By Sabina Clarke
For John Dean attorney, author and former Chief Counsel to President Richard M. Nixon in 1971 and now CNN legal analyst commenting on the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump in 2019 – it must seem like déjà vu!
I covered Dean when he spoke at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2006 there to promote his book Conservatives Without Conscience in which he addressed the “strong authoritarian influence” that he said was driving contemporary Republican politics.
Dean went from being President Nixon’s confidant to being his accuser and the first official in the Nixon administration to directly link Nixon to the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up and the first one to answer the question, “What did Nixon know and when did he know it.”
Before testifying in 1973 before the Senate’s Sam Ervin Committee investigating the Watergate Break-In, he sought the advice of his close friend and mentor former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. He asked Goldwater if there were any national security issues attached to his testifying.
Goldwater responded, “Absolutely not.” To which Dean responded, “If I testify, I’m telling the truth and I’m going to blow the President out of the water.” Goldwater’s response was “Then blow him out of the water.”
Dean’s career in politics once so promising was now over. After serving four months in a federal witness protection facility he retired to private life and over the years began taking a long hard look at the Republican Party that he had so eagerly embraced. He said he had a conversion, of sorts. He called these moments “epiphanies.”
John Dean is an articulate, engaging and effective speaker with a wry sense of humor. Describing himself as “someone who knows a little about scandal with more expertise than I wish I had frankly” while dismissing any claims of being an alarmist, he said, “Although we are not on the road to fascism in America we are perilously close.” He called the authoritarian influence on the Republican Party “startling”—adding “We don’t want to go where some of these people want to take us.”
Then in 1998 during the Clinton Impeachment Hearings Dean was asked to be an MSNBC anchor buddy. That is when he realized Washington had changed and how radical the Republican Party had become drawing parallels between the Bush and Nixon presidencies commenting “There is nothing pretty about a secret government.”
Referring to political commentator Ann Coultor he said, “She’s not a psychopath but she is an authoritarian. I think she needs to cut down on her testosterone”—to audience laughter.
He mentioned being puzzled as to why former colleagues at the Nixon White House such as Chuck Colson espoused charges put forth in the best-selling book Silent Coup published by St. Martin’s Press that Dean ordered the Watergate Break-In to recover compromising photos of his wife Maureen who it was stated was tied to a call girl ring—calling both charges “preposterous.” He concluded that they were trying to destroy him for telling the truth about the scandals in the Nixon White House.
At 68, Dean shows few signs of aging. His features are still neat and chiseled, his voice strong and steady, his demeanor cool and controlled. The only noticeable difference is his grey hair which almost looks fake—as if in a frantic attempt to make him look older an inept make-up man was called in.
After his talk, I met with him privately.
Q Describe the authoritarian personality.
A Authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, anti-democratic, anti-equality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited and power hungry, Machiavellian and amoral.
Q Who in the Bush administration best exemplifies authoritarianism?
A Cheney is the penultimate authoritarian in this presidency.
Q What is your impression of Condoleezza Rice?
A A solid follower. She doesn’t strike me as a dominator. She’s a schoolmarm. It’s a common trait to offer rationalizations, justifications and explanations for the authority that she believes in
Q Who in Bush’s inner circle does not fit the authoritarian mold?
A Well Bush has a very small inner circle. Probably former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill who was run out of the inner circle and fired by Bush because he wouldn’t march in lock-step. Rumsfeld has his own power center and sees himself as co-equal to the President in many ways.
Q Do you think Bush is dumb?
A I don’t think Bush is stupid at all. I do think he is ignorant. He’d rather be in the gym lifting weights than studying policy documents. Bush is not in Nixon’s league as far as brainpower goes.
Q What do you think of Hillary Clinton?
A I think she is the most exciting potential candidate for ’08. I think she’d be a good President. I am not one that is convinced that she couldn’t win. Another glass ceiling would be broken.
Q Don’t you think she has lost credibility moving to the center?
A How else can you get elected? You can’t run on the fringes in this country and get elected to office.
Q With all the abuses of the Bush presidency why hasn’t he been impeached?
A If Republicans lose control of the Congress it will open the door. But I am not saying that he’s going to be impeached. Impeachment is a purely political process. I hope the Democrats if they get control of the Congress won’t be as inept as the Republicans were in trying to impeach Bill Clinton—that was pure politics and an effort to discredit him. Hillary was not far-off when she said there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to destroy her husband.
Q Everyone wants to know what ‘Mo” (Maureen Dean) is doing? Does she still wear her blond hair pulled back in a chignon?
A Her hair is still blond. Like many women she changes her style often; she is wearing it very short now. She is still a beautiful lady—the camera can’t find a bad angle on her. She’s an information junkie and suitably glib and bright. She doesn’t want me talking about what she is doing right now because a long time ago she decided she wanted to keep her life private.
Q Who is the most fascinating political character you’ve ever met?
A Nixon—hands down. He was a very complex character
Q Was it hard to testify against them?
A I told them well before I testified that I wasn’t going to lie to anybody. Prior to that I tried to warn everybody that this thing was going to fall apart but they didn’t want to hear it.
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By Sabina Clarke