As the youngest staff member of Richard Nixon’s 1972 Campaign Re-election Committee, I recall crying uncontrollably while watching our 37th President’s televised resignation. It was a moment that broke the back of American politics, possibly for good. It set the stage for five decades of scandal, lawfare, dirty tricks, and vicious partisan battles. Back then, during that summer, the official narrative regarding Watergate was setting like wet cement.
It was created by Bob Woodward, Richard Bernstein, and the Washington Post. It goes like this: “Officials working for Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel. President Richard Nixon got caught covering up this crime. Exposure of the coverup would ultimately lead to Nixon’s resignation. White House Counsel John Dean became a courageous whistleblower and exposed Nixon, along with his criminal gang.”
But as the 50-year anniversary of the Watergate break-in draws near, a more complete — and accurate — narrative about Watergate is emerging.
Not that the facts threaten the way many Americans still understand these events. The conventional wisdom on Watergate lives on, most recently in Gaslit (2022), a TV series on the STARZ network featuring Julia Roberts. She plays Martha Mitchell, controversial wife of Nixon campaign manager and Attorney General John Mitchell. Like so many takes on Watergate, the series is historically-inaccurate. It alleges that Mitchell both knew about and approved of the break-in. Mitchell insisted to his dying day that he never approved of the break-in. Gaslit, then, calls out for historical correction.
When I watched Nixon resign, it was impossible for me to know that, like him, I would one day join a tiny class of US citizen’s to receive a presidential pardon. I was convicted in a Soviet-style show trial in Washington for the crime of “lying to congress” about Russian collusion with Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. (A “crime” revealed to be nothing of the sort by the Durham investigation.)
The fundamental question of this entire affair is whether President Nixon knew about the harebrained plan to break into the Watergate complex before the fact. All the evidence, with more of it emerging year after year, suggests this was not the case.
In The President’s Men (2022), Nixon’s longtime travelling aide Dwight Chapin torpedoes the conventional story. As Chapin both reveals and documents, it was White House Counsel John Dean who conceived, pushed, covered-up and lied to Nixon for over nine months about the origins of the break-in caper and it’s ties to the Nixon White House.
Only after it became clear the cover-up would not hold did Dean secretly reach out to Watergate prosecutors to make a deal for himself. That Dean was disbarred and incarcerated for four months was never mentioned when he later went on the lecture circuit talking to lawyers associations about legal ethics.
Dean, not Nixon, was the villain of the piece. As Chapin notes, the Watergate special prosecutors found substantial discrepancies between Dean’s sworn testimony under oath to the prosecutors and his sworn testimony before the televised Senate Watergate Investigative Committee. These discrepancies were mentioned in an FBI report on July 5th, 1974. Dean, of course, was not prosecuted for perjury. He would quickly become a media darling for his attacks on Nixon.
In his book The Nixon Defence (2015), Dean largely omitted his own role in Watergate — saying those who want to understand what he did should read his book Blind Ambition (2009). Yet, when confronted under oath about discrepancies between his sworn testimony and that book, Dean said he didn’t write Blind Ambition, blaming it first on Pulitzer Prize-winning ghost writer Taylor Branch, and later on his legendary editor Alice Mayhew — both of whom denied it. Mayhew told The New York Times that Dean’s assertion was a lie. Meanwhile, Dean said he never even read Blind Ambition before it was published.
There were other distortions. Dean admitted that he knew that transcripts of the Watergate bugs were being sent to White House Aide Gordon Strachan on June 19, 1972, yet he later told Nixon that there was no White House Connection to Watergate until March 17, 1973.
In other words, Dean lied to Nixon for nine months. This omission explains Nixon’s confusion regarding the entire matter and also explains his repeated denials that anyone in the White House knew about or was involved in the break-in. Based on the analysis of his White House Counsel, Nixon believed he was telling the truth.
Dean claims that The Nixon Defence is the definitive account of Watergate. Yet his book either truncates or entirely omits his own taped conversations with Nixon of March 13th, 16th, 17th, and 20th, 1973. Dean can clearly be heard urging Nixon to commit crimes. We hear the unmistakable sound of a lawyer urging his client to break the law. In a March 16th, 1973 conversation, Dean is heard telling Nixon, “we will win” — essentially cheering on the coverup.
At every turn Dean minimises his role in Watergate. Who destroyed the notebook found in Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt’s White House safe? Dean. Who arranged the early hush money payments to Hunt, and fellow burglar G. Gordon Liddy? Dean.
Jack Caulfield and Anthony Ulasewicz, both decorated ex-New York Cops who worked for Dean in the White House as investigators, say in their published memoirs that Dean himself directed them to case out the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate six weeks before the break-in. Dean had prior knowledge of it, unlike Nixon.
Others — from Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Clark Mollenhoff, to Jeb Stuart Magruder, Director of the Committee to Re-elect the President — have claimed that Dean knew all about the break-in before it happened.
Combing through the evidence, a grubbier, darker picture of John Dean emerges. The Nixon Defence forgets to mention, for instance, that Dean ordered Caulfield to dangle Executive Clemency before Watergate burglar James McCord to secure his silence. It makes no mention of Dean’s pay out to the seventh Watergate burglar Lou Russell (who was not apprehended) to hide out in Silver Spring, Maryland after the Watergate arrests. Amounts traced to Russell’s bank account coincide exactly with dates and amounts that Dean took from White House political funds.
What exactly was the burglary for? “Much about the break-in” Christopher Caldwell recently observed, “makes no sense”. One theory comes back to Dean. For years he denied his connection to a mob-connected high-priced call girl Madam Heidi Rikan, who’s ring was allegedly supplying prostitutes to the Democratic National Committee. John Dean’s wife’s book Mo: A woman’s view of Watergate (1975) included a photo of Dean and his wife with Rikan that was later excised from the paperback version of the memoir.
As author Phill Stanford documents in his book White House Call Girl (2013), Dean’s name and private phone numbers appear in Rikan’s little black book. Stanford makes a compelling case that Dean orchestrated the Watergate break-in to secure records of these connections. In fact, Watergate burglar Eugenio Martinez was arrested with the key to the desk drawer where a portfolio of photos of the available call girls were kept.
What about the identity of ‘deep-throat’, who was allegedly the source for much of The Washington Post’s reporting? Actually, ‘deep-throat’ is never referred to in any of Woodward and Bernstein contemporaneous reporting on Watergate. The name emerges as a trope only with the publication of their book All The President’s Men (1974).
Woodward and Bernstein later claimed that former Deputy FBI Director Mark Felt was Deep-Throat. While this is, again, widely accepted as a fact, it is doubtful that it’s true. In 2019, USA Today reporter Ray Locker published his book Haig’s Coup. Locker is convincing when he argues that former Kissinger Deputy, and later Nixon White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig is more likely the Woodward and Bernstein source.
Bolstering Locker’s claim is the undeniable fact that Haig learned in advance that White House Aide Alexander Butterfield knew about — and would testify to the Senate Watergate Committee — regarding the White House taping system. Yet Haig never informed Nixon, who, had he learned of this impending disclosure could have legally asserted Executive Privilege to block the testimony. Haig also failed to disclose to Nixon the 18-and-a-half-minute gap in at least one crucial White House recording. The disclosure of the taping system and the apparent erasure would prove to be nails in Nixon’s impeachment coffin.
President Nixon had no prior knowledge of the break-in. Therefore, Dean was protecting himself when he orchestrated the coverup. His own White House Chief of Staff, Haig, never informed the President of relevant developments in the Watergate saga, milestones at which Nixon might have averted both his impeachment and ultimate resignation. In other words, everything you thought you knew about Watergate is wrong.