On Sept. 16, 1972, President Richard Nixon met with his top aide, chief of staff H. R. "Bob" Haldeman. The topic of discussion was the President's Counsel, John Dean. Nixon was very pleased with Dean's efforts to contain the growing Watergate scandal. The day before, a grand jury had met and limited its indictments to the five Watergate burglars, plus E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. No White House higher-ups were included in the indictments.
Nixon said to Haldeman, "I'd Also like you to know that I am damn impressed with John Dean. I was far more impressed with him than John Ehrlichman. As far as him being a playboy, he realized that he's good, despite being a playboy. But Dean is more steely than John (Ehrlichman). More steely than John, no question with Dean, and Bob and I can't tell you how strongly I feel you've got to be steely and mean."
Nixon went on about Dean's virtues. "And Dean is not honorable. He's a crook, he's a snake. But he's good, he's good." Haldeman agreed, saying, "And he's become more so. Dean has become harder in the job, because he is a guy, in spite of his playboy image, (who) is very deceptive. He is a playboy, he's got a beautiful girl who lives with him, who's not his wife. And he changes them every once in a while."
"That's alright", Nixon replied. "Dean is obviously the kind of guy that likes to screw anything, that's really what he is. And that's what we need. That's what we need."
This conversation is much more revealing about Nixon that it is about Dean, who proved to be the last honest man in the White House. Dean's testimony before the Senate Watergate committee the following summer was the key to the downfall of Richard Nixon and his presidency.
But revelations like this are what makes Dean's new book the most intimate, detailed, complex and nuanced portrait of a President and his courtiers that we have ever seen in print. Nixon is revealed as a Shakespearean, Hamlet-like figure, brooding constantly and obsessively over Watergate and how it could be contained. Could it be blamed on Mitchell? Would Magruder be drawn in? Was Liddy willing to stand on a street corner and be shot (he said he was)? Would Segretti be caught up in it? What about Chapin, Clawson, Colson, Kleindienst, MacGregor, Mardian, Sloan, Stans and on and on? Could Nixon's loyal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, be blamed for the 18 minute gap on the tapes?
Above all, could the scandal be cut off before it reached the President? The answer, of course, was no. Dean wisely warned Nixon in March of 1973 that there was a "cancer on the Presidency", and that if it was not cut out, it would ultimately kill the President himself. But it was too late, and Nixon didn't listen. Instead, he tried to send Dean to Camp David to write a phony "report" on Watergate that would exonerate him, which Dean refused to do.
The irony, as Dean makes clear in this book, is that Nixon very likely did not order the Watergate break-in and did not know about it in advance. It was indeed the cover-up, not the crime, that did him in.
This is not a book for revisionism or conspiracy theories. Dean deals in facts, not theories, and demolishes some of the conspiracy ideas that have grown up around Watergate. He presents convincing explanations for what the Watergate burglars were looking for, and what was on the mysterious18 minute gap in the tapes. There is nothing here that will change the basic story of Watergate as we know it.
What the book does contain is a wealth of detail, chronicling Nixon's conversations day by day over two years with top aides like Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Dean himself. It paints a portrait far more detailed than the broad brush strokes of the Nixon stereotypes and clichés. Dean is scrupulously fair, but Nixon is undone by his own words. To read them is to be a fly on the wall in the palace court of the Nixon White House, to observe history close up as we have never seen it before.
Dean has undertaken the Herculean and monumental task of transcribing more than 1,000 tapes of Nixon conversations, including some 600 never seen or heard before. The book contains many juicy tidbits and insights into the mentality of Nixon and his men, and will provide rich material for novelists and filmmakers of the future.
Nixon's story is ultimately a kind of Greek tragedy. The result is foreordained from the beginning, but we watch it unfold day by day to its inevitable conclusion. Nixon as always proves to be his own worst enemy. The tragedy of the man is not what he was, but what he might have been. It has become almost a cliché to say that if Richard Nixon were alive today, he would be regarded as a liberal for his openings to China and the Soviet Union, his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and other progressive actions. Indeed, Nixon would probably be tarred and feathered and run out of the Republican Party by the Tea Party types that dominate it today.
But they don't have Nixon to kick around any more, and neither do we. Instead, we have "The Nixon Defense" -- the closest we will ever come to knowing the real Richard Nixon. It is a fascinating and very important piece of history, and the stuff of great drama.
(Eric Hamburg co-produced the film "NIXON" with Oliver Stone. He is a former speechwriter for Senator John Kerry).