Conversation with a Conservative: John Dean

The former counsel to President Nixon says the way the Bush administration has governed has been “worse than Watergate.”

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Looking at the Bush administration, I found that I really had to tell the story that no one was telling, and that is the secrecy of this presidency.

Then I decided to do a book on it, and I did, and ended up with a title that I thought I could never use, or would ever use: “Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.”

I’m John Dean, former Nixon White House counsel. Back in 1970 to 73, a thousand days I served in the White House.

If one looks at all of the so-called Watergate abuses of power, in the Nixon years, everything that’s been catalogued, those for which he was going to be impeached, if he had not resigned — nobody died. Today people are dying as a result of abuses of power. And tomorrow, given some of the policies, it may get worse.

When I looked at the way we went to war in Iraq, I was really quite stunned. At first I wasn’t sure if we were dealing with a president who was getting bad information, or a White House that was getting bad information, from the CIA and they truly believed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

So I began looking at the Bush speeches. Then I looked at one where I deconstructed virtually every line of his case to go to war, which he gave in his January 2003 State of the Union message. When I pulled that speech apart, I realized, not only did he have good information — he had exactly the information he wanted — and he was manipulating what he had and distorting it; because he was actually naming and identifying the sources of his information. And as soon as you went to the source, you found it wasn’t what he said it was. He built his entire case knowing exactly what he was doing and apparently deciding to play the American people for fools, [assuming] that nobody would ever check and look at the information.

If a president is to ever give a false statement to the Congress — there is just no question that this is a high crime and misdemeanor. And it is clear that George Bush has committed a high crime and misdemeanor. Now, have I called for that? No, I have not. But I certainly, as a former White House counsel, you’ve got a president who’s treading in dangerous waters.

The Nixon presidency did not begin as a secret presidency. It became secretive, really it started, the defining moment of that presidency, was when the Pentagon papers were leaked. This was to Richard Nixon what 9/11 was to George Bush.

The use of 9/11 as a punctuation point, as a defining moment for this presidency is true and untrue. What they’ve done is they have taken a very tragic event and used it for their maximum political advantage. What they’ve done with 9/11 is they’ve taken it and used it and done everything in their power to keept the “terror” in terrorism.

Cheney opened the door for some real Washington pros who call themselves neoconservatives, and they have an agenda that they’ve had in the works long before George Bush arrived. They just, as they wrote in their reports, needed a “trigger event” like Pearl Harbor. They got it with 9/11, and they have imposed their policies as a result — and not for the better of the nation, or the world.

Why the public doesn’t react? It beats me. I guess the best example of how secrecy can affect them and they don’t even realize it is just a very simple example. It’s one of the first acts that Bush does when he becomes president. At Cheney’s request, obviously, he makes Cheney the chairman of an energy task force, that will decide the nation’s energy policy. This is an industry that has given about $100 million in contributions. It is as close to legalized bribery as you can ever get.

How does it affect you? Well, Tony Blair’s science adviser, in looking at the overwhelming evidence, has said, openly, that George Bush, and his policies, and what he’s doing to the globe and the earth, in global warming, will cause far more damage to the species than all the terrorists in the world can ever cause us.

I barely recognize the Republican Party today. In the Republican Party that I was active in, it was really a party of moderation. What I think the party is dominated by now is a radical philosophy.

This is a good government issue, not a right-left, Republican versus Democrat [issue]. Therefore in the book, I cite one Republican after the other who are complaining about Bush’s secrecy. Now these people don’t think this is good Republican politics, they don’t think it’s good conservative politics; they think it’s bad government.

If Bush and Cheney are reelected, what I think they’ll do is not dissimilar from what they did in their first term, where their goal was to get reelected. It would be to indeed infuse the government with their radical-type thinking. They’re not about to send the neoconservatives home. They’re not about to change their radical environmental policies. And it’ll really be a difficult time for the country. Damage could be done that we’ll never unwind.

I wouldn’t use the title, “Worse than Watergate,” if I didn’t truly believe that what’s happening in this presidency is far worse than anything that did happen during the Nixon presidency.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend