In confronting his Waterloo at Watergate, former President Richard Nixon dealt lovers of history in subsequent generations a death blow.Never again would a president approve of such an extensive, voice-activated recording apparatus in the White House.And after the events of 1973-74, why would he — or she?The discovery of Nixon’s taping system was, after all, foremost among the events leading to the political demise of America’s 37th chief executive, not to mention set the stage for the tenor of the political discord we live with today.On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, his former White House counsel, John W. Dean, has delivered a literary chronicle of the events that only the Watergate egghead or Nixon haters will enjoy. Nixon’s Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It uses primary source material: the former president’s own words gleaned from the infamous tapes.Dean, who was fired by Nixon for his role in the scandal, and aides took on the painstaking task of transcribing more than 600 of Nixon’s private White House conversations that, aside from the National Archives, had never before been heard.His work is the most comprehensive study of the tapes.It is not a groundbreaking result that resolves unsolved mysteries of the Watergate break-in, though it does reinforce the essential importance of the need for public officials of good character.Ultimately, nothing new is learned from what we already know, except when the president not only knew of a cover-up in the works but his role in it.Though he was not aware of the break-in, the president took an earnest interest in it almost immediately after the arrest of five bungling burglars as they attempted to gain entrance into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel, office and apartment complex.He had a good reason for concern about what he concluded was a “comic opera.”On one of the burglars, the FBI found a contact for White House consultant E. Howard Hunt, with a White House contact number in an address book, as well as a check drawn on Hunt’s bank account.Hunt had indeed done some work for the White House. In 1971, he and Gordon Liddy — and two of the men arrested at the Watergate — broke into the office of psychiatrist Lewis Fielding in a White House-sponsored operation searching for files on patient Daniel Ellsberg, he of the release of the Pentagon Papers.Hunt and Liddy also were part of the White House “Plumbers” operation, which attempted to find out and stop leaks of confidential administration information.Nixon claimed to know nothing about the cover-up until informed by Dean in March 1973, but the tapes tell the reader that within days of the arrests on the night of June 17, 1972, the president began helping contrive explanations to keep the White House from being implicated.Liddy was now the general counsel for the Re-Election Finance Committee, and “he is the guy who did this,” Chief of Staff Robert Haldeman told Nixon in one meeting.“ ‘Oooh,’ the president groaned softly. This new fact prompted him to ask again if John Mitchell [the former attorney general who was now director of the committee to re-elect the president] knew about the Watergate break-in before the arrests.”Mitchell obviously knew something, Haldeman replied, but how much he didn’t know. Clearly, Haldeman added, Mitchell didn’t know any of the details.That’s not possible, Nixon said. Mitchell’s possible involvement only brought the ugly affair closer to the president. “Isn’t there some way you can get a little better protection of the White House?”The president liked the idea of a Cuban link, considering Hunt’s work with the CIA in the Bay of Pigs operation in the early 1960s. Among the burglars was Eugenio Martinez and Virgilio Gonzalez, both anti-Castro exiles who had their own motivations for seeing that George McGovern was defeated in 1972.“The Cubans thing works for us,” Nixon said.Dean also addresses one of the biggest mysteries of the Watergate affair: The missing 18 1/2 minutes from a taped conversation June 20, one of those earliest conversations. What was on there?Likely nothing that would have changed the course of history, but rather evidence that he did know — and was an active participant — of a cover-up.Such knowledge would have decimated his contention —Nixon’s final defense strategy — that he knew nothing of a cover-up until March 21, 1973.However, all special prosecutor Archibald Cox had to do was ask for another conversation from June 20 or any subsequent day.Nixon tells us over and again that he did know.
The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
by John W. Dean
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Meet the author
Dean will discuss The Nixon Defense at an Authors Live! event at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Highland Park United Methodist Church, Wesley Hall, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas; 214-521-3111 and www.hpumc.org.