50 years after Watergate, John Dean relives the scandal

After John Dean gave his landmark 1973 testimony on the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought down the Nixon White House, he wanted to move on with his life.

A conviction for obstruction of justice barred the former White House attorney from practicing law in Washington, DC and Virginia. He moved to Los Angeles with his wife Maureen, took business classes at UCLA and worked as an investment banker in the 1980s.

But Dean’s intimate knowledge of how the failed robbery of Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972 ultimately exposed an organized crime-like mindset within the Nixon administration kept him on the hot list. contacts of television news guests for decades.

He’s been a go-to talking head whenever a presidential scandal brews, and twice impeached Donald Trump – whose desperate bid to stay in the White House after losing the 2020 election is still the subject of controversy. investigation – kept him busy as a CNN contributor.

“I never dreamed that I would have to live in this bubble,” Dean, 83, said in a Zoom interview from his Beverly Hills home.

There is no one alive closer to the Watergate scandal than Dean, and now he offers a definitive and deeply personal look at the events that changed his life forever in the four-part documentary series “Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal”. The program will air Sunday on CNN.

Dean has written several books related to Watergate and the overreach of presidential powers. His first memoir, ‘Blind Ambition,’ was made into a TV movie in 1979. But the CNN series is the first time he’s told his story in a documentary, which explains how and why Richard Nixon looked for dirt on his opponents. and detailed accounts of his criminal actions to cover it up.

The program, produced by Herzog & Company, delves into the archive of Watergate-related material that Dean has accumulated and stored in his Beverly Hills home over the years, including his 60,000-word testimony before a Senate subcommittee. originally handwritten on yellow notepads. .

When Dean read this testimony in the summer of 1973 to a massive television audience, he became “the face of the Watergate conspiracy for most of America,” according to Garrett Graff, author of “Watergate: A NewHistory”. “

The depth of Dean’s ideas on Watergate is in part due to a libel suit he filed against St. Martin’s Press. In 1991, the publisher published “Silent Coup: The Removal of a President”, which included an unfounded allegation that Dean had ordered the burglary to suppress information about a call girl ring that served Democratic Party members. The book claimed that Dean learned about the operation from his wife.

President Richard Nixon speaks on the White House lawn before his trip to China in 1972.

(Bettmann Archive/Bettmann)

The couple sued and eventually reached an undisclosed settlement. But the litigation gave Dean access to the records of the Watergate Prosecution Special Archives, heightening his expertise, and he entered the expert class that emerged when cable news grew in the mid-1990s.

“After we settled the case, I started to agree to do television,” Dean said. “Before that, I was so deep in the Watergate weeds. I learn things I never knew about what happened and why it happened.

Dean, an executive producer for the CNN Project, helped tussle some of the participants, including Alexander Butterfield, now 96, the deputy chief of staff who dropped the bombshell that Nixon had a recording system at the White House, which ultimately led to the president’s decision. resigned in August 1974. Journalists Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Lesley Stahl also offer their memories of the story that helped shape their careers.

Despite his brave decision to testify against a sitting president, the series doesn’t give Dean a free pass for his role in the nefarious activities of the Nixon administration. Elizabeth Holtzman, a former congresswoman who served on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, said in her interview that he “was an essential part of the criminal enterprise.” Dean himself recounts how he “crossed a moral line” early in his tenure in the White House.

The program also features one of the few current public figures who can fully relate to what Dean has been through – former longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who went to prison for tax evasion and campaign finance violations. .

Through his attorney, Cohen sought advice from Dean before testifying in 2019 before the House Oversight Committee, where he made allegations of foul play on Trump’s part.

Dean insisted that Cohen be included in the series.

“You can’t watch Watergate today without looking through the lens or at least a Trump Presidency filter,” Dean said.

Trump’s demands for unwavering loyalty from staff and statements such as asking Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes that would overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in the state are vying with what was heard on the Nixon tapes, but were delivered with far less discretion.

While Nixon had a dangerous lust for power, Dean still believes the 37th president and the only one to ever resign still compares favorably to Trump.

“I think Richard Nixon had a conscience,” Dean said. “He might be embarrassed. Was it hard and tough? Yeah. But I think he might feel ashamed. I don’t think that’s an emotion that Donald Trump can ever feel. »

Vintage music videos complete Dean’s story on the CNN series, showing the news divisions of the three major broadcast networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – at the height of their powerful hegemony in the 1970s. respondents noted how the public based their views on Watergate on an agreed set of facts, a major departure from today’s polarized and partisan media landscape.

If the Watergate scandal happened today, Dean thinks Fox News and other conservative outlets would give more oxygen to Nixon defenders and perhaps allow the disgraced president to at least finish his term instead of stepping down. .

Former Trump officials have been criticized for waiting to air their doubts about what was happening in the White House until they left and made book deals. But Dean understands that it’s not so easy to get away from the center of power.

“If it was a county sheriff, they wouldn’t do it [stay]”, Dean said. “It’s the White House in the remarkable city at the top of the government. It’s a fascinating place to see what’s going on.

John Dean sits with his wife, Maureen, waiting to testify before the Senate Special Committee on Watergate in 1973.

John Dean sits with his wife, Maureen, waiting to testify before the Senate Special Committee on Watergate in 1973.

(Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dean attempted to leave the White House in September 1971, a year after he arrived and long before the Watergate break-in. But his immediate boss, John Ehrlichman, told him his career after the White House would be difficult if he left.

“I had some unsolicited offers that I really wanted to explore. Ehrlichman said, ‘If you leave, you’ll be persona non grata with this administration, so don’t take a job where you need a connection to us.’ sure, Jobs wanted me to have White House Nixon connections. Ehrlichman said, “John, you’ll get better job offers after Nixon’s re-election. Yeah, do license plates.”

Dean – a highly ambitious young lawyer, driving Porsches and wearing tasselled loafers when he joined Nixon’s ultra-conservative henchmen – ended up getting fired in 1973 once it became clear he implicate the president in the cover-up. Part of his decision to cooperate with investigators was his own self-preservation, as he believed he was being set up to take responsibility for the White House’s handling of the scandal.

Dean was then incarcerated for 127 days at an army base after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and served in witness protection for 18 months to protect him from continued death threats.

Dean’s immersion in Watergate since then has been so deep that he never imagined what his life would have been like without it.

“I haven’t and maybe I’m not creative enough,” Dean said. “It definitely changed my career path. I have always been interested in government. I always imagined going in and out of government. This does not happen.

John Dean during the filming of

John Dean while filming “Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal” in 2020.

(Domini Hofmann/CNN)

This year, Dean will celebrate another anniversary: ​​50 years of marriage to his wife, Maureen. The image of her calmly seated behind her husband throughout the hearings became one of the most memorable paintings of the 1970s.

“It was a very likable and very believable portrayal,” Graff said. “It helped reshape the public understanding of Watergate.”

While navigating the crisis together has strengthened their bond, Dean still regrets giving his wife this extraordinary experience.

“We still love each other,” Dean said. “We are friends. We respect each other. If I had known what a mess I was in, I would never have married her.

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