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As the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation approaches, you may think we have learned all there is to know about Watergate. But a key member of Nixon’s White House would disagree. John Dean says he now understands more about Watergate than when he played a central role in the scandal and its resolution. Dean has listened to thousands of hours of Nixon’s secret Oval Office tapes — many of which he says historians have overlooked. And he’s found a few surprises. Former White House counsel John Dean talks with guest host Susan Page about what he now believes the president knew and when he knew it.
- John Dean legal counsel to President Nixon during Watergate and author of "Blind Ambition."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm sitting in for Diane because she's at the White House to receive a national humanities medal from President Obama today. You can watch the ceremony live at 3:00 p.m. eastern time today on WAMU.org. And we certainly all send out congratulations to Diane on this high honor.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThe story of Watergate has been told and retold over the past four decades, but John Dean, the Nixon White House counsel, claims to have a fresh perspective on the worst scandal in American political history. In a new book, he tells the story of what the president knew and when he knew it based on Nixon's secret recordings.
MS. SUSAN PAGEDean says some of them have never been catalogued before. The book is titled "The Nixon Defense," and John Dean joins me in the studio to talk about what still surprises him about Watergate as we approach the 40th anniversary of President Nixon's resignation. Thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JOHN DEANPleasure, Susan.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, speaking of Facebook and Twitter, I posted on Facebook, where were you when Nixon resigned? I was at Disneyland at the point he resigned.
PAGEKelly posted on Facebook, as an 8-year-old, I was just happy for everything, Watergate to stop interrupting my cartoons. Dana, I was on college watching the hearings between classes. Katherine, waiting for the Bart train in Oakland. Peter, working a summer construction job in Newport News. I didn't believe it would really happen. Bob, I was in the office of Congressman Jerry Waldie, who was a member of the House judiciary committee working on impeachment stuff and also worked briefly with nerdy young woman lawyer named Hillary something.
PAGEHere's also Frank says, I was a reporter with UPI in Charleston, West Virginia, trying to get reaction quotes the main story. So John Dean, where were you when Richard Nixon resigned?
DEANI'd had, the day before, four wisdom teeth pulled and I was in pain is where I was. I was swollen up like a chipmunk and the media was trying to find me and it wasn't a good day to say anything to anybody. So I was kind of hiding that day with my recovery.
PAGEYou had been this young counsel to the president. You had then been involved in the Watergate cover-up and then became a key witness for the Watergate hearings. What did you think when Nixon resigned?
DEANIt was both relief that I'd realized there wouldn't be an impeachment proceeding because I would've been the principle witness in that trial in the Senate had it gone forward and something I didn't look forward to. I didn't know, at that point, what would happen. I knew there was certainly in my working with the Watergate special prosecutors a lot of disposition on behalf of the staff to prosecute the president or the former president.
DEANSo I thought this can go on. And, of course, until Ford pardons him, that really was a prospect.
PAGEIf President Nixon hadn't resigned, do you think he would've been impeached and convicted?
DEANI think he would've been impeached for certain, excuse me. Had he resigned and not been pardoned, I think he would've been prosecuted as well. And I think there's no question he would've been convicted in the Senate and removed from office. He knew that as well as anybody else. The House really never does address impeachment.
DEANThe House really never does address impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee, of course, passes articles, three articles, and I think that the way they accepted the report virtuously unanimously pretty much showed the disposition of the House. Of course, 80 percent of the American people at that time thought this was a good move that he had resigned.
PAGEHere's a question that we all remember from that era. This is a question from then Senator Howard Baker. He was asking -- talking to you, questioning you before the Senate Watergate Committee in the summer of 1973. Let's listen.
SENATOR HOWARD BAKERThe central question at this point is simply put. What did the president know and when did he know it?
PAGENow, you have now listened to thousands of hours of taped conversation and you've had 40 years to think about it. Would your answer change, the answer you gave to the Senate Watergate Committee then and the answer you would give now to that question, what did Richard Nixon know and when did he know it?
DEANWell, if course, it's the subtitle of my book for a good reason because I can answer that question now that we have all those recordings. At the time Baker asked it, I realized Baker was being a very effective cross examiner. He was going to try to pin me down as tight as he could. I'd actually under-testified about my recollection of my meetings with the president.
DEANYou know, I thought I had a good memory of the gist of them. I later realized I had conflated some meetings. You know, they would happen, bing, bing, bing, 37 meetings in a very short period of time. Some phone calls, some -- several meetings sometimes in one day and our memories are not well time-stamped. So I made some mistakes.
DEANAnd he was trying to just do that, pin me down.
PAGESome critics have, in fact, pointed out discrepancies between what you said in the Senate Watergate testimony, what you said in your memoir and what you say now in "The Nixon Defense." Was there any effort to kind of shape your testimony to change your story among these different occasions?
DEANNone. It was my best memory at the time. In writing the memoir, I was able to clear up some of the things that were in my testimony. That's one of the reasons there is a difference. I had some of the tapes. In doing this book, I now have been able to listen to conversations that weren't available when I wrote "Blind Ambition." So it's been a constant process of getting all the information.
DEANAnd I was also denied all access to my files during my testimony, pretty much the same when I did "Blind Ambition." And it's only been in recent years I've access to that material.
PAGEWhy were you denied access to your own files?
DEANIt's very interesting. It's one of the conversations in the book, is how Nixon wants to make it as difficult as possible for me, but he makes it totally open for Haldeman and Ehrlichman and he just gives flat out orders, said, you know, they're to have access to their files. Dean is not. It's clear why he didn't want me to remember anything or to testify.
PAGEHere's one of the extraordinary things about your new book, which is called "The Nixon Defense." You say -- I had assumed that all the Nixon tapes had been transcribed and gone through with a fine-toothed comb by historians in the 40 years since this happened.
DEANSo had I.
PAGETell us what the situation was.
DEANWell, that was the biggest surprise. In fact, Susan, had I known going in that this was what it was going to be to, one, catalogue them and find there are a thousand Watergate conversations that nobody'd ever catalogued before -- that took months itself. It can be done electronically today. I had to do it manually at the time. The archives has done a wonderful job of developing subject logs so you know who's talking and the gist of what they're talking about.
DEANThey've spent 40 years developing that. So one can look at these subject logs and find where the Watergate conversations occur. I did that and then I came up with, excuse me, about 400 conversations. It was obvious nobody, outside the archives, had probably ever heard. They were totally missed. Not intentionally, just because of the volume of material. A thousand conversations produce about 4 million words.
DEANThat's why it took four years to get this all transcribed and in a shape I could draw. I didn't want to do a book of transcripts. That's pretty dull stuff. I had read Stanley Cutler's very good book of transcripts where he uses ellipses to condense them down. And sometimes when I would look and play the tape against his actual transcript, I'd find there could be 20 minutes of what I thought was important information within the ellipses.
DEANSo that's why I decided I had to do them all.
PAGESo what the archives had, in many cases, were just a subject log that indicated who was there, but it didn't have a transcript you could read. You had to make the transcript yourself.
DEANHad to make the transcript.
PAGEAnd how did you go about doing that? That just seems like an extraordinary task.
DEANIt's a difficult task. It's a thankless task. It takes -- I started myself to do it to see, you know, what the process was and realized very quickly I was going to need help. So I hired grad students. I was fortunate in finding very early a woman who stayed with the project the entire way. She's a former legal secretary and she had very good skills.
DEANShe was working on her PhD in archival science and she did over 500 conversations herself, which is really remarkable. Yeah, I've never asked her how she feels about Richard Nixon after listening to all those tapes, but, you know, as she volunteered. But she did a wonderful job. She had a good ear for who was talking and the process -- in fact, I have a little clip I'm going to use in my author presentations where I got her to get in front of a camera and explain how she did it.
DEANAnd she said, it's just doing it and redoing it and redoing it an redoing it is the way you get these conversations.
PAGEWhy did you want to do this?
DEANWell, my publisher asked me to look at this subject and my first thought was, well, the real question to me is how could somebody as intelligent and as politically savvy as Richard Nixon mess up his presidency as badly as he did on this bungled burglary. And it's, you know, just a fundamental question. And I didn't know the answer to it.
DEANI wasn't dealing with the president on a day to day basis and I suspected the answer might be in a few of the tapes and I thought most of them probably had been done. That was my first mistake. I realized this -- I'm gonna have to do these all to get the answer to this question. So I literally have reconstructed it from day to day to day and I think it speaks for itself for the reader.
PAGEWe're talking to John Dean about his new book. It's called "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It." We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll ask what surprises you found in listening to thousands of hours of Nixon's Oval Office tapes and we'll take your calls. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email at email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page, of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, John Dean. He's written a new book, "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It." And, John Dean, just before the break I asked you why you undertook this project that involved listening to a lot of Nixon tapes that had not previously been transcribed and cataloged. And you said you wanted to know how a smart guy like Richard Nixon could screw something up as bad as he did. What'd you conclude?
DEANWell, obviously, readers are going to draw -- I just lay out the facts. And I really tried to do not do a lot of commentary along the way. But I think it becomes pretty conspicuous. It's a combination of character and really bad decision-making. And I mean horrible decision-making. The process gets frighteningly worse as it proceeds. You asked me also what was one of the -- what were some of the surprises.
DEANThose were certainly surprises, that he really had no system to get information. The flow of information for Watergate came principally from Bob Haldeman, initially, then a little bit from John Ehrlichman and the newspapers. And he initially does not want to know, but then he gets curious and thinks he needs to know a little bit more. This isn't to say he isn't involved because he will bless every key element of the early stages of the cover-up.
DEANFrom the fact that they had needed the perjury of Jeb Magruder, who was the deputy campaign director, right underneath John Mitchell, the director of the campaign, to make the cover-up work. To the fact that they were paying these people substantial amounts of money to keep them quiet, if you will.
PAGEThe central question, what he knew and when he knew it, do you conclude that Richard Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before it happened?
DEANI conclude he did not. And I've heard -- there's been some commentary already that I'm giving him too much of the benefit of the doubt. Well, you listen to all these conversations and I, at one point, marked as Appendix A, every time the reason for the break-in came up. And then I digested them into a summary form, just to answer that question. And it's clear he has no advanced knowledge. Clear he didn't order it. It's clear also that he created an atmosphere where this could happen. And this was an unacceptable behavior.
DEANI think initially he's very concerned. While I didn't -- I don't talk about this in the book because I just let these facts talk for themselves. He's worried that he might be responsible, that he may have said something to Colson, his special counsel and his -- sometimes referred to as hatchet man. He's worried he might have given him instruction, because earlier he had. He'd ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institute on three occasions during the Pentagon Papers.
DEANSo he's not sure whether or not he has. And he's doing a lot of sounding as to what he might have said about Watergate. So -- but, as it turns out, he didn't. And what's also ironic is had Liddy and his crew not gotten arrested at the Watergate on June 17th, their real mission that night was to go to McGovern's headquarters. And had they been arrested at McGovern's headquarters -- you can trace that right back to the oval office.
DEANNixon gives a direction, that's recorded, to Haldeman, to place a plant in the McGovern headquarters. That, in turn, is given by Haldeman to his aide, Strachan, to change Liddy's intelligence gathering from Muskie to McGovern. In turn, Liddy, who, as you know, could over-interpret anything that -- to accomplish whatever he thought might be the goal, he would have -- he was planning to bug McGovern's headquarters that night, but they were arrested and never got there.
DEANThey'd made earlier attempts, but not successfully. So -- but this wasn't a direct order from Nixon. It was to place a plant. Now, you can spin that however you want. Is that just to put an individual, like a driver or a secretary or somebody like that in or is that to put an electronic device in? We might have been debating that today, had they not have gotten arrested at the Watergate.
PAGESo breaking into the Democratic National Committee Offices, planting a device or a person to spy on the McGovern headquarters, is this the way politics just operates or was this something extraordinary?
DEANI think it was Richard Nixon's style of operation. And I think that, you know, I think also that Bob Haldeman -- not so much John Ehrlichman -- didn't dissuade the president from this kind of activity. He thought this was acceptable conduct. And therefore, he enthusiastically carried it out.
PAGEHere's a -- let's listen to another clip. This is…
DEANIncidentally, the break-in at the Brookings, I turned that off. And that put me as something of an outsider. And that's the reason I didn't know about a lot of these activities. They said, "Don't tell him. He doesn't like this stuff."
PAGELet's listen to a clip. Now, this is you testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee in June, 1973. You're -- they're asking you about an oval -- you're talking about an oval office conversation you had with President Nixon on March 21, 1973, about the Watergate break-in. Let's listen.
DEANWhat I had hoped to do in this conversation was to have the president tell me we had to end the matter now. Accordingly, I gave considerable thought to how I would present this situation to the president and try to make as dramatic a presentation as I could to tell him how serious I thought the situation was if the cover-up continue.
DEANI began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency. And if the cancer was not removed the president himself would be killed by it. I also to him that it was important that this cancer be removed immediately because it was growing more deadly every day.
PAGEIs it odd for you to listen to yourself testifying 40 years ago and remembering -- do you remember that testimony? Do you remember how you felt when you were delivering that?
PAGEHow did you feel?
DEANI do. I, you know, I was asked to prepare a written statement. I had no idea that they would ask me to read that statement. It was 60,000 words. Had I known they were going to ask me to read it, it would have been 6,000 words. So I waded through this. This was very late in the day when the March 21st conversation comes up. Having now -- I have a transcript of that that I prepared myself. The transcript is about 76 pages long. The -- and single-spaced, not very big margins. It's an hour-and-40-minute conversation. This was obviously -- I'm just giving the highlight of it.
DEANMy memory of it was not bad. I didn't -- I used the term cancer on the presidency. I did that to make sure I had his attention. Sometimes I'd go into the office, he'd have his feet up on the desk and he did that morning. And by the time I started saying that, he had both feet on the floor.
PAGEYou were in your early 30s at that time.
DEANI was in my early 30s.
PAGEHow did you get to be the White House counsel?
DEANWell, I -- the best I can tell is that my bosses at the Department of Justice, where I was the associate deputy attorney general, did not like to go over to the White House and do background briefers. And they found I was a pretty quick study and could handle it. And so I would regularly go over and brief the press and started working with the White House staff at that time.
DEANAnd so when Ehrlichman became assistant to the president for domestic affairs -- he had been White House counsel -- that's when Haldeman really was the driving force -- this comes up on the tapes -- I know more about that today than I did when I got the job -- he was the one that wanted me to come over to the White House and take the job.
PAGEAnd why was he so eager to have you take the job?
DEANThey just thought I was the right guy. One of the things I think they were trying to do was to groom people for -- young people for future roles in government and politics.
PAGEYou must have thought, what an opportunity. I'm going to be in my -- I'm in my early 30s. I'm going to be the counsel to the president.
DEANNo question. It was a -- it was a great opportunity. I went to my superiors, John Mitchell and Dick Kleindienst, and told them of the offer. And both of them told me, "Don't go." They say, "You'll go up the ranks here in the Department of Justice in the next couple years. And we've got good jobs for you here. And you'll remain practicing more law. There, that job is more of a liaison with the Department of Justice," although we did crank out a lot of law ourselves, but we weren't very good criminal lawyers.
PAGEForty years later do you wish you had taken their advice and stayed at the Justice Department?
DEANNo. I, you know, the experiences I've had in life, I wouldn't trade any of them. It's been a -- it's been a wonderful adventure.
PAGESo you concluded after listening to all these tapes, that Richard Nixon did not know about the break-in beforehand, that he didn't order the break-in, not order this particular break-in, whatever other actions he was culpable for. So who did order the Watergate break-in, do you think?
DEANYeah, the way I see it happening, and Liddy, who was in charge of this operation with Howard Hunt, eight years after the fact, tried to reconstruct it. And I think he did it honestly at the time, but he just -- his memory was bad. And what happened is it was a part of his original plans that Magruder and Mitchell approved in late March. And that's when it was set up. What happened is Liddy did -- undertook the first break-in. They didn't have a clue where the office of Larry O'Brien was. They never got there.
DEANSo they placed a bug in just what they thought was a big office, you know, looked elegant, must be the chairman, must be somebody important. And it wasn't. It was the guest office for state chairmen. And so -- and it -- and not all the bugs worked. So they went back in -- the reason they went back in is, according to Magruder -- and I have no reason to doubt this because he told me this contemporaneously, then he later testified to it.
DEANHe said, "I showed John Mitchell the fruits they were getting from their effort. It was junk. It was secretary's talking about getting a hairdresser appointments and talking to their boyfriends and things of this nature. And Mitchell thought it was junk. And he picked up the phone and called Liddy and told him, "This is junk. It isn't worth the money we paid for it." And Liddy, being a self-starter, said, "Yes, sir. I'll take care of it."
DEANAnd then he -- without telling anybody -- planned the second entry of the night he was going to go into McGovern's headquarters, based on an instruction from Gordon Strachan to change his intelligence from Muskie to McGovern. So that's why they're in there.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. We'll go to the phones shortly, but while we're talking about Magruder, one of the surprises for you, in preparing this book, was learning how deeply involved Richard Nixon was in the decision about trying to suborn perjury from Magruder. Tell us about that.
DEANIt was. I had -- this is material that has never been transcribed. I don't think anybody's ever listened to these tapes. He's deeply involved. He's knowledgeable about Magruder's testimony, its importance to protect John Mitchell. That he suspects that Mitchell has approved the plan because Magruder wouldn't have been able to approve the kind of money that was involved in this. So he knows that -- and he's worried about Mitchell.
DEANHe says this flat out, you know, that he -- this could destroy Mitchell. And he's worried about his former law partner and friend. And Haldeman had once told me that Richard Nixon really believed he became president because John Mitchell helped him out, that he used his contacts in '68 and '67 as a very successful bond lawyer.
DEANMitchell didn't want to come to Washington. It was the president, after he was elected, who really pushed him to come and take the post of attorney general. And I think he regretted every having done that. But anyway, so Nixon's right up to speed on this and gives its approval each step of the way.
PAGELet's talk to Fred, he's calling us from Frederick, Md. Fred, hi. You're on the air.
FREDYes. Mr. Dean, it's certainly wonderful to hear what you have to say. And I'm an historical researcher up in Frederick. And I have seen a video recording of Richard Nixon talking about dead wood at the CIA over in Langley. Is there any possibility in your mind that in lieu of the fact that the tape was put on the locked door horizontally, rather than vertically, and it became so obvious that there was duct tape there -- and I think the guard actually, the first time, just removed it. And then they put it back on there.
FREDAnd also, by virtue of the fact that E. Howard Hunt had the White House telephone number in his wallet, and in addition there's talk that Larry O'Brien's secretary may have had incriminating photographs, information regarding John F. Kennedy -- or John F. Kennedy's demise I should probably say -- and that that key, that secretary's desk key…
PAGERight. And, Fred, what's your question?
FREDIs there a possibility that this was a CIA operation designed to take out Richard Nixon? That's my question.
PAGEOh, interesting. Okay. John Dean, what do you think?
DEANNot a -- not a -- not a chance in one and million that that was the case. What you're doing is giving too much credence to the credibility and ability of this team of burglars. Gordon Liddy has sort of, over the years, portrayed himself as a James Bond, very skilled operator. Well, Gordon, doesn't quite up to the Maxwell Smart level of skills for these kind of things. And he sold them a bill of goods as to what he could and couldn't do.
DEANThis is just bungled, is what it is. McCord didn't know what he was doing. He was not a CIA operative. He was a defense guy. He was the -- sort of the electronics janitor out of Langley, that made sure they weren't being bugged. But he had no capability. The equipment he used was antique. It wasn't state of the art. So the whole thing is just a disaster.
DEANThese are people who did not know what they were doing, did not do it well, and not surprising they got caught. To give the CIA even the potential to have done it, they would have done it much better, I can assure you.
PAGEAnd, yet -- Fred, thanks so much for you call. Fred's question reflects there's no end to the conspiracy theories that have been spun about the Watergate affair.
DEANWell, that's one of the reasons I wanted to go through the tapes, literally, every single one of them. That anyone could, you know, any information that was there. And to digest them and give their gist. And really tell the story from what it was as it happened. And there is just no hint of these kinds of activities. And, you know, you can speculate about Nixon's inability to cover it all up. Well, it just -- the record shows it's just -- he just bungled that. I mean, it was just a human factor that destroyed his presidency.
PAGEDo you think these -- the transcripts you've made of these tapes and perhaps the passage of time, that will mean that all of these tapes I assume, one day, will be transcribed. It's going to provoke a reassessment of some basic assumptions we've made about Watergate.
DEANWell, I think that's already happening with the book that I've done. People are saying I've -- I have filled in the key missing elements because nobody had taken the time to ever do this. I wish they had. I think somebody other than myself would have been terrific to do the job, because they speak for themselves. They really do tell the story. And it's both a tragic story, but it is also a very telling story about the man at the center, Richard Nixon.
PAGEWe're talking to John Dean about his new book, "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It." We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll go back to the phones and take some of your calls. You can leave us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, John Dean, former White House Counsel to Richard Nixon. He has a new book "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It." John Dean, you've been talking about listening to thousands of hours of Oval Office and other tapes from the Watergate era. And one of the things that you say surprised you was the -- basically the sale of ambassadorships to raise money for the Watergate defendants. I want to listen to one of the clips briefly, a clip that relates to this. But it's a little hard to understand. Provide us some context about what this tape tells us.
DEANRight. It's on March 2 of 1973. It's an Oval Office conversation between Haldeman and the president. And Haldeman is explaining one of the real problems with the cover up is raising money. But Mitchell has found somebody who can be very helpful, a fellow by the name of Tom Pappas who's a former U.S. ambassador to Greece by Eisenhower. And in a sense he'd been a big fundraiser for Nixon in working for the reelection committee.
DEANSo Pappas wants something. He wants the current ambassador to stay in Greece, fellow by the name of Henry Tasca. And what -- he's talked to Mitchell about this and Mitchell in turn has related to Haldeman that it'd be a good idea to keep Tasca in the job because here is Pappas providing all this money they need to pay these Watergate defendants. So this is the first of several conversations, about a minute clip I pulled out for you. And it sort of shows how quickly Nixon just buys right into it.
DEANThe quid pro quo of this becomes even clearer in subsequent conversations where Haldeman makes it clear this is how you can get your chit squared away with Tom Pappas for all his work. He can keep this ambassador, make it seem that it's harder to do than it really is because Nixon immediately agrees to it. This isn't a bad ambassador so they'll just keep him. But this is a -- it surprised me, here's Richard Nixon raising money for the Watergate defendants.
PAGELet's listen to this schvitz from March, 1973. Take a listen.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXONLet me say one other thing. I want you to know that I'm (unintelligible) last night, I am aware of what you're doing to help out on some of these things that (unintelligible) people and others are involved in. I won't say anything further, but it's very seldom do you find a friend like that, believe me. (unintelligible) more recently to Mitchell if you can see down the line, this was (unintelligible) but it's down the line. Down the line, they're all guilty. You know that.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXONBut (unintelligible) it's just stupid (unintelligible)
MR. TOM PAPPASWell, I did it because (unintelligible)
NIXON(unintelligible) and basically you say, I mean, we were so shocked. I (unintelligible) mainly because if you're going to box somebody, first you shouldn't box, but second, if you're gonna do it, (unintelligible) it's just amateurs, that's what it is, amateurs. Believe me.
DEANThat was not Haldeman. That was Pappas himself. I had the wrong set up. I thought that was another clip you were going to play. This is the third of the conversations when he actually has met with Pappas the night before at a social function for all the big contributors. Pappas said, I really need to talk to you. He said, see me the next morning at 10:00. This is the conversation when he's thanking Pappas for doing this very difficult thing of taking care of these troublesome problems they've got.
DEANObviously, the prosecutors never had this tape when they were talking to Pappas and had him in front of the grand jury which happened because of my testimony about -- this comes up in the March 21st conversation as well where Mitchell has told me that Pappas is being helpful. But I had no knowledge at that time that Nixon himself was actually raising money for the Watergate defendants.
PAGENow one thing that tape makes clear is how difficult it can be to understand what the characters are saying and who's speaking in some of these tapes.
DEANIt's true. That's why I -- it took time to educate my transcribers. I typically started them on telephone calls so there were just only two people. And they -- you know, Nixon is very distinguishable. You get to know his cadence and his style very quickly. And he's typically the only one in the office who's just using expletives in a fairly frequent manner.
DEANSo they -- once they get that down then it's a question of just going back and listening and listening and listening. You and I were just talking about how difficult it is to transcribe even when you have good equipment. And this was bad equipment. It's only as good as the speaker who was close to the microphone buried in the president's desk.
PAGEYou know, in this conversation and this disclosure that he was selling ambassadorships to raise money for the Watergate defendants, this is something Richard Nixon specifically denied in his testimony before the final 1975 Watergate grand jury, correct? So he lied about it and that could've been very serious because that would've been ground to overturn his pardon.
DEANWell, he had no pardon for future crimes, only for past crimes. And that was very clear in that -- at that time with that testimony. He took a great risk. If they'd have -- they did not have this tape or this conversation at the time where he later appeared in front of the grand jury because they could've really -- I don't -- you know, I think they probably would've alerted him to it. They wouldn’t have tried to entrap him in it, but he would've had a lot more explaining.
DEANIn fact, that testimony, he goes on at great lengths to explain about the process of selecting ambassadors. There's a fellow who is a former CIA expert in deception. And he analyzed that conversation and that testimony. He said, I could teach my course on how Nixon employed in that grand jury appearance all the real bell-ringers for deception. And this kind of explanation he gave for ambassadorships and setting that all up before he denied he'd ever sold an ambassadorship was very typical of somebody who's dissembling.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let our listeners join our conversation. Eric has been holding on from Manassas, Va. Hi, Eric, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ERICHello. Hey, I know you've been asked this question before. What do you say to people who say you're a convicted felon but you've made a fortune over the last 40 years over what is a terrible misfortune? And I'll take my comment -- I'll take your answer off the air.
PAGEAll right. Thanks for your call, Eric.
DEANWell, I pled guilty to the offense that I knew I was involved in which was the conspiracy to obstruct justice. I would -- I never went to prison as a result of it. I was in the witness protection program for a year-and-a-half. And 120 days of that I would spend in a safe house where they actually brought me into Washington every day so I could assist in -- with the prosecutors.
DEANI have not made my livelihood out of Watergate. I made -- had a successful career in business. I was in mergers and acquisitions. Went back to school after I left Washington to study accounting and other business matters for several years. Took that knowledge along with my knowledge of the law, had a couple partners and we were very successful and very lucky just doing business in Southern California.
DEANThen I retired in -- at age 60 and decided I was going to start writing books again. I've since done eight books since retiring. I was doing a book a year. This one took four. And most of these books have nothing to do with Watergate but they've still been New York Times Best Sellers. I did this one -- I did a mountain of research to do it. And I have no idea how this book will do, so we'll see.
PAGEYou lost your law license.
DEANI did. Actually, a number of -- I teach a course drawing on the lessons of Watergate. I see a -- I continue legal education for lawyers because I think you can learn more from mistakes than you can from successes. And we have a friend of mine who's an attorney from Cleveland. And we taught the course in Virginia and here in the District of Columbia as well as in Maryland. It's been very successful. We have no sales or marketing but just word of mouth as a result in about 80 of these programs. And I -- it was something to do while I was waiting for my transcribers to complete the work we drew from that material to make the CLE program.
PAGEWould you like to try to get your law license back?
DEANWell, it's a little late now but it's something I, from time to time -- in fact, somebody just mentioned it the other night again that you should do that. You know, I don't want to practice at this point but I've stayed active with the law. My knowledge is current. I write a biweekly column for a legal publication and have for 14 years. So it's a thought. I haven't totally dismissed.
PAGEWhat -- could you get your law license back if you wanted to?
PAGEWhat would you have to do to get it back?
DEANI would probably have to show that I have been a good citizen for the last 40 years since I lost the license. And I haven't had so much as a parking ticket so...
PAGELet's talk to John. He's calling us from Raleigh, N.C. John, thank you for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOHNThank you and good morning. Steven Ambrose, the historian wrote a three-volume biography of Nixon. And the surprising last sentence was that when Nixon resigned, we lost more than we gained. And I'm wondering if in retrospect whether you think that censure may have been a better thing for the country, not necessarily for Richard Nixon, than the painful overturning of an election?
JOHNAnd second, I wanted to get from you a sense of whether you think the 1960 election and the allegations of voting fraud was sort of a yellow light for Nixon to go the way he did, feeling that, you know, he had been done in, you know, eight years -- twelve years before. Then, you know, he had now license to perhaps play around the rules. And that's my question. Thank you.
DEANThe Ambrose trilogy is excellent. Ambrose however did not have access to the tapes. He had some but not many. The information that I now have has taken 40 years to come out and it's still being filled in. There's still some withdraws that the archives will add. As people have passed away they've been able to take some of the personal material they've pulled out and put it back in. So I think Ambrose would have a different take on some issues but he did a very good job with what he had. So I don't know how he would conclude if he had all the additional information.
DEANAs far as the 1960 election and the voting fraud in Chicago, Nixon clearly took the high road in that. But he also was told it was very likely that he -- any other result would follow if he had done otherwise. So I think Nixon did rely heavily on what other presidents had done as precedent. He said, well, you know, so and so did this and that. I looked at that. In this project I looked at it earlier and there's no question that there were precedents for many of the things that Nixon did. No question. The difference is while it was the exception with prior presidents, these became the rule with Richard Nixon. And that's a big difference.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Robert calling us from Beverly Hills, Mich. Robert, good morning.
ROBERTGood morning. Mr. Dean, this is really an honor to be speaking with you today. My question has to do with the way the Nixon White House treated you as an active member of the cover up. I always got the feeling that you were kind of kept on the -- a little bit on the outside and that there might've been a plan to use you as a fall guy if the cover up blew up. I don't know, could you comment on that?
DEANWell, I think I've done a lengthy book that will confirm that for you, more so than I even suspected at the time. So that was one of the -- wasn't a total surprise to me in doing the book. The viciousness with which they were ready to throw me under the bus and keep backing up and rolling back and forth over me becomes pretty apparent in the taped conversations.
PAGEWe had an earlier caller, John, who asked if the country lose more than it gained with President Nixon's resignation. Here's an email we've gotten from Audrey. She writes, "Several years ago I attended a program at the National Archives. Kissinger was on the panel. He said Nixon was a good president. Not a soul in the audience said a word. To this date I regret that I did not have the courage to stand up and say, Richard Nixon was not a good president." And she ends the email by asking if you think he was a good president, Watergate apart.
DEANWell, you know, I'm not sure you can pull Watergate apart. Stanley Cutler, the historian, the first time he heard of another historian writing about Nixon without Watergate said, well, that's kind of like writing about Hitler without the Holocaust. That may be a pretty gruesome analogy but there is something to the point. In fact, one of the things that comes through in listening to these tapes is his very, very -- the nature of his decision-making process. It is horrendous. It is frightening in Watergate.
DEANAnd you wonder if this was isolated. And maybe now that I've flushed all this information out, people are going to look and see how he made decisions in other areas like Vietnam and China and what have you, if they were as irrational and often thoughtless. His bombing of North Vietnam to drive them back to the table, was this just a wild gamble that cost millions of lives? You know, I hadn't understood -- I thought he was a much more methodical careful decision-maker than I realized until I got into this material.
DEANWhether he was a good president or not, clearly some of the results have yet to tell exactly what's going to happen. The China initiative is probably his most well thought of. But who knows where we're going to be with China another few decades from now the way things are going. It may look like not such a good decision later.
PAGEWe are almost out of time. Let me ask you a question about one enduring mystery of Watergate, that is the 18-and-a-half minute gap in one of the tapes. Who do you think caused the gap and why?
DEANWell, I did an appendix just on this issue because people in the media were very interested in this question. And I want to tell you, Susan, it will make no difference if we learn who did it. It's much more important what was erased. And that becomes very clear to me having listened to all these tapes, is that the sequence of events, Nixon has put his defense in place, that he knew nothing of the cover up until I told him on March 21. After that defense is there, that firewall defense, the missing tape comes up. And so people say, well that must've been something awful. It must've been he and Haldeman talking about how they botched the break-in that they'd planned.
DEANIt's nothing of the kind. What it is, because that week is filled with it, is talk of the cover up. And all you had to do was have passing mention in that 20 minutes or 18-and-a-half minutes that's erased of the cover up and Nixon -- the lie was put to Nixon. So either he or somebody for him -- and the group is very small, I narrow it down to who could've done it in a note in the book -- one of them erased it.
PAGEJohn Dean, thanks for joining us this hour to talk about your new book "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It." Thanks for being with us.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be at the White House this afternoon to receive a National Humanities medal. You can watch it live on WAMU.org. Thanks for listening.
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