Nothing has contributed more to current American cynicism about politics and politicians than Watergate or President Richard M. Nixon's betrayal of the public trust that cost him the presidency. Tapes revealing his appalling vulgarity in response to anyone he considered an enemy have permanently tarnished the presidency.
It is well, then, that John W. Dean has written The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, his third book on the scandal or, more precisely, the cover-up that brought Nixon down. Dean's book will remind people of why Nixon deserves so unflattering a historical reputation, despite the opening to China and detente with the Soviet Union. The book should also serve as a renewed cautionary tale about elevating politicians with questionable character to high office.
Dean, the counsel to the president from 1970 to 1973, went to prison for his part in the cover-up, but won a reduced sentence by cooperating with prosecutors and made further amends in two previous books, Blind Ambition and Lost Honor. Both are valuable additions to the Watergate literature though the 2005 revelation that Deep Throat was the FBI's W. Mark Felt refutes Dean's assertion that Alexander Haig was the leaker.
Dean's latest foray into the scandal is a day-by-day account of Nixon's cover-up revealed in his secretly recorded White House conversations. Dean spent four years transcribing some 4 million words captured on approximately 1,000 hours of Watergate-related tapes: While 447 of these conversations had already been transcribed by other people, some less accurately than others, Dean added 634 more to the record, many of them never before listened to by anyone other than archivists charged with releasing them for public consumption. It was, Dean explains, an "extremely arduous and time-consuming" job to create accurate transcripts. Since the sound quality, especially on Executive Office Building tapes, is "consistently challenging, when not totally impossible, because of where people sat."
The availability of more than 150,000 Watergate documents at the National Archives added to the challenge of building the fullest possible record of the scandal. As someone who wrestled with the Nixon-Kissinger documents relating to foreign affairs, I can only echo Dean's assessment of the difficulties involved in studying Nixon's White House records. Dean's 746-page book is not easy reading. Not only because returning to this crisis reminds us of how fragile our political system can be, but also because reading about Nixon's obsession with the mounting inquiries moving ever closer to the truth about his offenses can be tedious and even depressing.
Yet, Dean's resolve to reconstruct this dismal tale of high crimes and misdemeanors is commendable: It is important to recall that Nixon would have been impeached and convicted had he not resigned and possibly gone to prison without Ford's pardon.
Dean quotes a contemporary column by Joseph Kraft in The Washington Post: "The president and his campaign manager have set a tone that positively encourages dirty work by low-level operators." Nixon had a "special tolerance" for "using unethical means for partisan purposes and for" bending "the law for political advantage."