Those of us who can remember the Watergate scandal recall it as the seminal political event of the 1970s.
President Nixon’s forced resignation in 1974 transformed politics, diminished trust in government and prompted campaign finance reforms. It shepherded in the glory days of investigative journalism, led to creation of an independent counsel law — ensuring impartial investigations of senior government officials — and even influenced the way lawyers are trained in ethics today.
Yet some writers, me included, have afforded Nixon a nod of nostalgic revisionism. Yes, he certainly led from the right, but he would not recognize today’s radical right, the kind of Republicans who threaten our economy with the government shutdown in Washington, D.C.
After all, Nixon as president famously opened relations with China and created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Today’s GOP regards both as cauldrons of socialism and, given its simple-minded isolationism, would likely blast Nixon for consorting with Communists.
John W. Dean, however, does not agree.
Far from being put off by today’s radical right, Dean argues, Nixon would have embraced, even exploited, the tea party movement.
Dean, now 74, was a Nixon intimate as White House counsel, and says he feels more familiar with Nixon now after listening to hundreds of Nixon recordings in researching a book due out next year. He was also, of course, the key witness against Nixon in the Senate Watergate hearings.
“Until I got into these tapes, I assumed that he was far more moderate,” Dean tells me in a telephone interview from his office in Beverly Hills, Calif. “The more I’ve gotten to know him, I think that he was such a political opportunist, he’s like a Ted Cruz today,” referring to the extremist GOP senator from Texas.
“He would be out jumping in front of it to try to ride that curve,” Dean adds.
Recognizing the political opportunities, I ask?
“Yes, exactly,” Dean says. “He would be a political opportunist, and he did that in his own era with anti-Communism, which was the issue of that time. He rode that to office and to the vice presidency at a very young age.”
Indeed, Nixon first gained national prominence as a young congressman from California in 1948 with his investigation of Alger Hiss, a state department official alleged to be a Soviet spy, when Nixon was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury but maintained his innocence until he died. For Nixon, the publicity proved to be a political catapult.
I interviewed Dean in advance of his visit to Madison, where he will speak Friday at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s part of a law school-sponsored lecture series named for Robert Kastenmeier, the longtime Madison-area Democratic congressman and UW Law School graduate who was defeated in 1990 and still lives in Washington. Dean’s talk, free and open to the public, is titled “Crossing the Line: Watergate, the Criminal Law and Ethics,” and will focus on his experience and reading of history to examine issues around the professional ethics of lawyers.
In 1966 and 1967, Dean was chief minority counsel for GOP members on the House Judiciary Committee and recalls admiring Kastenmeier, a Democratic member. Dean is also connected to Madison through Frank Tuerkheimer, a UW law professor who was a prosecutor during Watergate but who now considers Dean a colleague and friend. Another Madison link is Stanley Kutler, the emeritus UW history professor credited with forcing release of the Nixon tapes after the former president’s 1994 death.
Dean, of course, played a central role in revealing the White House cover-up after the 1972 break-in at Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex. While Dean was uninvolved in the burglary, he was part of the cover-up, including famously telling Nixon that Watergate was a “cancer on the presidency.”
Today, Dean is an author, columnist and commentator. His next book — no title has been announced — will be his 12th. For many years, Dean has been sharply critical of a Republican Party he says is increasingly led by authoritarian personalities who seek to dominate others, oppose equality and desire personal power. Dean says they “demand unwavering obedience by supporters while promoting inequality, intolerance and an intrusive government even as they espouse freedom.”
If you think this an apt description of Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans who control Wisconsin government, Dean would agree. I wrote a column quoting Dean last year in which Dean called Walker more “Nixonian than Nixon” and a classic abuser of power.
With that backdrop, here is an edited transcript of our conversation in advance of Dean’s Madison visit:
Your Madison lecture appears aimed at lawyers and lawyers-to-be about the perils of crossing lines to unethical or illegal activity.
That’s basically what it is. I have found myself back deep into Watergate. My publisher, a couple of years ago, convinced me to return to the subject in the anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the break-in, but it’s a rolling anniversary as you know (starting with the break-in in June 1972 and culminating in Nixon’s resignation in August 1974). So I started a project to try to answer a couple of questions that were always a mystery to me, and I bit off far more than I wish I would have. I assumed (I had enough) between Stanley Kutler, and his fine work on getting the tapes released — he’s got about 320 Watergate-related conversations in his book — and the prosecutor’s office, which I discovered had transcripts of about 80 conversations. That’s 400.
I figured in there I would find the answers, but I discovered that just about half of the Watergate conversations and the answers I was looking for weren’t there. I had to go back and I literally re-transcribed all of Kutler’s tapes and all of the prosecutor’s, and did a total of 997 conversations.
So this research will be reflected in your next book. What are you finding?
As a result of getting down deep into the weeds of Watergate like I never have before, I know stuff I never knew when I lived through it, and a couple of things popped out.
One was that the only lasting impact of Watergate appears to be on the legal profession. For example, post-Watergate, you had the Senate Watergate Committee’s top recommendation of creating the independent counsel law, which we’ve had, and it sufficiently gored both Republicans and Democrats, (so) they decided to let this sunset provision come into play and now it’s gone.
In (Watergate’s) aftermath, investigative journalism became almost a norm. And then, due to growth of the Internet, corporate ownership of major media and the changing economics of journalism, it’s the exception now rather than the rule it was in the post-Watergate years.
Campaign finance laws were dramatically changed as a result of Watergate. As a result of Supreme Court rulings, and Buckley v. Valeo and then on down to Citizens United, those laws have been dramatically changed. (Buckley was a 1976 Supreme Court decision striking down some campaign finance restrictions; Citizens United was the 2010 decision prohibiting restrictions on independent campaign expenditures by corporations and other entities.)
But the one post-Watergate change that has remained a constant is the insistence in the professional bar on legal ethics, which really did not exist back in the 1960s. That’s all changed, and I just discovered that it changed because of my testimony before the Senate.
So drawing on my revived knowledge of Watergate, I decided with a friend to teach a continuing legal education course where the rules of professional conduct, which came out of Watergate, (were applied) to facts and the history and see what happens. So we taught this course a couple of times, and it caught on. We’ve done 90 of the things now. Today law schools have extensive courses in ethics. Every law graduate, before he can get his law license, first she or he must pass a multi-state ethics examination, and in most states there’s a continuing legal education requirement. So the bar is the one entity where Watergate really still resides in its impact.
Jumping subjects, do you know Robert Kastenmeier, for whom this lecture series is named?
I sure did. I became the chief minority counsel of the House Judiciary Committee (when Kastenmeier was a member). He’s the kind of legislator that we don’t have any more. He is a wonderful model for what a member of Congress should be like, and I certainly miss his kind in Washington who could keep the federal government open. They named a courthouse after him (the federal court in downtown Madison), and appropriately so.
You’ve commented extensively about authoritarian personalities dominating politics. Given the government shutdown this week, could you have imagined this political culture decades ago?
I really couldn’t, and that’s why I wrote that book, “Conservatives Without Conscience” (2006). I wanted to understand the mentality I saw surfacing. Yeah, I had some colleagues who were authoritarian personalities, and I was trying to understand them, although they’re not the focus of the book. It became such a dominant strain in Republican politics, I was just trying to understand why these people are the way they are.
You wrote that book a few years ago and focused on politicians such as then-Vice President Cheney. But now the GOP looks ever more radical.
That’s true. If you recall I spent extensive time talking to a fellow named Robert Altemeyer (a prominent social psychologist). His analysis and look at the whole area of authoritarianism suggests that at any given time about 30 percent of the population has this kind of personality trait.
What happened is that they have become the dominant force in Republican politics because they’re the activists, and they draw all of the attention, they draw the media. I have a lot of Republican friends who have left the Republican Party, like I did, because they don’t like the tail wagging the dog, and they just don’t think this stuff represents their thinking.
I don’t know how widespread that will become, but it doesn’t appear that you can get more than a population of 30 percent of these people. I’m very interested to talk to political scientists. If they did any analysis on how that spreads out. In other words, do we need to worry about, say, if the authoritarian people will ever get up to the 51 percent number because that would make a very different United States.
You’ve done so much scholarship and have your first-hand experience. What do you think the future holds?
It seems to me that what tends to send the pendulum in the other direction is when the disgust level gets to a certain degree. When you’ve got Congress with a 10-percent approval rating, at some point people are going to say, “Hey, we’ve got to do something.” While they might like their member they’ll realize that they all need to be sent home and start over, and slowly that will happen.
Last year I wrote about your assessment of Scott Walker, our governor, as a classic authoritarian personality. Are you still watching Wisconsin?
I do watch him. He is so strikingly Nixonian that I cannot (turn away) out of fascination. It’s kind of like the moth to the candle, I keep an eye on him. And I am likely to see pigs flying before he’s president.
Because of how Walker’s personality would play out with a national electorate?
Exactly. The country is not ready for him unless he skews far to the middle from where he is. You know Republicans have a very difficult time now. We saw in the last presidential primary how difficult it was for anybody to take any kind of moderate, nationally appealing position and get the nomination.
(Mitt) Romney really had to skew pretty hard right from being the governor of Massachusetts to getting that nomination, and you know I just don’t think that anybody who’s going to play out there on that fringe to get the nomination is going to get elected for several cycles.
What struck us in Wisconsin, as much as anything, is how Walker, unlike governors I’ve known for three decades, made it clear from the start that he wasn’t interested in representing all of us, only those who elected him. Are you surprised?
Yeah. I am, frankly. Maybe I shouldn’t be. (Wisconsin is) a state that could send Joe McCarthy to Washington, so maybe there are still people that kind of politics appeals to. But I am surprised at Wisconsin putting Walker forward.
Yet last year Wisconsin backed President Obama and we elected a Madison liberal in Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate. It’s remarkable.
It is. You know, I can’t make sense out of some of that.