I fear for our liberties. Only a small group of
people fights for our liberties. Once we start on the slippery slope and those 
people are put in jeopardy, then we¹re really in trouble.

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