Blind Ambition: The White House Years
By John Dean
John Dean, principal architect of the Watergate cover up; traitor to some, patriot to others, chronicles his years inside the Nixon White House. He describes the events that led up to the Watergate break in and his efforts to keep criminal and congressional investigators from finding the links between the bungled burglary and the White House.
John Dean’s service in government started in the Justice Department under the tutelage of Attorney General John Mitchell. He rose through the ranks to become deputy attorney general and developed a close relationship with Mitchell. When he received the offer from Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman to join the White House staff, in 1970, as counsel to the president, Mitchell tried to discourage him, telling him horror stories about working in the White House and making a boogie man out of the president’s chief counsel for domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman, telling Dean, “I doubt Ehrlichman will ever take his foot off your shoulder.”
But the 30 year old lawyer was not to be dissuaded and went to work at the White House. He found that counsel to the president wasn’t nearly as glorious as it sounded. He had very little contact with Richard Nixon. His official duties were to serve as the president’s lawyer which amounted to witnessing the president sign an updated will and analyzing potential official acts to reconcile them with the law.
His unofficial duties were to keep tabs on anti-war demonstrations and organized groups opposed to the president and his policies. Political intelligence and combating Richard Nixon’s enemies were valued skills at the White House of the early 1970s. The law and the civil rights of others were no impediment to the White House intelligence gathering operation.
As the campaign for re-election started ramping up, John Mitchell resigned as Attorney General and took over the Campaign to Re-Elect the President. Nixon’s detractors nicknamed it “CREEP.” In official circles it was known as the CRP. The CRP was obsessed with two things early on: intelligence on potential Democratic nominees and security at the 1972 Republican National Convention to be held in Miami.
A former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, G. Gordon Liddy, was hired by the CRP to handle security and intelligence for the campaign. Dean got an early taste of just how intense Liddy could be when Liddy showed up in his White House office one day with a bandage on his hand. Dean inquired as to Liddy’s injury. Liddy said he held a lighter to his hand to demonstrate to his underlings how committed he was to the cause of re-electing Richard Nixon. Later, after the arrest of the burglars, Liddy told Dean he was willing to be gunned down on a street corner if it would serve the plan.
One afternoon at Mitchell’s Justice Department office (just before he resigned as Attorney General), Liddy presented his plan to Mitchell, Dean, and Deputy Campaign Director Jeb Stuart Magruder. It was an intricate, expansive, and absurd plan that called for the hiring of call girls, wiretaps, and miscellaneous dirty tricks to be played on the president’s opponents during the convention. According to Dean, it was him that stood up and said, “This is not something that should be discussed in the office of the attorney general.” No one else in the room can recall Dean making such a moral stand.
Morality aside, the plan was rejected by all in the room. Politely, they told Liddy that it was too expensive and complicated. They sent him back to the drawing board. All agreed that the man hired to supervise the security and intelligence for the campaign was just a bit off kilter.
Conventional views of history find the roots of the Watergate break in in this meeting. Later, Liddy would tell Dean that Magruder was pressuring him for intelligence. Nixon’s current obsession was screwing Democratic National Chairman, Larry O’Brien over a retainer paid to him by Howard Hughes. Nixon’s own brother had been pilloried in the press over taking money from Hughes and Nixon wanted to visit a little revenge on the Democrats.
Just who ordered the break in has never been positively determined.
Dean says he first learned of the Watergate break in upon his return from the Philippines in June 1972. It wasn’t long before CRP staffers and eventually White House officials started showing up in Dean’s office to clear their conscience and seek his advice.
At first, Dean reveled in his new status. Haldeman was checking in with him on a regular basis. He was emerging as point man on the biggest crisis the campaign faced heading into the 1972 election. It was Dean who learned that the architect of the burglary, E. Howard Hunt, had an office in the White House. He had done work for Nixon’s special counsel and “hatchet man” Charles “Chuck” Colson. Many of these operations, undertaken in tandem with Liddy, were black bag ops – including breaking into the office of a California psychologist who was treating Pentagon Papers leaker, Daniel Ellsburg.
Dean took custody of Hunt’s papers retrieved from his safe. Some he destroyed. Others were turned over to acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. Dean asked Gray to provide him with the FBI’s “302’s” which are raw notes from investigators as they related to Watergate. Gray complied and Dean was able to monitor the FBI’s investigation.
Most problematic for everyone in the White House and at the CRP were the demands by Hunt, Liddy, and the five burglars arrested inside the Watergate for money for lawyers and to support their families. When demanding money, they made veiled threats of talking to prosecutors about White House ties to the Watergate break-in.
Dean emerged as the go between on the burglars’ demands for money. At first, funds were funneled through the CRP. After that, the task was passed to Nixon’s personal attorney and CRP counsel Herb Kalmbach to raised funds to cover their expenses. Dean, Kalmbach, Mitchell, and Fred LaRue who was a general gopher in the White House. That all changed on December 8, 1972 when United Airlines flight 553 crashed near Chicago, claiming the life of Howard Hunt’s wife. Among Mrs. Hunt’s possessions was found $10,000 cash. The media and investigators began speculating on where Mrs. Hunt, with her husband unemployed and in the DC jail, received the cash.
Dean went to his superiors, Haldeman and Ehrlichman with the pressing need to raise cash for the burglars and specifically Hunt, to keep them quiet. Both believed that the entire mess was John Mitchell’s problem and told Dean to go back to Mitchell to get him to raise the funds. Finally, with Dean in a panic, Haldeman authorized a cash payment from an illegal $350,000 White House slush fund maintained in his office. Eventually, all of that money would end up in the hands of the Watergate defendents.
After the 1972 election, Watergate became a point of interest in the media. Nixon denied that there was any White House involvement in Watergate and told the media that he had asked his Chief Counsel, John Dean, to investigate the matter. If any White House employees had been involved, Nixon said, They would be fired and subject to vigorous prosecution.
After that, Dean was constantly pressured by Haldeman to draft a “Dean Report” that would clear the White House. But Dean knew that the White House had been involved because he’d been involved, Haldeman had approved payments, and he’d learned that Ehrlichman had signed off on Hunt and Liddy’s excursion into the office of Daniel Ellsburg’s psychologist.
Dean started to realize that the coverup could not be maintained. That eventually, the money would dry up and there would be no more money to keep the defendants silent. He decided it was time he met directly with the president and lay out all the facts so the president could exercise his judgment to find a way out.
That March 21st meeting was a turning point in the Watergate scandal. Dean met with the president and told him he was in danger. He told Nixon there was a cancer growing close to the president and that cancer was spreading as more and more of his aides involved themselves in the cover up. He told Nixon of the money demands. Nixon asked how much Dean thought it would cost to keep the men quiet. Dean told the president it would probably cost at least a million dollars. Nixon said he knew where they could get the money and asked Dean if he had any ideas on who should deliver it.
Dean was dismayed that the president wanted to continue the cover up rather than find some way to bring it to an end. Eventually, Haldeman was summoned and briefed. The conversation became more rational when Haldeman and Nixon agreed that the cash payments would not contain Watergate and in the end, they would all look like “dopes,” anyway. The meeting ended with another suggestion that Dean prepare a report.
From that point, Watergate ceased to be a nettlesome problem and became a crisis in the White House. The Senate was convening a special committee to look into the matter. Mitchell and Kalmbach continued to raise hush money, but it was getting harder to find and harder to deliver. Talks began between Dean, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman about finding someone who would step forward and take responsibility for Watergate. Everybody’s favorite scapegoat was John Mitchell, now in private law practice in New York. But “old stoneface” wasn’t willing to step up.
On March 23, Judge John Sirica imposed harsh penalties on all the Watergate defendants, hoping that one of them would break and offer up bigger fish. Dean was sent to Camp David to draft the Dean Report for the president to use as his defense against charges that he’d known about the break in and that there was a White House directed coverup. Dean had already been publicly implicated in the coverup when Patrick Gray told the senate committee that he’d shared details of the FBI investigation with Dean at Dean’s request.
Dean went to Camp David and began analyzing the situation. He didn’t see a way out for himself. Any report he’d write would either be a lie, or would implicate the highest ranking officials in the White House –including himself. He also felt as if he was possibly being made the scapegoat for the entire affair. With a Dean Report in hand, the president could tell the American people he’d relied on his chief counsel to get to the bottom of the case and was lied to. Dean resolved to hire a lawyer and start talking to prosecutors.
According to Dean, he felt as if he were acting out of loyalty to the president by bringing the cover up to a halt before the president was involved. (Dean didn’t know that Nixon had fatally involved himself on June 23, 1972 when he ordered a CIA to block the FBI investigation). He left Camp David and hired an attorney.
At first, Dean was determined to remain loyal while telling prosecutors about the early stages of the cover up and the payment of hush money. He was cast out of Nixon’s inner circle by Haldeman and Ehrlichman who now regarded him as traitorous. Dean implicated Mitchell, Magruder, Kalmbach, LaRue, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman in his conversations with prosecutors, but kept he president out of the conversation.
Shortly after he began talking to prosecutors, Nixon summoned Dean to his hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building to talk. There, Dean laid out what he’d told prosecutors. He told the president that Haldeman and Ehrlichman were both guilty of obstruction of justice, as was he. He recommended that the three of them resign together. Dean got the impression from the conversation that Nixon was not talking to him, but to some mysterious third party, like a tape recorder. Rather than trying to get facts from Dean, he seemed to be posturing as if he’d known nothing about the cover up.
The next day, Dean was summoned to the Oval Office. As he was walking toward the office, he saw Haldeman and Ehrlichman leaving, laughing and joking. As soon as they saw Dean, their countenance changed to one of somber bordering on hostility. Dean entered the Oval Office and found that a resignation letter had been prepared for him. Nixon claimed that similar letters had been prepared for Haldeman and Ehrlichman. Dean refused to sign his, saying he’d resign as long as Haldeman and Ehrlichman went with him.
Dean, now feeling no loyalty to the president, continued to talk to prosecutors. He also agreed to testify before the Senate Ervin Committee that was investigating. He became its star witness by providing eight hours of earthy testimony about the cover up. Nixon would go on national television to announce the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman and the firing of Dean.
Nixon denied Dean’s allegations, saying that there was no evidence to back them up other than notes indicating that Dean met with the president at the dates and times specified. Suspecting he’d been taped, Dean instructed prosecutors to inquire about a White House taping system. Those tapes would bear out most of Dean’s testimony.
Dean ended up pleading guilty to one felony count of obstruction of justice. Judge Sirica was especially hard on Dean and sentenced him to four years – much to his attorney’s outrage. He was given a few weeks to put his affairs in order before he was taken into custody.
Dean was incarcerated at Fort Holabird – a special facility for criminals who need protection such as mafia turncoats and witnesses whose lives are in danger. There, he ran into Chuck Colson, Jeb Stuart Magruder, and Herb Kalmbach. At first, Dean was not allowed to talk to his fellow Watergate conspirators because he was the key witness in the trial against Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and others.
Once his testimony was complete, Colson and Dean got together and compared notes. Neither could figure out who ordered the Watergate break in. However, Dean describes one scene when a forlorn and broken Jeb Magruder came close to admitting he did before shuffling off without another word.
Dean survived his time in prison and his attorney was able to get Judge Sirica to reduce the sentence to time served which was about four months. Dean was disbarred, but went on to have a career in investment banking and is a darling of the political left because he is a frequent critic of Republican presidents and politicians.
A lot of what Dean writes in Blind Ambition is self serving bullshit. Dean was the first to tell his story, so it was against his story that everybody else’s story was compared and if their version of events didn’t match Dean’s they were considered to be lies. Dean was also the first Watergate defendant to write a book and provide the public with a firsthand narrative of the scandal that gripped the nation for two years.
The book is still controversial today. Authors Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, in their book Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, developed a compelling case to demonstrate that it was John Dean himself who ordered the Watergate break in. Dean hired a lawyer and sued. The case was settled confidentially. However, the case laid out by Colodny and Gettlin is compelling and I plan to review their work here soon.
There is also something to be said about honor and loyalty. Some will look at the life of John Dean and say he was a man who did some bad things, but stepped forward and accepted responsibility. There are others who would say he was the person who put the hole in the boat, was the first to know the ship was sinking, and got into the only lifeboat alone. I tend to favor the latter.
John Dean could not have stopped the downfall of Richard Nixon, nor was he the cause of it. Nixon sealed his own fate less than a week after the break in in his June 23, 1972 conversation with Bob Haldeman. But Dean started the cover up. He initiated it and maintained it. His bosses had bigger issues on their mind. Watergate was all consuming to Dean. It was his full time job once it started.
Had Dean done nothing, The investigation would have probably never made its way to the president because Dean was the first link to the White House. He involved the White House and left a trail that led to the White House. Had he done nothing, the prosecutors would have got Hunt, Liddy, Mitchell and Magruder. Dean started the cover up, and then made sure that all of his superior and coworkers were coconspirators.
I sympathize with Dean in that it did appear that Nixon and Haldeman had no problem in making him a scapegoat when both had been compromised. He could not have been reasonably expected to let the President of the United States lead the world to believe that he alone was responsible. But a more honorable man would have gone down with his team – not throw them overboard.
Dean’s book is a valuable resource as it serves as a thorough and authoritative chronology of the cover-up. When paired with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s The Final Days, one can get a complete story of events from the break in to the resignation.