Former Nixon counsel visits campus
Almost four decades after the Watergate scandal, which brought an end to President Richard Nixon’s administration and marked the height of investigative journalism, John Dean thinks there are still lessons to be learned.
Dean, a former counsel of Nixon and a central figure in the Watergate case, lectured last night at the Douglass Campus Center on ethics, law and government, connecting the scandal to contemporary issues.
“It really was much more than a break-in,” Dean said. “It came to define a whole mode of behavior. It was an abuse of power.”
“Five Held in Plot to Bug Democratic Offices Here,” read The Washington Post headline on Sunday, June 18, 1972. Dean compared that day’s importance to the attacks on Sept. 11 as a time stamp people refer to.
Dean said a number of lessons could be taken from the Watergate scandal. Post-Watergate, the people’s attitude toward the president was completely different, he said.
“Presidents before Watergate were given the benefit of the doubt,” he said, referring to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s claims that a shot-down U2 fighter was nothing more than a weather balloon.
But for former President Jimmy Carter, the situation changed, Dean said.
“Jimmy Carter was assumed to be doing something wrong until proving otherwise,” he said.
Dean turned to the present day and said public attitudes and government secrecy have reverted to pre-Watergate times.
“It is back to the president largely being given the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “[Former President George W.] Bush and particularly [former Vice President] Dick Chaney have pushed secrecy way beyond anything Richard Nixon would have ever considered.”
The Presidential Records Act, which was created in the aftermath of Watergate, acted as a lens the president would come under, but Dean said Bush diluted that law to unrecognizable proportions.
“[President Barack] Obama however has brought it back halfway,” he said.
After the scandal, Dean said people saw some revival of what Congress could do — exercising its own constitutional powers.
“It didn’t trim the executive branch,” he said. “That has changed.”
Dean, who has written several books on the matter and continues to listen to new material from the scandal, said another byproduct of the events 39 years ago was the creation of investigative journalism.
“The Washington Post was the only paper covering it,” he said. “The journalists uncovered it, but didn’t crack the case.”
Dean said investigative journalism allowed for additional transparency and for the FBI and other units to bring forward the people involved.
One result of the Watergate scandal, which has survived modern-day developments, has been the American Bar Association, he said.
“The only thing which has survived, believe it or not, has been the organized Bar,” Dean said. “This directly relates to my testimonial following the events.”
He said 40 years ago as well as today, a lawyer has certain ethical rules that he should follow.
“One of the powers lawyers have is the power their clients have over them,” Dean said. “But they don’t represent the man himself — they represent the office he is serving and you are there to protect the office sometimes from the president himself.”
He said he found Nixon to hold a different attitude with each member of his staff. When he talked to Nixon — attempting to intervene — the president had answers for every single question posed.
“He managed to have an answer to everything,” Dean said. “I told him this would cost $1 million. He said, ‘I know where to get that.’”
He was nonetheless surprised at how little Nixon was told of the operations in the weeks leading up to June 17, 1972.
Kirsten Nuber, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said she found the lecture completely honest.
“I think a lot of people say, ‘He is the one who sold out,’” she said. “But there was much more going on there and many people who didn’t agree with what was going on didn’t say anything.”
Dean’s decision to attempt to intervene and talk to Nixon was what made him such a figure, Nuber said.
Christina Louis, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said she thinks ethics in government have deteriorated along with government transparency.
“It’s hard to evaluate considering I didn’t live back then, but I think ethics in government have deteriorated,” she said. “We can see that in city government and in state and federal government."