In 1973, after John Dean made his historic statement about the Watergate scandal that eventually brought down the Nixon White House, he wanted to get on with his life.
A conviction for obstruction of justice prevented the former White House Counsel from practicing law in Washington, DC and Virginia. He moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Maureen, took business courses at UCLA, and worked as an investment banker in the 1980s.
But Dean’s inside knowledge of how the botched break-in into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972 ultimately revealed an organized crime mindset within the Nixon administration has kept him on the TV news guest book contact list for decades.
He’s a talking point whenever a presidential scandal brews, and twice-impeachable Donald Trump — whose desperate attempt to stay in the White House after losing the 2020 election is still under investigation — has kept him busy as a CNN contributor.
“I never thought I would have to live in this bubble,” 83-year-old Dean said in a Zoom interview from his Beverly Hills home.
No one lives closer to the Watergate scandal than Dean, and now he offers a definitive and deeply personal look at the events that changed his life forever in the four-part documentary series, Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal. The program premieres Sunday on CNN.
Dean has written several books on Watergate and the overstepping of presidential powers. His first memoir, Blind Ambition, was made into a TV movie in 1979. But the CNN series is the first time he’s told his story in a documentary, detailing how and why Richard Nixon searched for dirt on his opponents and detailed accounts of his criminal actions to cover it up.
Produced by Herzog & Company, the program delves into the archive of Watergate-related material Dean has amassed and stored at his Beverly Hills home over the years, including his 60,000-word testimony before a Senate subcommittee originally published in Written in longhand on yellow legal pads.
When Dean read that statement to a huge television audience in the summer of 1973, according to Garrett Graff, author of “Watergate: A New History,” he became “the face of the Watergate conspiracy for most of America.”
The depth of Dean’s Watergate insight is due in part to a defamation lawsuit he filed against St. Martin’s Press. In 1991, the publisher published “Silent Coup: The Removal of a President,” which contained an unsubstantiated claim that Dean ordered the break-in to remove information about a call-girl ring servicing members of the Democratic Party. The book claimed Dean found out about the surgery from his wife.
The couple sued and eventually reached an undisclosed settlement. But the lawsuit gave Dean access to files from the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s Office archives, which deepened his expertise, and he entered the expert class that emerged as cable news expanded in the mid-1990s.
“After we settled the case, I agreed to TV,” Dean said. “Before that, I’m so deep in the Watergate weeds. I’m learning things I never knew what happened and why it happened.”
Dean, an executive producer on the CNN project, helped argue some of the contestants, including Alexander Butterfield, now 96, the deputy chief of staff who dropped the bombshell that Nixon had a wiretapping system in the White House that ultimately became that of the President led resignation in August 1974. Journalists Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Lesley Stahl also recount their memories of the story that helped them make careers.
Despite Dean’s bold decision to testify against an incumbent president, the series does not give him carte blanche for his role in the Nixon administration’s nefarious activities. Elizabeth Holtzman, a former member of Congress who served on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, said in her interview that he was “an integral part of the criminal enterprise.” Dean himself talks about how he “crossed a moral line” early in his tenure in the White House.
The program also features one of the few public figures who can fully understand what Dean went through — Trump’s former longtime attorney Michael Cohen, who was jailed for tax evasion and campaign finance violations.
Cohen, through his attorney, sought advice from Dean before testifying before the House Oversight Committee in 2019, where he made allegations of criminal misconduct by Trump.
Dean insisted that Cohen be included in the series.
“You can’t look at Watergate today without looking through the lens, or at least some filter, of the Trump presidency,” Dean said.
Trump’s demands for unyielding loyalty from employees and statements such as urging Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes that would overturn the outcome of the state’s 2020 presidential election rival what was heard on Nixon’s tapes but by far delivered less discretion.
While Nixon had a dangerous lust for power, Dean still believes the 37th President and the only one to ever step down is still compared favorably to Trump.
“I think Richard Nixon had a conscience,” Dean said. “He could be ashamed. Was he tough and tough? Yes. But I think he might feel shame. I don’t think it’s an emotion Donald Trump could ever muster.”
Vintage video clips complement Dean’s story in the CNN series, showing the news departments of the big three broadcasters – ABC, NBC and CBS – at the height of their powerful hegemony in the 1970s. It also prompts interviewees to note how the public bases its opinion of Watergate on an agreed set of facts, a key difference from today’s polarized and partisan media landscape.
If the Watergate scandal happened today, Dean believes Fox News and other conservative media outlets would give Nixon’s defenders more oxygen and perhaps allow the disgraced president to at least complete his term rather than step down.
Former Trump officials have been criticized for waiting until they left and secured book deals to voice their concerns about what was happening at the White House. But Dean understands that moving away from the center of power isn’t that easy.
“If it was a county sheriff, they wouldn’t do it [stay]’ said Dean. “It’s the White House in the remarkable city at the head of government. It’s a fascinating place to see what’s going on.”
Dean attempted to leave the White House in September 1971, a year after his arrival and well before the Watergate burglary. But his immediate boss, John Ehrlichman, told him his post-White House career would be difficult if he left.
“I had some unsolicited offers that I was dying to explore. Ehrlichman said, “If you leave, you’re going to be persona non grata with this administration, so don’t take a job that requires ties with us.” Of course, the jobs wanted me to have ties with the Nixon White House. Ehrlichman said, “John, you’ll have better job offers after Nixon is reelected.” Yes, make license plates.”
Dean — a young, highly ambitious, Porsche-driving lawyer in tassel loafers when he joined the ultra-conservative Nixon henchmen — was fired in 1973 when it became clear he would implicate the president in the cover-up. Part of his decision to work with investigators was self-preservation, believing he was being framed for the White House’s handling of the scandal.
Dean was later jailed at an army base for 127 days after pleading guilty to obstructing justice and was in witness protection for 18 months to protect him from ongoing death threats.
Since then, Dean has immersed himself so deeply in Watergate that he could never have imagined what his life would have been like without Watergate.
“I haven’t, and maybe I’m just not creative enough,” Dean said. “It definitely changed my career path. I’ve always been interested in governments. I always imagined going in and out of government. That didn’t happen.”
This year Dean celebrates another anniversary – 50 years of marriage to his wife Maureen. The image of her sitting quietly behind her husband during hearings became one of the most memorable tableaux of the 1970s.
“It was a very personable and very believable portrait,” Graff said. “It helped reshape the public understanding of Watergate.”
While navigating the crisis together has strengthened their bond, Dean still regrets exposing his wife to this extraordinary experience.
“We still love each other,” Dean said. “We are friends. We respect each other. If I had known the trouble I was in, I would never have married her.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2022-06-01/50-years-after-the-watergate-break-in-john-dean-digs-into-his-archive-for-a-new-cnn-series 50 years after Watergate, John Dean relives the scandal