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Watergate History: John Dean and Richard Nixon

John Dean had an important meeting with President Richard Nixon on 21 March 1973 — 39 years ago — and it marked beginning of the end to Nixon’s presidency.

John Dean was White House Counsel at the time. He was trying to manage the scandal that was about to break wide open, a scandal caused by overzealous members of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP, but generally referred to as CREEP).

“We have a cancer within, close to the presidency, that is growing.”

That’s what John Dean told President Richard M. Nixon that morning. He was talking about the trouble they were in over the Watergate burglars. There were clear ties between the White House and the guys who got caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel.

They did it because Richard Nixon desperately wanted a second term as president, and was willing to go to great lengths to get it.

It all started, explains Dean to the president, when Dean told Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman “to see if we couldn’t set up a perfectly legitimate campaign intelligence operation,” what Dean describes as “a normal infiltration, buying information from secretaries and that sort of thing.” By the way, Dean usually refers to himself in the third person in the secret recordings made by President Nixon. These quotes are from the transcripts.

The tape transcripts were released as a paperback

President Nixon’s top guys knew about this plan, from Bob Haldeman to John Ehrlichman (Domestic Advisor) and John Mitchell (Nixon’s Attorney General who became his campaign manager for 1972). They ended up deciding to use Gordon Liddy for their “intelligence” operation.

Liddy had helped them trash Daniel Ellsberg, who they considered a traitor, back in 1971. Ellsberg had been a Vietnam War strategist who used his position to publish the Pentagon Papers, secret documents that embarrassed the Nixon administration.

Liddy’s first plan for the CRP was “the most incredible thing I have ever laid my eyes on,” Dean tells Nixon. Liddy’s plan “involved black bag operations, kidnapping, providing prostitutes to weaken the opposition, bugging, mugging teams. It was just an incredible thing.”

So they tell Liddy to scale it back. He comes back with another crazy plan and they discuss it right there in the Attorney General’s office. Dean claims he was offended and told them to leave.

We know now that President Nixon already knew everything John Dean was telling him. It’s clear from the White House transcripts that Nixon had a habit of feigning ignorance when his advisers told him things, and this meeting is no exception.

Nixon displays the White House version of the transcripts

A month later, President Nixon described this particular meeting as the first time he found out the scope of the CRP operations. 

The president was concerned about paying off the Watergate guys to keep them quiet. Dean warns him that it could cost a lot of money, but more than once the president shrugs that off, telling Dean it would be easy to get a million dollars in cash.

Nixon is also concerned about how to orchestrate a plan of perjury for his underlings. He tells Dean in no uncertain terms that he won’t grant them clemency, but as it turns out, he’d already decided a month before that to use that executive power, once the heat died down. At the very least, he was dangling the promise of clemency before the burglars to keep them quiet.

Comically, the two men sit there in the president’s office, strategizing on how to avoid charges of obstructing justice — by planning how exactly they should obstruct justice.

By the end of the day, John Dean had sat in on two meetings with President Nixon. The second one occurred that evening, with Haldeman and Ehrlichman present. It was a short strategy session, with most of the discussion about how to head off any further investigation by releasing a “document” that would admit some things but not everything.

It’s by the end of the day that John Dean is realizing he will probably be hung out to dry. Just as he’d warned President Nixon that morning, that “people are starting to protect their own behind,” Dean then began to protect his own behind.

One thing they were right about. The wake of their “bad judgements” and “necessary judgements” meant to guarantee President Nixon’s re-election (which he would have easily won without all these shenanigans) caused a problem that wouldn’t go away.

Dean: “It is not going to go away, Sir!”

Nixon: “It is not going to go away.”

Two days later, Watergate burglar James McCord began to spill the beans. Haldeman and Erlichman were asked to resign. Nixon famously threw his friend John Mitchell under the bus.

Five weeks after the March 21st meeting, Dean was fired as White House Counsel. He went on to testify as a key witness against the president, and he served four months in jail for his role.

President Nixon, facing impeachment, hung on as long as possible but resigned on 9 August 1974. He was granted a full pardon by his successor, President Gerald Ford.

For more:

The Who2 biography of John Dean.

The Who2 biography of Richard Nixon.

The Washington Post list of key players, and their easy-to-follow Watergate timeline.

A giant Watergate website.

The PBS documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, “The Most Dangerous Man in America.”

Related Biographies

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