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The interview with John Dean

Warping the lessons of Watergate


John Dean, who was White House legal counsel to President Richard Nixon, famously identified "a cancer growing on the presidency" when he testified as the government's key witness in the Watergate trial. In 2004, in the damning analysis "Worse Than Watergate" he made a similar diagnosis about the Bush-Cheney administration, and now "Broken Government" (Viking, $25.95) examines, with great precision and even greater urgency (in the words of the subtitle), "how Republican rule destroyed the legislative, executive and judicial branches."

Dean spoke from his home in California.

Q. Did you plan this indictment of Republican rule as a trilogy?

A. I did not. I started to write about the Bush-Cheney administration in my weekly column for, and that evolved into "Worse Than Watergate." I kept thinking, these people are going to get their act together, but then I realized this was their act. In "Conservatives Without Conscience" I reported on research examining why they act as they do. After that, so many people asked me what damage has been done by this administration. That was the genesis of the third book, "Broken Government."

Q. Has your writing style changed along the way?

A. No, I guess it's still the lawyer's approach. You never know how much the judge (or the reader) is going to know, so you try to be explicit without being insulting and detailed without being dull. I generally have somebody in mind that I'm writing for, a friend perhaps. Also I try to write books that I want to read. This is often information that I had been trying to find and I wish somebody had written the book; then I wouldn't have to.

Q. Was there a critical moment during this administration when you perceived American democracy to be in danger?

A. When I wrote "Worse Than Watergate" I was deeply troubled by the truly excessive secrecy of this presidency and the efforts [Vice President] Cheney was making to keep things secret. I look at it as someone who has been on the inside. There's a reason for that secrecy; it's because you don't want people to know what . . . you're doing. It's not because you're trying to gain presidential powers; it's because you don't want people to know what you're doing with those powers. When I was writing the postscript to "Worse Than Watergate" I asked the Kerry campaign, off the record, why they had given Bush such a free pass on all this secrecy. And they said "It's a process issue." I said "Right, it's a process issue. Everything that's going on in that town is a process issue, and you're ignoring it." But they insisted that voters don't like process issues. I knew the opposite to be true, and I eventually found groundbreaking, empirical studies carried out by political scientists at [University of] Nebraska that showed how important process is to a large segment of American voters. You see, people don't need to know what a motion to recommit is; they understand at a gut level when they're getting screwed by the process. That was a great revelation and comfort to me.

Q. Why does Watergate still matter to you - and to Dick Cheney?

A. It clearly matters to Cheney because he thinks as a result of Nixon not staying, fighting, and prevailing, somehow the presidency was weakened. As I show in "Broken Government" that's just not true; it's a ruse. Reagan took the presidency way beyond where Nixon ever hoped to take it. A massive amount of the work of the Senate Watergate Committee was on preventing just what Cheney, [Karl] Rove et al. have so successfully accomplished. That is, to totally politicize the process. So it shows that Watergate really had no lasting effect. I think it established some sort of standard of what was not acceptable - I don't think those were bad standards - but we've gotten around them. Today, the lessons of Watergate really come down to "Don't get caught."

Q. In what sense is this a "neo-Nixonian" presidency?

A. In the sense that Nixon gave us what Arthur Schlesinger appropriately labeled "the imperial presidency," but these people have gone way beyond that Nixonian standard. They have given us the imperial presidency on steroids. This is Cheney's legacy, and I have real concerns that a Democratic president would be unlikely to send all those powers back to Congress. When they're in power, they too would use these powers.

Q. Of all the problems and abuses you identify, which demands the most urgent attention?

A. The Democrats have already started to repair the damage in the legislative branch. With the executive branch, if the expanded powers are not misused it's not quite as dangerous. To me the most troubling abuse and what should be focused on in 2008 is what the Republicans have done to the federal judiciary by making political the nonpolitical branch. It's a conservative Supreme Court today. It's clear that if Bush were to get another appointee, he would appoint another legal fundamentalist who would embrace a supreme executive with strong military inclinations. It's a remarkable authoritarian vision of America that I don't think the majority of Americans want. The Democrats have the power to block that.

Q. You're optimistic?

A. I am. I think that if you give Americans the information, they do the right thing. Just think of an average jury. You put them in a room and 99 percent of the time they come out with the right judgment. It happens with voters too.

Anna Mundow is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at

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