How John Dean “Nixoned” Nixon
I am reading a very interesting book entitled Haig’s Coup: How Richard Nixon’s Closest Aide Forced Him From Office, by Ray Locker. It is an account, drawn from the Nixon tapes, from memoirs, and from interviews of how Alexander Haig, who had become Nixon’s chief of staff after the resignation of H.R. Haldeman, manipulated Nixon and events to get Nixon to resign the presidency. And it seems to me that Locker makes his case, that indeed Haig, in large part to protect himself and some others, did successfully drive Richard Nixon from office.
I wish to focus on just one part of the book, that dealing with John Dean’s testimony to the Watergate Committee and Nixon’s response thereto. It is fair to say that Dean did to Nixon what Nixon had done to Alger Hiss, when Nixon managed to discredit Hiss and eventually get him convicted of perjury when Nixon was a representative and a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948.
Dean testified, essentially, that Nixon had been involved in the cover up of the Watergate burglary and that he, Dean, had warned Nixon that there was “a cancer on the presidency,” a cancer that would unless dealt with unseat Nixon and harm the presidency itself. But, as Locker points out, “The context in the actual conversation [between Dean and Nixon], which would not be seen for months, was different [than as described by Dean]. Nixon and Dean met with Haldeman, not alone, and Dean’s warning to Nixon was not one of aggrieved conscience but one of concern that the cover up would not hold.” [106-107] And there were in Dean’s testimony other “exaggerations, distortions, [and] discrepancies,” as was pointed out in what is known as the “Golden Boy” memo put out by the White House after Dean’s testimony.
Later, though, Nixon came to realize that he “was worried about the wrong problem. I went off on a tangent, concentrating all our attention and resources on trying to refute Dean by pointing out his exaggerations, distortions, discrepancies. [But] it no longer made any difference that not all of Dean’s testimony was accurate. It only mattered if any of his testimony was accurate.” [added]
While Nixon doesn’t seem to realize it, Dean had done to him what he had done to Alger Hiss in 1948. That is, Nixon then accused Hiss of being a communist, of what might be called a “status crime,” rather than an actual criminal act. Once Nixon could show, as he did, that any part of Hiss’s testimony wasn’t true or that any part of Whittaker Chambers, a former communist party member, was true, then Hiss would be deemed guilty as charged.
Dean was accusing Nixon in a similar way, as being involved in an obstruction of justice, being involved in the cover up of the Watergate burglary. Once it was demonstrated that Nixon was involved in any way in the cover up, then Nixon would be deemed guilty as charged, no matter how inaccurate Dean’s testimony might have been in places. As Nixon realized later, it served no purpose to argue, as he tried to do immediately in response to Dean’s testimony, “I was not as involved in the cover up as Dean claims I was.” Such a claim, while true, was irrelevant. The only testimony that could’ve saved Nixon would be if he could have testified that when he met with Dean to discuss the White House response to the burglary, he had said: “We have only one option: We must come clean about the burglary and let the chips fall where they may.” And, of course, he would have had to mean it and act on it.
Although Nixon didn’t know this at the time, nor did anyone else beside Dean, had Nixon come clean, Dean would have been hung out to dry because the burglary itself as well as the cover up were his ideas. Dean sent Liddy and Hunt back – they had been in there once before – into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate because he was concerned that his then girlfriend might be implicated in a call girl ring that used the DNC phones to set up assignations or “dates.” And when the burglars were caught and arrested, Dean started the cover up by claiming, falsely, to Haldeman that John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general for awhile, had recommended asking the FBI to back off its investigation because of a secret CIA operation the agency did not want revealed. Haldeman took this recommendation to Nixon, who thought it was a good idea, as it would use national security to shield the Watergate burglars from prosecution. Nixon and Haldeman even praised Dean for this suggestion based on Dean’s meeting with the acting head of the FBI, Patrick Gray. Little did they know they were being or were going to be set up by Dean when the cover up came undone.
There is an old expression that what goes around, comes around. Well, it would seem that this is what happened to Richard Nixon. Or as other expressions have it: “Just a little old fashioned justice going round, just a little old fashioned karma coming down. It really ain’t hard to understand: If you’re gonna dance, you gotta pay the band.” And it is safe to say, Nixon paid the band. His cunning ultimately led to his downfall. Sometimes, honesty is the best policy.