April 12, 2004
John Dean, former White House Counsel to Richard Nixon and Author of "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
"In the Bush White House, I found the same kind of political mentality that drove the Nixon White House, where every decision was made for its political consequence and potential of reelection, rather than any substantive merit, driving all the decision making. I sort of slowly unwind this piece by piece, and show what I believe are circumstances that are worse than Watergate." -- John Dean
With a title like "Worse Than Watergate" -- and written by THE John Dean -- do we need to say anything more?
John Dean, a favorite of ours at BuzzFlash, knows of what he speaks. The legal counsel to the White House who warned Nixon that there was a cancer on his presidency can spot an ethically and morally corrupt administration when he sees one.
Dean documents how Bush and Cheney have "created the most secretive presidency of my [Dean's] lifetime." For someone who was exposed to the dark secrets of the Nixon administration, there can be no more searing indictment.
And an indictment this book is. The only thing that keeps Bush and Cheney from being impeached is the carefully crafted veil of secrecy that they have created to hide their misdeeds from public and legal scrutiny.
Of course, controlling all three branches of government -- Soviet style
-- helps. And it also helps to have an Attorney General who is as blindly
loyal as a pet pooch.
The only thing, Dean argues, between Bush, Cheney and orange jumpsuits and jail bars is the revelation of the truth. John Dean gets as close as one can get in this book.
Dean's book makes you realize that the Bush Cartel is going to do everything they can to steal the 2004 election. Because if they lose, they might end up in a federal prison, if they don't pardon themselves before they are indicted.
The White House doesn't have enough shredders to cover up their likely crimes.
* * *
BuzzFlash: In your book, "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush," you note that in the course of writing the book, you moved from warning about the abuses of power to actually creating a list and writing a book that chronicles alleged abuses of power because there were just too damn many.
John W. Dean: If you could just strike the word “alleged.” But to answer your question, what happened in the process of writing the book is that I couldn’t get out in front of the abuses of power that I was witnessing. Therefore, what became warnings quickly were transformed into indictments. So I found myself preparing a Bill of Particulars, because it became quickly apparent, particularly in the area that I was focusing on, which was the repressive if not obsessive secrecy -- that it was policy. They knew exactly what they were doing. They wouldn’t want to hear or entertain any warnings or alerts from anybody who might see what they’re doing as not the wisest course to take.
BuzzFlash: You were a legal counsel to President Nixon. You had a Congress at that time that had hearings held by a Democratic senator, and there also was a legal process that was unfolding. Now one party controls three branches of government, and it seems to have a point man on the Supreme Court, Anton Scalia, who believes he’s above any conflict of interest, despite his partisan performance in Election 2000. Even with all the outrage that’s occurring over charges Richard Clarke makes in his book about the Bush administration being asleep at the wheel in regards to terrorism pre-9/11, there is no investigative process of any serious kind in Congress.
The Attorney General’s office, other than handing over the Plame investigation to a respected prosecutor in Chicago, isn’t seriously pursuing any active investigations of this administration. We have the 9/11 Commission out there, but up to now, they seem to be politically straddling the fence in the conclusions they’ve come to, saying basically that neither Clinton nor Bush were doing a particularly good job.
So this is our point: you write about secrecy. How do you get inside the secrecy when there’s no vigorous independent "process" to expose the Bush administration from an investigative of legal standpoint?
John W. Dean: Let me explain it. First, yes, as somebody who has been inside as counsel, what I see is a White House that has got some very serious problems. How do I know that? How, given the fact that there are no investigations actively going on by independent bodies? Well, I know it because one can connect the dots. There are patterns that become very clear when you start sifting through what we do know, and putting it together with what we don’t know. Circumstantial cases are often stronger than direct evidence, and I think there’s certainly an overwhelming circumstantial case as to the obsessive secrecy of this presidency. As to the events and the activities that are being undertaken in secret, we’re just getting glimpses. And as I watched the figures move in the shadows, I’ve got a pretty good idea what they’re doing. Can I say so with certainty? In some instances yes, but others, no. But I can tell you that everybody should be watching this very carefully because it’s deeply troubling.
BuzzFlash: You have a pretty provocative title. What moved you to title your book "Worse Than Watergate?"
John W. Dean: As I explain in the preface, because that will obviously be one of the early questions people have, is that I really can’t claim original authorship of the title. What happened was I wrote a column for FindLaw.com that was republished by Salon? And the editors at Salon, after they had read the column, put the title on – “Worse Than Watergate.” That was the first time the title popped up. A few months after that, after the Valerie Plame Wilson leak occurred, Chris Matthews had [RNC Chairman] Ed Gillespie on. He and Gillespie were talking about it, and Chris said, This is worse than Watergate, isn’t it? This underlying activity? And Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, agreed. That was the second time.
BuzzFlash: Did he agree that it could be worse than Watergate, or that it was worse than Watergate?
John W. Dean: When you look at the transcript, he is agreeing with Chris’ characterization, and saying, yes, if this happened, it’s worse than Watergate.
When my editor raised it as an appropriate title for my book, I realized that it worked in more ways than I had anticipated – that, yes, some of the underlying activity, I think, is far more egregious than Watergate. Certainly the secrecy I was running into and plowing through was far worse than anything I had experienced within the Nixon White House. In the Bush White House, it’s become a policy and the whole approach to government to do everything in secret. In the Bush White House, I found the same kind of political mentality that drove the Nixon White House, where every decision was made for its political consequence and potential of reelection, rather than any substantive merit, driving all the decision making. I sort of slowly unwind this piece by piece, and show what I believe are circumstances that are worse than Watergate.
BuzzFlash: You wrote a book, which we interviewed you, called "The Rehnquist Choice." And it was a marvelous book. When you researched the book on Rehnquist's appointment, you went back and listened to the Nixon tapes, and there were wonderful revelations about Nixon’s thinking and his political strategy and so forth.
One of the issues that comes to mind here is the number of Reagan-Bush appointees that are hearing cases -- Cheney’s energy panel, for example -- and tend to uphold the Administration.
John W. Dean: Cheney is claming that, in both those instances, that he, as vice president, is beyond any reach of the courts or the Congress, or the GAO. It is a remarkable position. And I think he believes that the gang of five that put him and Bush in the White House may give them this prerogative as well.
BuzzFlash: What do you make of Justice Scalia’s claim that he’s above any conflict of interest? He’s insulted that anyone would accuse him of possibly being preferential, merely because he’s gone hunting with the vice president.
John W. Dean: There are two ways to look at his 21-page memorandum, which I read carefully and closely. One is that he can make a logical and respectable argument to not recuse himself – no question. But what he misses in making that argument is he is saying, hey, there is a situation here in Washington where people remains friends after one gets a high appointment; merely because we get these high appointments doesn’t mean that we can’t be impartial.
It’s a terrible attitude when you look at the appearances of it. He just doesn’t seem to get it. And I’m really kind of surprised at his inability to see what he’s doing. But he doesn’t care. I’ve wondered if he has kissed off the idea of ever being chief justice, because, given the position he’s taken on this issue at this time, should Bush be reelected and ever want to put him in the middle chair, you can bet on him being confronted with a filibuster. He has made himself so political that he has virtually precluded himself as Chief Justice. I also keep wondering if he hasn’t decided, well, I’m looking at all my Republican friends making all that money out there in the private sector. Maybe I’ll step down and go out, and make some money before I’m too much older.
BuzzFlash: His 21-page statement refusing to recuse himself from the Cheney case was sarcastic, bitter, at times, even angry. And certainly he was indignant that anyone would think he would possibly mix social life and his position.
John W. Dean: Well, he doesn’t care it there is an appearance of a conflict. And he’s saying that all those editorials where people expressed their disquiet and concern about his conflict, well, they are simply uninformed people. He is saying they don’t understand the facts. I don’t think that’s true.
BuzzFlash: He dismisses that people might suspect he might be biased, considering his actions and statements, written and otherwise, during the 2000 recount. Certainly those among us who would think that would also think twice about his ability as a justice to be independent about a case when he’s still socializing with the vice president, after putting him and Bush in office in 2000.
John W. Dean: I’ve read reports that he indeed had dinner with Cheney just shortly before Cheney filed his petition for certiorari, which was quickly accepted by the court after it was initially filed. It’s a very unusual case to take to the Supreme Court in these circumstances. But Cheney is taking this position that, hey, I’m the vice president. I don’t have to comply with the lower courts. First, he stiffed the District Court. Then he stiffed the Court of Appeals twice. He stiffed the judge when he didn’t want to go in a stay, and took it to the Supreme Court, where he feels he’ll get a better shot at changing the law. Indeed, given the culture of secrecy that has descended on Washington, the gang of five may well give him that put him in the White House may give him what he wants.
BuzzFlash: Why is it an unusual case for the Supreme Court to hear?
John W. Dean: It’s a simple discovery case. A run of the mill civil case. I’m also surprised at the petition filed with the high Court by the solicitor general’s office, which mischaracterized the case. It’s a simple case because it’s a very early discovery seeking documents and interrogatories. Judge Emmett Sullivan, on the Federal District Court, has narrowed the discovery down to make it sure it is not a fishing expedition. He’s made it very limited. He’s said to the vice president, “I want to know what it is that you object to. I want to know what privilege you want to invoke. And I want a list of the documents that you’re refusing to produce.” The Vice President said, “We won’t even give you that. You can’t even have even the most fundamental of discovery, because nobody can’t sue a vice president.”
BuzzFlash: Now this is an example of what you call in Chapter 2 – the title’s “Stonewalling.”
John W. Dean: No, I would call this beyond stonewalling. This is the arrogance of power, if you will, it is beyond stonewalling, which is stalling, stalling, stalling. I have a separate chapter on that. All those chapters add up to the most obsessive secrecy we have ever – and I mean ever – had by a presidency.
BuzzFlash: You begin the “Stonewalling” chapter with a quote from Richard Nixon: “I don’t give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall it.” The stonewalling you saw in the Nixon administration – how does that compare to the stonewalling of this administration?
John W. Dean: In the Nixon administration, the stonewalling really didn’t
start in earnest until Watergate was fairly far along, and when it was
starting to threaten the White House. With the Bush administration, it
really started in the 2000 campaign. Bush and Cheney were able to successfully
stonewall their way through the 2000 campaign. I offer several important
examples. The press never pushed them, never pressed them for the information.
And they got away with it. And then they took their stonewalling from
their campaign, and it morphed into continued stonewalling right in the
White House, which is the reason I pick examples with the campaign and
track them right into the White House.
BuzzFlash: There’s another chapter titled “Obsessive Secrecy.” The lying and secrecy is so brazen in this administration, and so obsessive and overwhelming, that you almost can’t get your arms around it. There’s so much, it seems silly and paranoid to talk about it.
John W. Dean: Yes, it is unbelievable. I did not write a book about their dissembling, their distortions, their rather crude lies, though some of that clearly is in my book. Mendacity is another form of secrecy. What I did, though, is I carefully looked at all the authors and writers who had addressed that subject. And you’re correct -- it is an overwhelming collection of lies.
I happened to rely on David Corn, who I find to be a very good Washington journalist, somebody who wouldn’t push the envelope looking for lies. He doesn’t in his book. I used that as one of my guides, and really went closely through David’s work, and found he had solid corroboration for everything. In the other instances where I’ve looked at people’s work, as you’ve noticed in my book, I’ve documented virtually everything as to where it came from and where I got it. So you’re right. And I see lying – and this is based on my own experience in the Nixon White House – as a blatant means of protecting secrecy. If you tell people a falsehood, you don’t tell them what you’re really doing.
BuzzFlash: Cheney made an offhand remark about three months ago where – and I’m paraphrasing – he was sort of mocking the notion that he’s secretive while at the same time corroborating it. People say I’m just off here in some deep hole, secretly running the government, he said, and then he paused and added: It’s not a bad way to operate. It seemed, at least from the accounts I’ve read, to have been said with a tone of grim ironic truth.
John W. Dean: Well, any good humor always has an element of truth. I think that he hit a responsive chord with the element of truth in his humor. There’s no question that Dick Cheney is a behind-the-scenes-type operator. That’s been his whole modus operandi throughout his government career. He likes to work the back alleys and the back rooms and behind closed doors. That’s where he is most comfortable; that’s where he’s most effective. People I know who’ve worked with Cheney say that one-on-one, he is very persuasive. The hushed voice and the whisper, and the lean-in -- he’s just very good at that. That’s the way he works, and there’s only one person he has to report to: his student, his partner, George W. Bush.
BuzzFlash: Cheney remains a sort of mysterious, elusive character because he’s very selective about his appearances. He pops up on Rush Limbaugh every once in awhile. He pops up at fundraisers. He does a little thing with Tim Russert. But the rest of the time, no one knows where the heck the guy is.
John W. Dean: Nor does he have to answer to anybody, as I say, other than to George W. Bush, who, I’m sure, doesn’t press him for anything other than what Bush should be doing next.
BuzzFlash: You write this book as a call to point out that the way the government’s being run is a slap in the face to democracy. You have a cabal of people who operate a shadow government in secrecy from the American people. Do you think Cheney just has contempt for democracy? Or is he just drunk with power?
John W. Dean: Everything I’ve been able to discern about Cheney and Bush is that they’re well meaning. They believe that they are serving the greater good. It happens to be the greater good that relates primary and principally to Republican contributors. It’s a “what’s good for their contributors is good for America” kind of attitude. But I don’t find them to be evil men. I find them to be zealous men who can’t hear anybody other than themselves. I think they have been caught up by the power of their offices, and I find their attitude toward government very disquieting. They’ve learned nothing from the mistakes that their predecessors have made, and rather have decided to see if they can’t make all those mistakes on their own.
BuzzFlash: One characteristic that they share with Nixon is vindictiveness. It does seem that this administration is worse than Nixon in that way. If we look, for instance, at the Valerie Plame case, they were willing to expose a CIA agent who was an expert in the trafficking of WMDs to renegade governments. It would seem to betray the national interest, if not the very basis on which they made their claim to go to war with Iraq. What do you make of that?
John W. Dean: As I say in the book, it’s probably the dirtiest political trick I’ve ever seen. Nixon at his worst never put out “a hit” on anybody. And Nixon at his worst never went after one of his enemies’ wives or husbands, if it happened to be a female. What’s striking to me about the way this administration plays it is not only are they vicious with their perceived enemies, they literally eat their own when they do something they don’t like.
Take Paul O’Neill. They, in essence, tried to eviscerate the man for being truthful about what he’d seen in the Bush White House. It was obviously something they didn’t want to get out – that the president was scripted, that the president really couldn’t ask an intelligent question of as his treasury secretary says; O’Neill also reported that they were planning to do something with Iraq from virtually the day they walked in the White House. They really went after O’Neill, and O’Neill is not a political fighter at this stage of his life, so he just sort disappeared.
You’ve got the same situation in a sense now of another insider, Richard Clarke. They're going after him tooth and nail. He really had been there for a long time as a pure professional, but he was one of theirs. And now because he’s explained what really happened, they’re trying to do everything they can to destroy the man. It’s really rather sad and pathetic, but it’s the way they play it.
BuzzFlash: They also did that to John DiIulio, who left after a short stint at the White House. He was quoted in a scathing commentary on the Bush administration, in which he referred to them as the Mayberry Machiavellians, particularly Karl Rove, and said they didn’t do anything unless they polled first. They went after him like a buzzsaw, and he just quickly shut up.
John W. Dean: Yes. And you know, he actually liked Bush. Actually I had some material I didn’t use in the book about all that – Bush actually liked him as an academic, which was unusual. Apparently he’s a very likeable person. And while he’s a Democrat, he really wasn’t playing it partisan. He was interested as an academic in the potentials of using the charitable community to do more government work, both religious and non-religious. He had reached these conclusions based on academic study, whereas Bush had come to that position through his catering to his religious right base. But they had a mutuality of interest. Then when it was too much candor, they attacked, as they do with anybody’s who candid.
BuzzFlash: And he quickly retreated. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a professor. He issued a statement after his letter was printed that I think Ari Fleischer read, which said he meant no harm to the president, etc., and now he’s going to shut up. It was sort of a forced retraction. I’m paraphrasing, obviously. But they do have a way of shutting people up.
John W. Dean: They eliminate them. They try to make examples out of these people. There’s the one case I cite in the book where they literally took a rather low-level drug agent – an intelligent agent – and threatened to send him to jail for life for leaking. It’s pretty tough stuff. And when they’re doing this, they’re sending messages to others that you’ve got to toe the secrecy line. They want to have that White House practically in shrink wrap. When they see a leak, if they can spot it and identify it, they’re pretty vicious.
BuzzFlash: Isn’t it kind of ironic that President Bush was so blasé when the Valerie Plame leak came out? “Well, people leak all the time,” he said. All of a sudden, leaks weren’t so significant to him.
John W. Dean: I think the American public is much more sophisticated than we often give them credit for, and they can see those kinds of things for exactly what they’re are. For the Bush loyalists who will question nothing, that’s fine. Or the partisans who are with Bush think it’s even better. Those who are in the middle – and really that’s, in some ways, the one audience I am hoping to reach; I happen to be an independent, and they are the people who are going to be important in this next election -- they’re the people who Bush is not paying much attention to. He pays no attention to Democrats. He governs for Republicans and tries to appeal to independents when he needs something from them.
BuzzFlash: Going back to Watergate, it seems our modern era of politics was born then, if you want to look at it as the Hatfield and McCoys between the Democrats and the Republicans. The extreme wing of the Republican Party never forgave the Democrats for Watergate and Nixon’s impeachment. But if Watergate was about anything, it was about holding the president of the United States to the rule of law. We heard Tom DeLay, Henry Hyde, and many others during the Clinton impeachment process saying the same thing about Bill Clinton. You used the term in your book that Cheney thinks he’s above the law, and the Bush administration generally thinks so. What sort of dangers does that pose to the republic when you have people governing who think, in essence, the law doesn’t apply to them?
John W. Dean: It’s terribly troubling. I happen to believe that until we get back to divided government, meaning one or more of the houses of Congress is not that of the president, then we’re playing with very dangerous circumstances in an era of terrorism. I shudder at the thought of what could happen in this country if there’s another and even more violent terror attack, where Bush and Cheney are at the helm, and would try to manipulate the next event the way they are continuing to manipulate 9/11. It’s a very frightening prospect. This is one of the most serious issues I address in the book. There has been no effort by the president to reduce the “terror” in terrorism, and to the contrary they want to govern by fear for it is easier. It is also undemocratic.
BuzzFlash: What do you think in general of the packing of the courts? This has been an obsession with the right wing, and certainly with the Bush administration. Even with Bush I, we had the Clarence Thomas appointment and so forth.
John W. Dean: It is very unhealthy for the system. And if we get partisan courts, or people perceive them as partisan – and they are certainly increasingly becoming that way – I think we’ve got a real problem with that branch of the government.
BuzzFlash: Back to "Worse than Watergate," we had an investigative process in Watergate that ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation prior to impeachment, which seemed inevitable, for high crimes and misdemeanors. Currently, we don’t have a comparable process here, certainly not in Congress.
John W. Dean: In using the reference to “worse than Watergate,” what I’ve done is I’ve used it more as a frame of reference than a comparative reference. I explain the title in some detail in the book’s preface. I’ve acknowledged that there is no scandal that is equal to Watergate at this time. However, I lay out 11 potential scandals that could break at any time that are certainly inchoate at this point, and could become full-blown scandals with the slightest of tripping. Together they are worse than Watergate, and several of them alone are worse.
BuzzFlash: Could anything become a scandal unless there’s legal recourse to investigate and prosecute it, which is unlikely at this time because Bush and the Republicans control all three branches of government?
John W. Dean: No question about it, because when you have a situation where the Congress refuses to act because of its own partisan position, there’s only one other body – in a sense, one other institution – and that’s the fourth estate. Add to that something that is now present that has never existed before, and that’s the Internet. In the 2000 election, for example, the Internet played a nominal, and minimal, role. But the Internet is growing by leaps and bounds -- from bloggers to web pages, to fundraising – so it is beginning to have its own impact. And what you’ve got to understand is that all scandals that are outside your neighborhood or your office or and occur on a national scale are "media"-ted scandals. In other words, the media itself creates the scandal. Without the media, you can’t have a scandal. If the media says something is not a scandal, this doesn’t bother them; then there is simply no scandal. It’s like a tree falling in a forest and nobody to hear it. So you’ve got to have the media. But we have a new media, and that’s the Internet. And I believe that could have a dire impact on this Bush-Cheney presidency.
BuzzFlash: In terms of the election?
John W. Dean: I think it could affect the election. We’ve got a number of investigations going on. We’ve got an SEC investigation into Cheney right now. I believe that if that if that investigation is followed to its logical conclusion, Dick Cheney could be in very deep trouble. You’ve got the Valerie Plame grand jury going on right now. If that grand jury doesn’t proceed to ask the leader of the Western World what he knows about this leak and the events following it, then the man who is heading that prosecution isn’t half as credentialed as he has been portrayed.
You’ve got the 9/11 Commission investigating right now. It’s going to report in July. That could erupt. I’ve explained several scandals they could erupt before the election.
These scandals would take the air out of the Bush-Cheney balloon.
But this is what is far more troublesome to me: I open and close the book with the fact that Bush and Cheney could take the air out of democracy. That is what truly worries me. And since no one is discussing their obsessive secrecy and its dangerous implications, I decided I had to write this book, and do my best to get it before the American people before November 2004. They must decide if they want a situation that is worse than Watergate.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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