“Watergate taught us that rule-breakers are accountable,” Dean said. “Today, rule-breakers are not being held accountable.”
Dean may not be the hero America deserves but the one it needs. In the past few years, he has become a touchstone for political morality, an imperfect figure in uncertain times. At a screening Wednesday night at the National Archives, the 83-year-old reflected on his ambition, his mistakes and his concerns for democracy in a brief discussion with CNN’s Jim Acosta. Audience members — some old enough to have lived through Watergate, some much younger — gave him an enthusiastic welcome, then clamored for selfies. “One thing about John,” observed one man as the crowd dispersed. “He never claimed to be perfect.”
Dean fell down the Watergate rabbit hole and has been stuck there for five decades, which — for better and worse — has brought him fame, heartache, fortune, redemption and now the unofficial title of éminence grise of political scandals.
It all started with an offer he couldn’t refuse: the job of White House counsel. The Georgetown Law graduate was just 31 years old, with a short résumé but great ambition, when Nixon asked the boyish conservative to join his White House team.
His predecessor, Nixon domesticr John Ehrlichman, still held all the power and made all the important decisions. But Dean couldn’t resist. “I knew what I was getting at 31: a great title,” Dean said in an interview with The Washington Post. “How can I turn down this offer at this stage of my career?”
It was a dream job and yet another example of the adage: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. He started in the summer of 1970, surrounded by older Nixon insiders who were loyal to the president and his re-election — and prepared to do anything to make that happen. Dean, always a quick study, realized these men were ready and willing to break laws they were sworn to uphold.
Dean says he knew it was wrong but wondered if he was naive. “I said, ‘You just don’t understand how it’s played in the big leagues’ ― and, apparently, this was it. Because I was dumbfounded by many of the things that went on and didn’t do a lot of the things they asked me to do.” But, yes, he did enough.
In hindsight, he was clearly in over his head. He famously warned Nixon there was a “cancer” on his presidency but was fired in April 1973. Afraid he would be made a scapegoat for the scandal, Dean cooperated with Senate investigators and became a sensation when he tested at the televised hearings — he was the first administration official to say Nixon was directly involved in the coverup. Later that year, Dean pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, served four months and was disbarred.
And then Dean tried to restart his life. It didn’t go as planned.
“I’ve got to tell you, I have been trapped in this bubble for 50 years, no question,” he said. “I tried to stay out of it. I didn’t read. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t write about it.”
He went into business, and studied accounting for five years to better understand business plans and balance sheets. That phase of his life lasted until the early 1991, when “Silent Coup” was published, a book of revisionist history that claimed Dean and his wife, Maureen, were the chief architects of the Watergate coverup. Dean sued the publisher for $150 million and settled for an undisclosed amount six years later.
Related lawsuits consumed 10 years of his life and made him an expert on all things Watergate — researching, lecturing, writing books, serving as a commentator. CNN approached him about the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and the documentary — which begins Sunday — unfolds through memories of Dean, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and others who lived through the scandal.
(Since you asked: No, he hasn’t seen the new miniseries “Gaslit,” where Dean is played by Dan Stevens as a relatable, complicated, even sexy guy. His wife of 49 years has seen excerpts and told him the show took a lot of dramatic license.)
Dean said there are a few enduring lessons learned from Watergate: For about a decade, there was something called post-Watergate morality that scrutinized even the appearance of impropriety. Pre-Watergate, presidents were given the benefit of the doubt; post-Watergate, they had to prove their innocence. The media became much more aggressive when covering politicians. And, after realizing how many lawyers were involved in Watergate, the American Bar Association tightened its entire code of ethics.
But Dean also warns of the lessons ignored and the mistakes being repeated. The Department of Justice should be an independent branch, he said, not subject to the whims of the White House — something Donald Trump didn’t know or thing to ignore. Another concern: Congress hasn’t used its inherent power to enforce subpoenas, a power it used 50 years ago to reveal the depth and extent of the Watergate coverup.
John Dean experienced Watergate from inside. He’s watching Donald Trump closely.
Dean went on high alert when Trump was elected president and said his fears were confirmed. The difference between Nixon and Trump? “Nixon actually had a conscience. He could experience shame. Donald Trump can’t. I don’t think it’s in his character and his makeup.”
So he’ll be watching the Jan. 6 hearings closely — hoping the lessons of Watergate will inform the process, afraid they won’t.
“During Watergate, there was never a moment when I really thought there was a constitutional crisis,” he said Wednesday night. His biggest fear was that Nixon wouldn’t turn over the White House tapes, but he did. Now he’s worried the current Republican Party has adopted Trump’s authoritarian tendencies instead of heeding the not-so-distant past.
“If we don’t learn the lessons,” Dean warned, “democracy’s in trouble.”