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How We Got Here: John Dean Tells All

Part one here.

June 16th, 1973: nearly a month into the Senate Watergate hearings and America is hooked. Initially, network executives expressed serious reservations. One CBS producer worried about hearing from “200,000 nice little old ladies whose favorite soap opera had been preempted by something called Watergate.” Another network executive estimated that stations lost $400,000 in ad revenue for each preempted show. The best case they could initially make, per The Louisville Courier-Journal, was that the hearings served a public service, highlighting “the point at which obedience to orders becomes a denial of higher and universal laws of civilized behavior.”

Despite an initial barrage of complaints, the hearings generated their own momentum with each passing day. Millions of Americans watched the Ervin Committee, whether live on the networks or in prime time re-runs, some even skipping work or school to watch from home. Previously obscure Senators became celebrities: Sam Ervin and Howard Baker received thousands of calls and letters, while Daniel Inouye was swarmed by autograph-seeking school children on the Capitol steps. Sam Dash’s legal staff even fielded phone calls from viewers offering questions for future witnesses. Watergate became civics lesson, soap opera and crime serial rolled into one; and unlike viewers’ usual favorites, it was real.

Watergate TV

Viewers settling into PBS’s coverage after a long, anxious workday first heard pounding percussion-and-brass music along with an animation of Senate papers spinning towards the screen. The booming voice of Paul Frees recited the Senate resolution establishing the Ervin Committee “to conduct an investigation and study of the extent, if any, to which illegal, improper or unethical activities were engaged in by any persons, acting individually or in combination with others, in the presidential election of 1972, or any campaign, canvass or other activity related to it.” Cut to a shot of the Capitol building as Frees announced the “gavel-to-gavel coverage” of the hearings before introducing anchor Robert MacNeil.

“Good evening,” begins MacNeil, in gray suit, striped tie and shaggy blond hair. “This may be one of the most extraordinary days in many years of Congressional investigations…The number two man in the Nixon reelection campaign, Jeb Stuart Magruder, makes an apparently complete confession that he took part in planning the Watergate burglary, and then systematically lied about it for fear the truth would effect Mr. Nixon’s reelection chances. He also firmly implicates a host of other campaign or White House officials in the Watergate operation or the cover-up, including former Attorney General John Mitchell.

Robert MacNeil

“For months we have been reading bits of evidence, charges, allegations, rumors. Tonight, one of those central to the whole Watergate scandal lays it out in a way so damning and so complete that it will take extraordinary agility by many people to wriggle out of accusations.”

After this portentous introduction, co-anchor Jim Lehrer briefly discusses Magruder’s legal ramifications with John R. Kramer, a Georgetown law professor. “In this case, somebody has to break and somebody has to tell the truth and implicate many other people,” Kramer says about Magruder’s plea deal and immunity status. Average viewers may have found this interesting or dull, but previous hearings showed that even the boring parts were worth slogging through for the bombshells contained therein.

They didn’t have to wait long, as Magruder – forty years old but looking much younger, soft-spoken and earnest with neatly-parted brown hair – spelled out an incredible scenario of CRP headquarters. Much of it centered on G. Gordon Liddy, the swaggering, Nazi-obsessed ex-FBI agent whose ironclad allegiance to Richard Nixon countenanced all amorality, and prevented him from testifying. No matter, as Magruder proved willing to spill the ridiculous details. He recalled, for instance, a presentation by Liddy in January 1972 to Magruder, John Mitchell and John Dean, where Liddy laid out an ambitious project called Gemstone.

Jeb Stuart Magruder

“The projects includ[ed] wiretapping, electronic surveillance and photography,” Magruder recited. “There were projects relating to the abduction of individuals, particularly radical groups that we were concerned about on the convention at San Diego [the 1972 RNC was ultimately held in Miami].  Mr. Liddy had a plan where the leaders would be abducted and detained in a place like Mexico and then that they would be returned to this country at the end of the convention.”

Liddy’s creativity didn’t end there, however. “He had another plan which would have used women as agents to work with members of the Democratic National Committee at their convention and here in Washington, and hopefully, through their efforts, they would obtain information from them.” After prodding from Sam Dash (and laughter from the audience), Magruder sheepishly speculated that “I think you could have considered them call girls.”

Eventually Mitchell told Liddy that the plan was unacceptable, but only on the grounds of its $1,000,000 budget. Liddy reduced it to $250,000, including break-ins of politicians and hostile newspapers, wiretaps, planted operatives and other skullduggery that, if not as dramatic, certainly indicated no greater respect for the law. Magruder recalled another meeting with Liddy, where “I simply put my hand on his shoulder, and he asked me to remove it and indicated that if I did not, serious consequences would occur.”

Gordon Liddy
G. Gordon Liddy

“Was he more specific than serious consequences?” Dash asked.

“Well, he indicated that he would kill me,” Magruder responded. Laughter again erupted, forcing Ervin to gavel the audience into silence.

As MacNeil had promised, Magruder’s testimony demonstrated John Mitchell and John Dean’s culpability, with the indication that H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, his aide Gordon Strachan and other White House staffers were at the very least aware of the break-in. Despite Magruder’s own alleged objections, he did nothing to stop the plans besides attempting to dismiss Liddy from CRP.

This moral lassitude drove Howard Baker to distraction. “I still can’t quite come to grips with why you all had an expressed reservation with this and you still went ahead with it,” the Tennessean huffed. “Was the incentive so great or the prospects for success so tantalizing that you felt it irresistible?”

Baker Cavett
Howard Baker, celebrity; with Dick Cavett (right)

Magruder explained his conduct by citing his former friend and teacher, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, arrested for antiwar protests in Washington. “I saw people I was very close to breaking the law without any regard for any other person’s pattern of behavior or belief,” Magruder said. “I believed as firmly as they did that the President was correct in this issue. So, consequently…we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was…a legitimate cause.”

Yet Magruder also admitted “two wrongs do not make a right” and remarked ruefully that Reverend Coffin “was quoted the other day as saying…I guess Mr. Magruder failed my course in ethics. And I think he was correct.” His candor and contrition were a nice contrast to his predecessor, the prickly Maurice Stans, and more importantly he provided firmer evidence than any previous witness.

Damning though they were, Magruder’s revelations were a mere overture to the most dramatic witness. For on Monday, June 25th, after a week’s postponement due to a diplomatic visit by Leonid Brezhnev, White House counsel John W. Dean III would take the stand.

Dean Time

The thirty-five year old Dean had experienced a precipitous rise. He wrote position papers for Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, then joined John Mitchell’s Justice Department as a Deputy Associate Attorney General. Just a year later, at the suggestion of Egil “Bud” Krogh, Dean ascended to White House counsel. His boyish looks and arrogant attitude were the envy of some and annoyance of others; Nixon and his staff joked about Dean’s womanizing and willingness to do any dirty work.

“Within a month of coming to the White House,” Dean wrote, “I had crossed an ethical line.” Working with hardliner Tom Charles Huston and pipe-smoking dirty trickster Chuck Colson, he found himself coordinating attacks on Nixon’s enemies, from antiwar demonstrators to Democratic leaders to hostile media outlets. Most notoriously, he and Colson conjured the so-called “Enemies List” in September 1971, a catalog of opponents ranging from liberal Congressmen to reporters to entertainers like Paul Newman, Carol Channing and Andy Warhol, for surveillance and harassment.

While Dean objected to some of these plans – he objected to the Huston Plan of coordinating intelligence agencies through the White House, or firebombing the Brookings Institute to recover sensitive Vietnam documents – he mostly showed enthusiasm for the work. In a letter to H.R. Haldeman’s aide Larry Higby, Dean wrote: “This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies?”

Chuck Colson

Dean coordinated the Watergate cover-up, attempting to shield White House officials from responsibility, disbursing hush money to the burglars and coaching Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray’s testimony during his abortive confirmation hearings. Nonetheless, Dean grew disenchanted with Nixon’s willingness to cross all ethical lines. In March 1973, having told Nixon that “there is a cancer growing on the presidency” Dean added that they would need a million dollars to pay off Howard Hunt from testifying. In response, Nixon muttered “I know where [the money] could be gotten.”

Dean sensed that, as the Watergate net closed in, Nixon was setting him up as a fall-guy. So he contacted Sam Dash through his attorneys, hoping for immunity or a plea deal in exchange for cooperation. Distrusting Republican committee members, Dash received permission from Ervin to meet Dean privately at each other’s homes. Dash later recalled “driving back from Alexandria at two o’clock in the morning almost weeping because I realized that we would be exposing the President of the United States as a criminal.”

Dash’s concerns proved well-founded: committee members were incredulous, even hostile towards Dean’s explosive revelations. “I doubt if any one of us believed him at the outset,” recalled Daniel Inouye. Howard Baker attacked Dean as “the most culpable and dangerous person in the Watergate affair” (echoing Nixon aide Larry Higby’s comments that Dean was “trying to save his ass and screw everyone else”). Ultimately, however, Sam Ervin sided with Dash. “My daddy used to say that if you hire a lawyer, you should either take his advice or fire him,” he commented in his trademark Tarheel patois. “Since we’re not planning to fire Sam Dash, I suggest we take his advice.”

Dean hearing

Pundits echoed the panel’s skepticism, tripping over themselves for the most colorful way to insult a stool pigeon. Joseph Alsop referred to Dean as a “bottom-dwelling slug” who “is reportedly obsessed by fear of going to jail because of his consciousness of his own good looks.” Novelist George V. Higgins, covering the hearings for The Atlantic, dismissed Dean’s “tardy virtue,” saying that he “had that self-preserving instinct that says when it’s him or me, it’s him.” And Alice Roosevelt Longworth, always ready with an acid quip, labeled Dean “the tortoiseshell traitor.”

Nonetheless, when Dean appeared before the Committee (accompanied by two bodyguards, two attorneys and his platinum blonde wife Maureen, who peered mysteriously over his shoulder like a movie star, or a gangster’s moll), all the invective in the world didn’t matter. The American public would judge the “tortoiseshell traitor” for themselves. Armed with a 245 page typewritten statement, Dean laid bare an elaborate, fantastic conspiracy that Americans could scarcely believe – but watched, rapt and attentive, over the course of several harrowing days.

Despite his flat, unaffected monotone, Dean presented a chilling story. He told of the White House’s atmosphere of criminality and suspicion: wiretapping and surveillance of bureaucratic enemies, the Huston Plan and Brookings Institute schemes, attacks on antiwar groups, the “Enemies List.” He confirmed Magruder’s story about Liddy’s outlandish GEMSTONE presentation and shared a disturbing anecdote about Nixon asking the Secret Service to attack a single protester in Lafayette Park. Dean made no claims that Nixon personally ordered the break-in; his portrait instead showed an Administration where petty paranoia nourished a reckless disregard for law, ethics or morality.

Dean Mo
John and Maureen Dean

One pillar of Nixon’s defense was that he hadn’t known about the cover-up prior to March 1973, with Dean managing it behind his back. Dean refuted this by recounting a testy meeting in September 1972 between himself, Nixon and Bob Haldeman where they discussed the recent indictments of several burglars and Wright Patman’s efforts to convene a House investigation. “I left the meeting with the impression that the President was well aware of what had been going on…and I had also expressed to him my concern that I was not confident that the cover-up could be maintained indefinitely.”

Dean’s exhaustive descriptions – the “cancer on the Presidency” discussion in March, Nixon’s “We could get that” comments on payoffs, discussions about the committee’s own Senators, an April discussion where Nixon’s near-inaudible voice suggested that he was recording their conversations – won over many skeptics. Frank Reynolds of ABC praised him for “retain[ing] his composure and…was not caught in any contradictions” throughout his testimony. Another reporter called Dean “the human tape recorder” for his evidently-flawless memory. Now came time to put him to the test.

On June 27th, the interrogation began. First came Sam Dash, who clarified Dean’s earlier answers and chastised him for not coming forward sooner. Then Dean dodged several fumbling attempts by Fred Thompson to catch him in contradictions and impugn his honesty. From there, the testimony grew livelier.

Talmadge Montoya
Herman Talmadge (left) and Joseph Montoya

Herman Talmadge followed with the question on everyone’s minds: “What makes you think that your credibility is greater than that of the President?” Dean offered a lawyerly response: “I am telling you what I know, I am telling you just as I know it.” Talmadge also asked Dean why he had asterisked the names of John Mitchell, Fred LaRue and other CRP officials. In a rare flash of humor, Dean answered “that was just a reaction of myself…how in God’s name could so many lawyers get involved in something like this?”

Then, after a recess, Lowell Weicker asked the witness to elaborate on the “Enemies List” and the Huston Plan. Then softballs from Joseph Montoya about the White House’s public relations apparatus. (Montoya, largely selected for his Hispanic background, was universally considered the committee’s least impressive member: the Washington Post felt that “the questions Senator Montoya put to witnesses were repetitive and lacking in point.”) After Montoya’s questions, the Committee recessed for the day.

The 28th resumed with Edward Gurney lambasting Dean for both duplicity and complicity. The Floridian sarcastically asked, “You must have realized that this cover-up business, at least after it had gone on for a little while, was pretty serious?” “I did not like it from the outset,” came the deadpan response. “I do not think anybody liked it.” Gurney burnished his reputation as Nixon’s most tenacious defender on the Committee, but did little to hurt Dean.

Inouye Weicker
Lowell Weicker (left) and Daniel Inouye

Then came Daniel Inouye, wielding a list of questions prepared by Nixon attorney Fred Buzhardt. The committee assented to this bizarre initiative by the White House, Inouye said, to allow Nixon “his day in court.” Buzhardt’s questions posited “that John Dean was the principle actor in the Watergate cover-up” and framed rigged, implausible accounts of Dean’s actions which the counsel easily refuted. The White House was so embarrassed by the experience that they claimed Buzhardt had submitted the questions on his own, without Nixon’s consent. No one bought it.

The most dramatic confrontation, however, came with Howard Baker. Here is where Baker posed his famous inquiry: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Usually understood as a challenge to Nixon, historian Stanley Kutler argues that “the Senator’s question had nothing less than the purpose of impeaching Dean’s importance as a witness.” Typical of Baker’s subtlety, he accrued credit for uncovering the truth while actually presenting Dean with an ultimatum: put up or shut up.

This Dean proceeded to do, in spades. He reiterated his recollections of the September 15th, 1972 and his contacts with Bob Haldeman: “I can only testify to the fact that anything that came to Mr. Haldeman’s attention of any importance was generally passed to the President.” Beyond reiterating his previous testimony, Dean showed that Nixon had encouraged Maurice Stans to sue DNC chair Lawrence O’Brien for libel on the grounds that “the best defense is an offense” – in other words, to round suspicions about Watergate on the Democrats.

Baker Fight
Howard Baker in a fighting mood

Baker pressed on. Insisting he wanted “to test…not the credibility of your testimony but the quality of your evidence,” he again returned to the September 15th meeting. Again Dean recounted his meeting with the President, this time shading in the President’s “pleasure” at Dean’s convincing Jeb Magruder to perjure himself, at Gordon Liddy’s refusal to cooperate with prosecutors. The testimony seemed repetitive, even dull to some viewers, but it re-enforced Dean’s credibility: he didn’t budge on a single detail.

Then, with astonishing sang froid, Dean steered the discussion into a plenary meeting with the President in February 1973. In this meeting, Nixon and Dean discussed an off-the-record chat the President had with…Howard Baker. “The President reported to me,” Dean told the Senator, “that you had urged the President members of the White House staff up to this committee as quickly as he could get them up here and waive executive privilege.” Then he recited a memo detailing Baker’s contacts with Nixon, detailing the coordination of policy between Baker and the White House.

Baker protested that “all of these things, or at least some of them, never occurred.” Nonetheless, Dean continued reading: “If Baker appears to be truly desirous of cooperating…he might be told that there are matters unrelated to the bugging incident per se…That could be embarrassing and tarnish good people whose motives were the highest. Surely he can appreciate that things which occur at the White House have a degree of sensitivity that occur nowhere else in Government.”


Dean’s gambit paid off. Ultimately, Baker saved face by insisting that their meeting mainly concerned discussions of executive privilege, and Dean did not press further. But the exchange both shored up the witnesses credibility and showed that the Man Who Keeps Asking Why was more closely tied to Nixon than he’d let on. Eventually the hearing resumed and other senators questioned him (testimony dragged on for another day), but it provided the high-water mark in Dean’s long but absorbing testimony.

It also drove Lowell Weicker, whose anguished liberal sanctimony rivaled Sam Ervin’s, to distraction. “Republicans do not cover up,” he thundered towards the end of Dean’s testimony. “Republicans do not go ahead and threaten. Republicans do not go ahead and commit illegal acts; and God knows Republicans don’t view their fellow Americans as enemies to be harassed but rather…as human beings to be loved and wanted.”

Weicker’s speech drew applause in the hearing room. But Americans were no longer so sure that his sentiments weren’t naive, if not ridiculous. After all, it looked more and more like at least one Republican in Washington was doing all the things the Senator from Connecticut named; and soon, the committee would uncover irrefutable proof.

Part Three will cover the disclosure of the White House taping system and the testimonies of Alexander Butterfield, John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. Thanks to everyone who’s managed to read through a very long article.