Nixon's counsel revisits Watergate

News Release Date: 

Nixon's counsel revisits Watergate
John Dean to speak at Harding Symposium in July

Published Jun. 30, 2013  

John W. Dean 3d, former counsel to the president, testifies before the Senate committee on the Watergate hearing in Washington, D.C., on June 27, 1973. Sitting behind him is his wife, Maureen. (AP Photo) / AP

Written by Kurt Moore The Marion Star

Hear John Dean speak
John Dean, President Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, will speak during this year’s Warren G. Harding Symposium to be held July 19-20 at The Ohio State University at Marion.

Dean and Cleveland attorney Jim Robenalt will present an afternoon workshops at 4 p.m. July 20. They are the keynote speakers for a dinner program to be held 6:30-9 p.m. in the Guthery Community Room in Maynard Hall.

Tickets remain available for the symposium, which will include other workshops and activities centered around the theme “Scandals and the United States Presidency.” For information, go online to or call 740-725-6253.


MARION — Watergate. It would be the scandal that brought down a president, still tarnishing Richard Nixon’s legacy decades later.

It also ended the legal career of a young White House counsel named John Dean.

Dean, as the 40th anniversary of Watergate approaches, is attempting to transcribe Nixon’s taped conversations as he writes a new book. He and Cleveland attorney Jim Robenalt also are using Watergate as a how-to lesson for lawyers to avoid ethical conflicts similar to what he faced.

They will share their thoughts at the upcoming Warren G. Harding symposium, “Scandals and the United States Presidency,” on why scandals continue to be part of the presidency.

Dean served as legal counsel to Nixon during the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. He testified before Senate investigators and became the first to directly implicate the president.

The scandal had come to light when authorities caught five men trying to break into and wiretap the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate office complex. The FBI connected their cash to a slush fund used by an organization created to focus on Nixon’s re-election campaign.

Investigators and the nation would learn about Nixon’s tape-recording system that exposed conversations in which he and staff members tried to cover up ties to the break-in. Nixon, facing impeachment, instead chose to resign in 1974.

Part of the recordings capture Dean telling Nixon that the cover-up was a “cancer on the presidency.” Dean said he decided to come clean about the cover-up after Nixon asked him to write a “bogus report,” saying he had conducted an investigation.

Dean spent four months in a “safe house” facility for his part in the cover-up. He became an investment banker and wrote a book on Watergate titled “Blind Ambition.”

Now retired, he and Robenalt teach continuing education classes to lawyers.

Dean, 40 years after the Watergate hearings, is skeptical about whether “we learn from our history.”

He said post-Watergate reforms, such as the creation of independent counsels and campaign finance laws, didn’t leave a lasting impact. He said investigative journalism had become the “new norm” after Watergate.

“That’s come and gone,” he said, challenging that it’s become too expensive to make it the norm in the era of the Internet and corporate ownership of media outlets.

“The lawyers have taken it more seriously than anyone else,” he said, referring to the focus on ethics and professionalism that it brought to the legal profession.

Dean wrote the national bestseller “Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush,” in which he criticized what he called the Bush administration’s “obsession with secrecy and their willingness to deceive.”

He said the tendency of those in power continues to be cover-ups. An example, he said, is “the Penn State scandal, the fantastical thinking of covering it up and it will go away.”

“Admitting you are wrong is so hard for people to do,” he said.

There continues to be scandals during presidencies, including questions regarding U.S. intelligence efforts allegedly leaked by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Dean suggested this is just human nature.

Robenalt referred to “Prospect Theory,” which proposes that people make decisions based on potential losses and gains. He referred to the work of Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work developing the Prospect Theory.

The theory suggests, for instance, that someone with a high chance of winning $1,000 would likely stop at winning a lower amount because of a fear of disappointment. A person, however, who may lose $1,000 but could stop at losing $500 may continue taking risks hoping to avoid a loss.

“People facing certain losses will take gambles and cover up,” Robenalt said. “People facing certain losses are three times as likely to do certain things.”

Dean said many of these presidential cover-ups come during times of war. During Nixon’s administration it was the Vietnam War. Now, during Bush’s and President Barack Obama’s times in office, it’s the war on terrorism.

“When we have wars we let that affect civil liberties,” he said.

Dean and Robenalt drew parallels between Watergate and the current scandal involving Snowden, who leaked information about secret surveillance operations undertaken by the United States and Britain.

Dean said he took a secret document and locked it in a safe-box, turning over the keys to a judge who then gave the document to the Senate Watergate committee. Robenalt said, unlike Snowden who has fled the country, Dean remained in the United States and testified about what he believed were wrong-doings.

Dean lost his license to practice law because of Watergate. He and Robenalt now draw on his experiences to work with lawyers taking required continuing education courses.

Their lessons include that lawyers representing organizations — including the nation — are doing just that, representing the organizations. They are not representing the people in power within those organizations.

The former White House counsel hopes to release his latest book by Aug. 9, 2014, the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation.

He heads up a team of interns transcribing Nixon’s secret recorded conversations. It includes just under 1,000 conversations, each one anywhere from five minutes to eight hours long.

Just five minutes worth can take up to eight hours to transcribe, partly because of low sound quality.

Dean, an Akron native, grew up in Marion before his family moved to Illinois during his pre-teen years.

He wrote “Warren G. Harding (American President Series),” in which he said he attempted to right Harding’s legacy after earlier authors tainted it with misinformation.

“I have said he’s probably the most misguided American president, and probably the least understood,” Dean said.

He helped Robenalt get access to records that helped Robenalt write “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage during the Great War.”

Robenalt released his book on the alleged affair between Harding and former neighbor Carrie Phillips in 2010. A book signing that Robenalt held at The Ohio State University at Marion drew hundreds of people, giving Ohio State at Marion officials the idea of launching the Warren G. Harding Symposium.

Robenalt and Dean will present a workshop titled “Cancer Growing on the Presidency” during this year’s symposium, to be held July 19 and 20 at Ohio State at Marion. They will be keynote speakers at a July 20 program that will conclude this year’s symposium.
Twitter: @StarKurtMoore