John Dean: “I Never Thought Anyone Could Trump Buchanan”

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All of us have a signature moment in time, a singular date, indelibly preserved in memory. For John Dean, that time came in the Oval Office on March 21, 1973. “Yes, that was the day I thought I’d give Nixon a little bracer,” Dean told me earlier today from his cell phone, en route to a book signing in Washington, D.C. And what a bracer it was. That morning, Dean, then the young counsel to the White House, famously warned Richard Nixon that “there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the President himself would be killed by it.” Dean remembered Nixon’s “stunned silence,” his feet skidding from his desk to the floor. “Oh, I really got his attention that morning.”

Dean, you may recall, was the first administration official to accuse Nixon of direct involvement with the Watergate break-in. For his own role in the cover-up, which included overseeing payments of “hush money” to the Watergate burglars, Dean would serve 127 days in a federal prison. Ironically, Dean first hitched his wagon to the Nixon cause as volunteer, writing position papers on (you guessed it) crime for Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968.

Dean is 68 now, a registered independent, living in Beverly Hills with his wife, Maureen, the blonde bombshell and tabloid sensation during the days of the Watergate scandal. Perhaps more than any of Nixon’s legendary cast of characters and crooks, Dean has prospered and kept his dignity intact. “It was all a very maturing experience,” he said. “I was very young then and, in some ways, very naïve.”

For the past four years, Dean has penned a series of lamentations on the Republican Party, though he’s saved his sharpest arrows for the president, particularly in his 2004 tome, Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. In fact, Dean has called for Bush’s impeachment for the deception over the war in Iraq. “From the beginning of his administration, I was struck by his remarkable secrecy,” said Dean. “He pulled the shades down, slammed the door and stiffed the press.” As for Dick Cheney: “He has swallowed the presidency.”

I asked Dean how he thought history might treat Bush. “I never thought anyone could trump [James] Buchanan, but he has. If the criteria of being one of the worst presidents is how much damage you can do and how long it will take to repair it, well, he’s right up there.”

During our brief conversation, Dean spoke ardently about the need for an incoming president to be well prepared and understand “the processes” of government and governing – a central theme in his latest book, Broken Government. “The attitude of the American people that getting an outsider to come in and that he’ll make it work – you know, the governors like Jimmy Carter and so on – well, that never happens.” Fresh faces like Barack Obama are fine, but invariably, added Dean, they’re not ready.

Turning to the current Democratic presidential contest, Dean said Hillary Clinton is “clearly the most qualified to step into the job. I mean 43 men have screwed it in one way or another, so why not a woman?” John Edwards, too, has also impressed Dean. “He’s one hell of a campaigner. He’s a savvy lawyer and knows how the system works.”

As far as Bush’s Thursday night -- and widely panned -- speech on Iraq, Dean said, “It seems he could have given that anytime in the last three or four years. I think he sees this war going on forever.”

Dean will be at the St. Louis County Library next Thursday evening at 7 p.m. to sign and discuss his most recent book.

-Ellis E. Conklin

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