The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, by John W. Dean

Nine stars

John Dean offers this insightful look into the build-up of the Watergate affair, and the subsequent demolition of trust in America’s political core. Dean presents not an argument from his own perspective, but cobbles together a narrative that includes actual conversations caught on the infamous Nixon taping system, as well as diary entries of the POTUS and his closest advisors. Dean does parachute into the narrative at times, offering his own perspective, but allows the conversations and entries to speak for themselves. The narrative builds from Nixon learning of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee in June, 1972 through to the realisation that those within his inner circle were complicit in sending directives or sullying their hands during this and one other break-in. Building from there, Dean offers the fast-paced scramble that took place once Nixon realised what was going on and how to create a buffer for himself, while trying to protect some of his key advisors, with ideas of immunity or pardons. As the political damage deepens and Nixon is searching for a scapegoat, he turns to his counsel, Dean, and throws him to the lions, forcing Dean’s resignation, in hopes this will quell the storm. Dean remains stalwart as he is called before the grand jury and the Senate Committee tasked with investigating the Watergate events. Told in such a way that the reader is left in awe at some of the admissions made in private to obfuscate justice and protect a few men. Not to be missed by the political fanatic, especially those who are opened minded to the taint that politics can leave on certain people and how power acts more as an intoxicant than aphrodisiac.

The seamless nature of the narrative remains one of the book’s greatest assets. It reads as fiction, not because it is so bombastic, but due to the smooth nature of the delivery and flow from day to day, character to character. Dean has removed the choppiness one might expect in even a quasi-academic piece, where quotes from the telephone conversations or diary entries would leave the pace jilted. Instead, it is a collaboration of paraphrasing and, when important, direct quotes, that allows the reader to forge onwards so effectively. Breaking the narrative down into smaller and more digestible pieces, both segments of importance and individual days, Dean allows all the actors to have their time in the spotlight and implicate themselves thoroughly. There are too many to name here, but the list of men whose choices, insights, and decisions helped shape the decision by Nixon to cover-up what he knew and when goes to the core. Equally effective is the brash nature that Nixon takes to all this, that he can sweep it under the rug or delegate whipping boys to take the fall. The amount of detail is staggering, but not crippling to the lay reader, whose interest may be the scheming but not the intricate political or criminal details that could be trudged up by a legal mind. Minutiae is left to the law review articles, while Dean offers up the most comprehensive collection of summaries I have ever come across to develop an understanding of who knew what and when, as well as the fabrication of events and documents to protect certain people and flay others. Brilliant and sinister all in one collection. 

I would be remiss not to address certain key elements of the overall presentation of this book. The attentive reader will realise that one cannot approach any piece of non-fiction that deals in history or document interpretation without understanding the inherent bias in a narrative. Add to that, an author who has been seriously scorned and betrayed by some of the key players in the story, and you have red flags at every chapter break. The reader must invest so much trust in Dean’s accounts, both that they are not marred in the passage of four decades (as recollections tend to get at least become partially foggy after that time) and that the paraphrasing of tapes, or inclusion/exclusion of certain passages will not skew the larger narrative. While Dean is clear to elucidate in the preface that he scoured the tapes and their transcripts, there is a certain degree of scepticism necessary in any reader, unless one chooses blind faith. Even then, it remains solely one man’s interpretation of events. Not to get too philosophical here, but isn’t that the foundation of history, biased interpretation? That being said, the reader must take this all in with a grain of salt and see where things go during the analytical process. Surely, there will be some gobsmacked moments as well as the raising of at least one eyebrow during certain passages.

Dean pulls no punches, but does not seek to exonerate himself while leaving others to hold the blame. As the title suggests, he tries to give the reader a chance to see what Nixon might say he knew or did not know as it related to Watergate. Additionally, it might give the reader some insight into what the Senate Committee might have discovered, or both Houses discussed, if impeachment had moved forward. Whatever the take, it is an eerie view into how dirty politics could be. The reader must thank the late President Richard Nixon for installing this taping system, leaving hours and hours of incriminating evidence on hand for synthesizing. Power corrupts, but it also gives a false sense of infallibility and living above the law. Thankfully, people like John Dean (and David Frost) can poke the bear and force it to dance for the people.

Kudos, Mr. Dean for this wonderfully crafted book. I cannot praise you enough for all you hard work and dedication to offer up a well-documented approach to Watergate and Nixon’s implicit guilt therein.