Forty years ago next week, Richard Nixon became the only president in U.S. history to resign, in large part because of disclosures about the Watergate scandal by his White House counsel, John Dean. Now Dean has listened to and transcribed hundreds of hours of Oval Office tapes for a new book, The Nixon Defense, being published Tuesday. He was interviewed Monday on USA TODAY's Capital Download about what he learned about Nixon, Watergate and that 18½-minute gap. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Where were you when you heard that Richard Nixon resigned, 40 years ago?
A: I had just had four wisdom teeth removed, and I had cheeks like this. ... I was dodging the media that day and watched it on television.
Q: How did you feel?
A: There was some relief for me, because I knew if the impeachment had gone forward in the House I would be the central witness in the Senate, and this wasn't something I was looking forward to. And before he was pardoned by Gerald Ford, the government made it very clear I would be again a very key witness in a criminal prosecution.
Q: For your new book, you listened to and transcribed hundreds of hours of White House tapes; some of them hadn't been listened to before by anyone. What did you discover that we hadn't known before?
A: Big issues. Everything from how Nixon got his information — and his decision-making process really frightened me, because there was no process there. I thought that he was always a fairly careful, organized, process-oriented executive, and these were seat-of-the-pants decisions, often with incomplete information. Often denying and looking away from information he needed to make decisions.
Q: One of the great mysteries of Watergate is that 18½-minute gap in an Oval Office tape recorded on June 20, 1972 — three days after the Watergate break-in. Who erased it, and what were they hiding?
A: Who did to me was never as important as ... what was involved. When you listen to every conversation he had on Watergate, that becomes very clear what's involved. It's because of when this comes up. The gap comes up after he set up his defense, 'I knew nothing before March 21' (1973). Well ... there were several conversations that week where they talk about the cover-up, and I'm sure that's what exactly it had to be. Somebody, Nixon himself or someone on his behalf, solved the problem with that tape by just erasing it.
Q: With the benefit of these new tapes, what did the president know and when did he know it? Did Nixon know about the Watergate break-in before it happened?
A: No. I don't think he had any advance knowledge there was going to be a break-in. It's clear to me that he's worried about whether he indeed did order the Watergate break-in, because he ordered other break-ins. On three occasions, they break in the Brookings Institute (Institution). ...
It turns out he did not order it. But he creates an atmosphere obviously in which people like (Watergate defendants G. Gordon) Liddy and (E. Howard) Hunt think this is acceptable behavior.
Q: You heard on the tapes Nixon raising money for the Watergate defendants by selling ambassadorships.
A: He's very guilty about this, because this comes up in later conversations as well. It's very simple. There was difficulty raising money, cash in particular. And (White House chief of staff) Bob Haldeman tells him about this problem, and that (Attorney General) John Mitchell has suggested they take care of (Thomas) Pappas, who is a former ambassador to Greece and a very successful American Greek-based businessman and has raised lots of money for Nixon. He recently sold his company. He's got lots of cash. Haldeman explains all this, but Pappas wants something. He wants to keep the current ambassador in place. And Nixon, just like that, makes the decision. ...
It's a pure illegal deal, and they both know it.
Q: President Nixon later specifically denies selling ambassadorships in testimony before the Watergate grand jury, after he had been pardoned. If this tape had come to light then, he could have been charged with perjury.
A: He could have been.
Q: We asked readers for their questions. Here's one from Twitter, from Denny Freidenrich: "Has John Dean ever visited the Nixon presidential library?"
A: I have. I took a friend, who was visiting in California. ... He walks in, he spots Carl Bernstein, who he'd recognized, visiting the library at the same time. And he tells Carl, "I'm here with John Dean," and he says, "I don't believe it. I'm here with Bob Woodward." And the Nixon Foundation, who is still terribly pro-Nixon and somewhat apologetic about everything he might have done, thinks this is some master conspiracy, that Woodward and Bernstein and Dean all show up at this library on the same weekend day.
Q: Some people say: You know, Richard Nixon was a pretty good president, Watergate aside.
A: (Historian) Stanley Kutler and I had this conversation one time, when Stanley told me that a well-known historian was going to do Nixon without Watergate, and Stanley's comment was, well, this is like Hitler without the Holocaust. I said to Stanley that may be an overstatement, but. ...
There are very strong historical legacies from Nixon that are good. What I'm wondering now after this last drill and watching his decision-making in Watergate, how different was it in other areas? And I think other scholars are going to have to ask that question. This couldn't have been just isolated, and this is very troubling. It would actually mean that (Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger was much more important in China than Nixon really wants to give him credit for. It means the resolution of the war in Vietnam — Kissinger may have been a restraining force. So I think we're going to have to reassess because this ... became a huge problem (which) was so mishandled — a combination of character and just bad decisions.
Q: You lost your law license as a result of Watergate.
A: Turned it in.
Q: Do you want to get it back?
A: At 75, I'm not about to start on a new legal career. A lot of people have suggested I do it because I teach a Watergate continuing legal education seminar. We can draw on this history. ... Some 20 lawyers got on the wrong side of the law during Watergate, so there's a rich book there of what not to do.
All the ethics we have today that lawyers are required in ... law school, a multistate examination, and continuing education requirements, they all stem right out of Watergate, actually right out of my testimony.
Q: You might feel some vindication. Do you think you'd like to get it back?
A: It's something I've mulled, let's put it that way.
Q: And you're mulling it now?
A: I'm still mulling it.
Q: Any regrets that you ever met Richard Nixon?
A: No. He's a great character. He's a wonderful character. There's some really candid stuff in there where he takes his assessment of me, which was much different than I thought. Said some awfully nice things. But he misjudged me, and I misjudged him. He thought I would roll with this kind of thing and he could have somebody who would play the game that I didn't believe should be played. We misread each other.
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