And, with more and more tapes being released from the Nixon White House trove, especially now that the Nixon Library, like other presidential libraries, is under the National Archives and Records Administration, now seemed to be a good time, presumably, to roll this ball further down the court with "The Nixon Defense."
But, beginning with his decision to use his own transcriptions of some tapes, rather than those of NARA, we begin to wonder if John Dean isn't just continuing to be the same person who has infuriated other Nixon insiders, led the editor of a previous book of his to call one claim of his about that book a "L-I-E," namely that she (the respected Alice Mayhew) insisted he insert questionable or downright false information in that book.
And, the answer seems to be "Yes, that's the same John Dean who's writing this book." So, it gets just two stars.
The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
One doesn't need to crib a Roger Stone interview, as one person on Amazon does, to find problems with this book.
Indeed, per the nonpartisan Nixon Tapes website linked above, one can read about Dean blaming his previous book's editor, the well-known Alice Mayhew, for allegedly inserting material into his previous book, a claim she has called an "L-I-E." (There's more at that link about Dean's questionable authorial integrity.)
As with previous Dean writings on Watergate, there are two main questions:
1. How much is he whitewashing Richard Nixon?
2. How much is he whitewashing John Dean?
On the first, we can see that at play in the opening pages of the prologue. Dean contrasts Nixon and McGovern's approaches to Vietnam, and makes it look like McGovern wanted to cruelly, callously abandon South Vietnam. But Dean never mentions Nixon's late-1968 violation of the Logan Act (and possibly treasonous activity) with his contact via Anna Chennault with South Vietnamese leaders, encouraging them to reject the Johnson peace plan.
Nor does he note, in his brief discussions of Nixon's orders to burgle the Brookings Institute in 1971, that what Nixon sought was NOT (or not just) a copy OF THE Pentagon Papers, but copies of Lyndon B. Johnson's intercepts of Nixon campaign contacts with Chennault, which he (wrongly) suspected were held there.
(Fortunately, Ken Hughes' new book, for which I will keep my eyes peeled at the library, covers exactly this topic, in detail.)
Beyond that, while Nixon may not have technically ordered the June 17, 1972 burglary of the Watergate, with the burglaries of Daniel Ellsburg's psychiatrist, the discussed burglary of Brookings (even though not carried out) and other things, it's clear that Nixon's general marching order to the Committee to Re-Elect the President indicated no stone should be unturned in doing this. Given that the idea, under Project GEMSTONE, was first discussed in January 1972 and that both Dean and Jeb Magruder were parties to such discussions, at a minimum, the fact that neither of them alerted Nixon to this, or if they did, he didn't squelch it, show that Nixon himself, contra Dean's claims, must be considered as at least an indirect father of the action.
Dean, who is still a definite conservative, despite books rejecting certain aspects of modern GOP conservativism (he went to military school with Barry Goldwater Jr., is still good friends with him, and still calls himself a Goldwaterite) has long sought to polish Nixon's apple as best he could on Watergate in particular and his administration in general.
At the same time, of course, he's sought to polish his own apple vs. other key players in the Nixon Administration in general and Watergate in particular.
By ending the narrative at July 16, 1973, and putting what happened after that in just a few pages of appendix, Dean's able to do that. The flip side of him turning state's evidence is that, before Nixon could show that he would be disloyal to him (or others), Dean acted first, rather than taking the fall, a la Haldeman and Ehrlichman.
In turn, that shows that this book is still missing psychological elements, starting with those of Dean himself. How does he feel about being the first larger player to jump the sinking ship of the man he still tries to connect to the Goldwater version of Republicanism? How does he feel about Nixon making him into the first public fall guy for Watergate? Was he thinking about jumping ship, and fully, before that? How conflicted does he still feel about all of this?
Unfortunately, Dean appears to have no desire to delve into any of this.
There are other factual errors in this book, too. For one thing, Dean gets the state secrets privilege wrong:
This common-law privilege empowers the president to refuse to turn over evidence he alone deems a state secret, and the president's decision cannot be reviewed by the courts.That's 110 percent wrong, and if Dean, as White House counsel, was giving advice like that to Nixon, he's worse than Haldeman and Ehrlichman.
Reality? The court can, if it chooses, review the documents that are allegedly privileged in camera, then rule on the validity, or lack thereof, of the claim.
Dean cites the Reynolds case as controlling, but it specifically says that, whether the court actually reviews the documents or not, the decision as to whether the claim is valid or not is a judicial one, not an executive one. And, while it's rare, courts do occasionally reject the claim.)
(Thus, Dean also shows himself a hypocrite in lambasting the Bush Administration's use of the state secrets privilege claim.)
And, to the degree Dean is still trying to cover for himself or his old boss, or both, the death of Colson 2 years ago made it another bit easier.
Finally, Dean's one appendix, on the 18-1/2 minute tape gap, serves nothing. After narrowing down the list of likely erasers of the tape, Dean refuses to look at any one of them as more likely than the others. He even claims it's not that important; real, professional historians would certainly disagree. He also gets coy on exactly what was likely erased, after giving some general parameters.
This isn't quite a one-star book. It does fill in some edges and corners. And it sheds more new light on the character of Dean, even though that surely wasn't his intention.
I'll take a look at the new Brinkley book on the tapes to see if it shines any important new historic light, but it appears even more wooden than this book. And, Douglas Brinkley is a slipshod writer and historian in general, in some ways even more so than his mentor, Stephen Ambrose. I'll keep more of an eye out for Hughes' book, which could certainly be a bombshell.
View all my reviews