John Dean in the White House, 1973
|White House Counsel|
July 9, 1970 - April 30, 1973
John Wesley Dean III
October 14, 1938
Akron, Ohio, U.S.
|Political party||Republican (formerly)|
College of Wooster (BA)
Georgetown University (JD)
John Wesley Dean III (born October 14, 1938) is a former attorney who served as White House Counsel for United States President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973. Dean is known for his role in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal and his subsequent testimony to Congress as a witness. His guilty plea to a single felony in exchange for becoming a key witness for the prosecution ultimately resulted in a reduced sentence, which he served at Fort Holabird outside Baltimore, Maryland. After his plea, he was disbarred as an attorney. According to the FBI, Dean was the "master manipulator" of the Watergate affair.
Shortly after the Watergate hearings, Dean wrote about his experiences in a series of books and toured the United States to lecture. He later became a commentator on contemporary politics, a book author, and a columnist for FindLaw's Writ.
Dean had originally been a proponent of Goldwater conservatism, but he later became a critic of the Republican Party. Dean has been particularly critical of the party's support of Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, and of neoconservatism, strong executive power, mass surveillance, and the Iraq War.
Dean was born in Akron, Ohio, and lived in Marion, the hometown of the 29th President of the United States, Warren Harding, whose biographer he later became. His family moved to Flossmoor, Illinois, where he attended grade school. For high school, he attended Staunton Military Academy in Virginia. He attended Colgate University and then The College of Wooster in Ohio, where he obtained his B.A. in 1961. He received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1965.
Dean married Karla Ann Hennings on February 4, 1962; they had one child, John Wesley Dean IV, before divorcing in 1970. Dean married Maureen (Mo) Kane on October 13, 1972.
After graduation, Dean joined Welch & Morgan, a law firm in Washington, D.C., where he was soon accused of conflict of interest violations and fired: he was alleged to have started negotiating his own private deal for a TV station broadcast license, after his firm had assigned him to complete the same task for a client.
Dean was a student at Staunton Military Academy with Barry Goldwater Jr., the son of Sen. Barry Goldwater, and was a close friend of the family. Dean was employed from 1966 to 1967 as chief minority counsel to the Republicans on the United States House Committee on the Judiciary. Dean then served as associate director of the National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws for approximately two years.
|1973 Watergate Hearings; 1973-06-25; Part 1 of 6, 1:07:59, Library of Congress, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC|
Dean volunteered to write position papers on crime for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968. The following year, he became an associate deputy in the office of the Attorney General of the United States, serving under Attorney General John N. Mitchell, with whom he was on friendly terms. In July 1970, he accepted an appointment to serve as counsel to the president, after the previous holder of this post, John Ehrlichman, became the president's chief domestic adviser.
On January 27, 1972, Dean, the White House Counsel, met with Jeb Magruder (Deputy Director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CRP and CREEP) and John N. Mitchell (Attorney General of the United States, and soon-to-be Director of CRP), in Mitchell's office, for a presentation by G. Gordon Liddy (counsel for CRP and a former FBI agent). At that time, Liddy presented a preliminary plan for intelligence-gathering operations during the campaign. Reaction to Liddy's plan was highly unfavorable. Liddy was ordered to scale down his ideas and he presented a revised plan to the same group on February 4, which was, however, left unapproved at that stage. In late March in Florida, a scaled-down plan would be approved by Mitchell.
This scaled-down plan would lead eventually to attempts to eavesdrop on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., and to the Watergate scandal. The burglars' first break-in attempt in late May was successful, but several problems had arisen with poor-quality information from their bugs, and they wanted to photograph more documents. Specifically, the burglars were interested in information they thought was held by Lawrence F. O'Brien, head of the DNC. On their second break-in, on the night of June 16, the burglars were discovered by hotel security. After the arrests of the burglars, Dean took custody of evidence and money from the White House safe of E. Howard Hunt, Jr., who had been in charge of the burglaries, and later destroyed some of the evidence before it could be found by investigators.
On February 28, 1973, Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his nomination to replace J. Edgar Hoover as Director of the FBI. Armed with newspaper articles indicating the White House had possession of FBI Watergate files, the committee chairman, Sam Ervin, questioned Gray as to what he knew about the White House obtaining the files. Gray stated he had given FBI reports to Dean, and had discussed the FBI investigation with Dean on many occasions. It also came out that Gray had destroyed important evidence entrusted to him by Dean. Gray's nomination failed and Dean was directly linked to the Watergate cover-up.
White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman would later claim that Dean was appointed by Nixon to take the lead role in coordinating the Watergate cover-up from an early stage and that this cover-up was working very well for many months. Certain aspects of the scandal had come to light before Election Day, but Nixon was re-elected by a significant margin.
On March 22, 1973, Nixon requested that Dean put together a report with everything he knew about the Watergate matter and even invited him to take a retreat to Camp David to do so. Dean went to Camp David and performed some work on a report, but since he was one of the cover-up's chief participants, the task placed him in the difficult position of relating his own involvement as well as others'; he correctly concluded he was being fitted for the role of scapegoat by higher-ups. Dean did not complete the report.
On April 6, Dean hired an attorney and began his cooperation with Senate Watergate investigators, while continuing to work as Nixon's Chief White House Counsel and participate in cover-up efforts, not disclosing this obvious conflict to Nixon until some time later. Dean was also receiving advice from the attorney he hired, Charles Shaffer, on matters involving vulnerabilities of other White House staff.
Dean continued to provide information to the prosecutors who were able to make enormous progress on the cover-up, which up until then they had virtually ignored, having concentrated on the actual burglary and events preceding it. Dean also appeared before the Watergate grand jury, where he took the Fifth Amendment numerous times to avoid incriminating himself, and in order to save his testimony for the Senate Watergate hearings.
Coupled with his sense of distance from Nixon's inner circle, the "Berlin Wall" of advisors H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Dean sensed he was going to become the Watergate scapegoat and despite going to Camp David, he returned to Washington without having completed his report. Nixon fired Dean on April 30, the same date he also announced the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman.
Dean had earlier asked Nixon for formal immunity from prosecution for any crimes he might have committed while serving as White House Counsel. Nixon refused to grant this request and his refusal led Dean to cooperate with the prosecutors very soon afterwards. Upon going to the prosecutors, Dean also requested immunity, which was not granted despite his many revelations.
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On June 25, 1973, Dean began his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee. The committee had voted to grant him use immunity (doing so in a divided vote in a private session that was then changed to a unanimous vote and announced that way to the public). In his testimony, he implicated administration officials, including Nixon fund-raiser and former Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon, and himself. His testimony attracted very high television ratings since he was breaking new ground in the investigation, and media attention grew apace, with more detailed newspaper coverage. Dean was the first administration official to accuse Nixon of direct involvement with Watergate and the resulting cover-up in press interviews. Such testimony against Nixon, while damaging to the president's credibility, had little impact legally, as it was merely his word against Nixon's. Nixon vigorously denied all accusations that he had authorized a cover-up, and Dean had no corroboration beyond various notes he had taken in his meetings with the president. It was not until information about secret White House tape recordings having been made by President Nixon (disclosed in testimony by Alexander Butterfield, on July 16) and the tapes having been subpoenaed and analyzed that many of Dean's accusations were largely substantiated. Dean had had suspicions that Nixon was taping conversations, but had not known for sure, and he tipped prosecutors to question witnesses along this line, leading to Butterfield's revelations.
Dean pled guilty to obstruction of justice before Watergate trial judge John Sirica on October 19, 1973. He admitted supervising payments of "hush money" to the Watergate burglars, notably E. Howard Hunt, and revealed the existence of Nixon's enemies list. Archibald Cox, Watergate Special Prosecutor, was interested in meeting with Dean and planned to do so a few days later, but Cox was fired by Nixon the very next day; it was not until a month later that Cox was replaced by Leon Jaworski. On August 2, 1974, Sirica handed down a sentence to Dean of one-to-four years in a minimum-security prison. However, when Dean surrendered as scheduled on September 3, he was diverted to the custody of U.S. Marshals and kept instead at Fort Holabird (near Baltimore, Maryland) in a special "safe house" primarily used for witnesses against the Mafia. He spent his days at the offices of Jaworski, the Watergate Special Prosecutor, and testifying in the trial of Watergate conspirators Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Robert Mardian, and Kenneth Parkinson, which concluded in December. All except Parkinson were convicted, largely based upon Dean's evidence. Dean's lawyer moved to have his sentence reduced and on January 8, Judge Sirica granted the motion, adjusting Dean's sentence to time served, which wound up being four months. With his plea to felony offenses, Dean was disbarred as a lawyer in Virginia and the District of Columbia.
When it was uncovered that President Nixon had secretly recorded all meetings in the Oval Office, famous psychologist and memory researcher Ulric Neisser analyzed Dean's recollections of the meetings, as espoused in his testimony, in comparison to the meetings' actual recordings. Neisser, a sharp critic of studying memory in a laboratory setting, saw "a valuable data trove" in Dean's recall.
Neisser found that, despite Dean's confidence, the tapes proved that his memory was anything but a tape recorder. Dean failed to remember any conversations verbatim, and often failed to recall the gist of conversations correctly. Yet, Neisser did not explain the difference as one of deception; rather, he thought that the evidence supported the theory that memory is not akin to a tape recorder and, instead, should be thought of as reconstructions of information that are greatly affected by rehearsal, or attempts at replay. Neisser further concluded that Dean's memory, and likely everyone's, merely retains common characteristics of a whole series of events.
Shortly after Watergate, Dean became an investment banker, author, and lecturer. Dean chronicled his White House experiences, with a focus on Watergate, in the memoirs Blind Ambition (1976) and Lost Honor (1982). Blind Ambition was ghost written by Taylor Branch and later was made into a 1979 TV miniseries with Martin Sheen playing Dean.
In 1992, Dean hired famed attorney Neil Papiano and brought the first in a series of defamation suits against G. Gordon Liddy for claims in Liddy's book Will, and St. Martin's Press for its publication of the book Silent Coup by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin. Silent Coup alleged that Dean was the mastermind of the Watergate burglaries and the Watergate coverup, and the true target of the burglaries was to seize information implicating Dean and the former Maureen "Mo" Biner (his then-fiancée) in a prostitution ring. After hearing of Colodny's work, Liddy issued a revised paperback version of Will supporting Colodny's theory. This theory was subsequently the subject of an A&E Network Investigative Reports series program entitled The Key to Watergate in 1992.
In the preface to his 2006 book, Conservatives Without Conscience, Dean strongly denied Colodny's theory, pointing out that Colodny's chief source (Phillip Mackin Bailley) had been in and out of mental institutions. Dean settled the defamation suit against Colodny and his publisher, St. Martin's Press, on terms which Dean stated in the book's preface he could not divulge under the conditions of the settlement, other than stating that "the Deans were satisfied." The case of Dean vs. Liddy was dismissed without prejudice. Also in 2006, Dean appeared as an interviewee in the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, about the Nixon administration's efforts to keep John Lennon out of the United States.
Dean retired from investment banking in 2000 while continuing to work as an author and lecturer, becoming a columnist for FindLaw's Writ online magazine. He currently resides in Beverly Hills, California.
In 2001, Dean published The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment that Redefined the Supreme Court, an exposé of the White House's selection process for a new Supreme Court justice in 1971, which led to the accession of William Rehnquist to the United States' highest court. Three years later, Dean authored a book heavily critical of the administration of George W. Bush, entitled Worse than Watergate, in which he called for the impeachment of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for allegedly lying to Congress.
His subsequent book, released in summer 2006, is titled Conservatives without Conscience, a play on Barry Goldwater's book The Conscience of a Conservative. In it, he asserts that post-Goldwater conservatism has been co-opted by people with authoritarian personalities and policies, citing data from Bob Altemeyer. According to Dean, modern conservatism, specifically on the Christian Right, embraces obedience, inequality, intolerance, and strong intrusive government, in stark contrast to Goldwater's philosophies and policies. Using Altemeyer's scholarly work, he contends that there is a tendency toward ethically questionable political practices when authoritarians are placed in positions of power, and that the current political situation is dangerously unsound because of it. Dean cites the behavior of key members of the Republican leadership, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Frist, as clear evidence of a relationship between modern right-wing conservatism and this authoritarian approach to governance. He places particular emphasis on the abdication of checks and balances by the Republican Congress, and on the dishonesty of the conservative intellectual class in support of the GOP, as a result of the obedience and arrogance innate to the authoritarian mentality.
After it became known that George W. Bush authorized NSA wiretaps without warrants, Dean asserted that Bush is "the first President to admit to an impeachable offense". On March 31, 2006, Dean testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during hearings on censuring the president over the issue. Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who sponsored the censure resolution, introduced Dean as a "patriot" who put "rule of law above the interests of the president." In his testimony, Dean asserted that Richard Nixon covered up Watergate because he believed it was in the interest of national security. This sparked a sharp debate with Republican South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who repeatedly asserted that Nixon authorized the break-in at Democratic headquarters. Dean finally replied, "You're showing you don't know that subject very well." Spectators laughed, and soon the senator was "sputtering mad".
Dean's 2007 book Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches is, as he wrote in its introduction, the third volume of an unplanned trilogy. In this latest book, Dean, who has repeatedly described himself as a Goldwater conservative, built on Worse Than Watergate and Conservatives Without Conscience to argue that the Republican Party has gravely damaged all three branches of the federal government in the service of ideological rigidity and with no attention to the public interest or the general good. Dean concludes that conservatism must regenerate itself to remain true to its core ideals of limited government and the rule of law.
In 2008, Dean co-edited Pure Goldwater, a collection of writings by the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and former U.S. Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater, in part as an act of fealty to the man who defined his political ideals. His co-editor was Goldwater's son Barry Goldwater, Jr.
In the 1979 TV mini-series, Blind Ambition, Dean was played by Martin Sheen. In the 1995 film, Nixon, directed by Oliver Stone, Dean was played by David Hyde Pierce. In the 1999 film Dick, Dean was played by Jim Breuer.
On September 17, 2009, Dean appeared on Countdown with new allegations about Watergate. He stated that he had found information via the Nixon tapes, that showed what the burglars were after: information on a kickback scheme involving the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida. Dean also asserts that Nixon did not directly order the break-in, but that it was ordered by Ehrlichman on behalf of Nixon.
Dean later emerged as a strong critic of Donald Trump, saying in 2017 that he was even worse than Nixon. He said, "It's a nightmare. They don't know what their jeopardy is. They don't know what they're looking at. They don't know if they're a part of a conspiracy that might unfold. They don't know whether to hire lawyers or not, how they're going to pay for them if they do. It's an unpleasant place."
In September 2018, Dean warned against Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the United States Supreme Court, a main concern being that the appointment would result in "the most presidential-powers-friendly court" in modern times.
In November 2018, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions' forced resignation on the day after the midterm elections, Dean commented on the removal in colorful terms, saying it "seems to be planned like a murder" and that Special Counsel Robert Mueller likely had contingency plans, possibly including sealed indictments.
In early June 2019, Dean testified, along with various U.S. attorneys and legal experts, before the House Judiciary Committee on the implications of, and potential actions as a result of, the Mueller Report.
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