Commentary Magazine

Blind Ambition, by John Dean

The Greasy Pole

Blind Ambition.
by John Dean.
Simon & Schuster. 415 pp. $11.95.

The veterans of the Nixon-administration scandals have displayed almost the full range of possible reactions: Nixon has been defiant, Agnew vulgar, Krogh apologetic, Ehrlichman inventive, Mitchell silent, Colson reborn, and Dean descriptive. But the most useful reaction has yet to appear—explanation. Three years after Watergate began to come apart, we still have no good account of why the Democratic National Headquarters was bugged, why the clumsy cover-up was mounted, or why the White House tapes were left intact.

Had John Dean been close to the key decisions, we might now know the answers, for there can be little doubt of his memory or his candor. The essential elements, and indeed most of the details, of his testimony to the Ervin Committee have survived the tests of time and cross-examination. No one in a position to know has come forward with any convincing denials of the assertions made in this book which, taken as a whole, seem to accord with what is known from other sources. But Dean was not close to the center until the center began to collapse, and he was brought in first to help repair the damage and finally to take the blame for it.

As a historical document, this book has some troublesome aspects, chiefly the failure to distinguish clearly between conversations that are in fact quoted verbatim (apparently from the tapes or tape transcripts) and those, much more numerous, that are reconstructions of what Dean recalls others as having said. But the alert reader will be able to spot the differences: exact records of what people say always produce more clumsy, elliptical dialogue than even the most sensitive reconstructions.

There are tempting hints of the motives for the bugging, hints similar to those heard in other quarters. The link between Lawrence O’Brien and the Howard Hughes interests is alluded to, though not very precisely. President Nixon did dictate a memorandum to H. R. Haldeman in January 1971, ordering an investigation of the “very heavy retainer” received by O’Brien from “one of Hughes’s people.” The directive was passed by Haldeman to Dean for action. Dean, in turn, found his way to Robert Bennett, son of a Republican Senator from Utah and the head of a Washington public-relations firm that had Hughes as a client. Bennett, according to Dean, confirmed “unequivocally” that O’Brien was still under contract to Hughes, though payments under that contract were being disputed in consequence of an internecine struggle among rival factions in the Hughes empire. The alleged O’Brien backer was Robert Maheu who had been deposed as head of Hughes’s Las Vegas operations. However, Bennett would not or could not supply concrete evidence of the O’Brien retainer fee. Four months later, in April 1972, Nixon ordered the creation of a “political intelligence capability” for the coming campaign. Two months later, in June, the break-in at O’Brien’s office occurred.

After the break-in, O’Brien and others sued the Committee to Reelect the President. To counteract the suit, John Ehrlichman got the Internal Revenue Service to audit O’Brien’s tax returns in hopes of tracing the source of his very large outside income. John Mitchell, Dean claims, asked an intermediary to offer O’Brien an end to the IRS investigation in exchange for O’Brien’s dropping his suit. The intermediary allegedly reported back that O’Brien was interested in the deal, but nothing happened because the judge hearing the O’Brien suit decided to halt the proceedings to insure that the Watergate burglars would not have their criminal trial prejudiced by adverse publicity (and, according to Dean, because the judge was eager to oblige the White House).

A tantalizing set of facts, but nothing conclusive. If the O’Brien-Hughes link was the basis for the break-in, it was an unsuccessful operation, for the link was still being explored afterward by means of the IRS audit. And if the link was not the object, what was?

If the book does not explain Watergate, neither does it explain John Dean. He is unsparing in his self-description: ambitious, fawning, power-hungry. “I reflected on my career and listed my talents: an organized mind, an ability to read the desires of my superiors, and capacity to anticipate. Deep down, I knew I was a meek, favor-currying staff man. . . .” Later, more bluntly, he explained his rise (to a Mafia gunman when the two met in prison) as having occurred because “I just kissed a lot of ass.” Though reluctant at first to leave a comfortable job in the Justice Department, he later took eagerly to the demands of power. He sought out ways to prove himself “tough” as well as indispensable. The work itself was so consuming as to anesthetize any gnawing anxieties, and what work could not accomplish, liquor and chasing women did (Dean, during the early White House months, was not married). “The assignment drove my anxiety into temporary retreat” is a phrase that appears, in various forms, repeatedly.

Apparent success was also reassuring. Dean’s first reaction to the President’s false claim that a “Dean investigation” of Watergate was under way was not fear that he had just been made part of a vast public lie, but pride: “I was basking in the glory of being publicly perceived as the man the President had turned to with a nasty problem. . . .” The closer he got to the President, the more he came to believe the unbelievable—that the cover-up would work, that a bizarre collection of ex-CIA agents, self-styled crusaders, unprincipled lawyers, and public-relations men could somehow hang together to avoid being hanged separately.

But the very access to the President was in time to become the source of anxieties that could no longer be repressed. Nixon revealed himself as “rambling and forgetful,” a man whose thoughts and actions were “far from organized,” and whose physical mannerisms were clumsy. Getting power was wildly exciting; becoming accustomed to power, and learning of the deficiencies of its source, were profoundly unsettling. The defects of principle could not for long be supplied by the advantages of power, and soon Dean stopped looking forward to his meetings with the President because they no longer offered him confidence. “The power fix, the high which I had pursued all my adult life, was wearing off. I was coming down.” It was fear, not scruple, that led Dean, via his attorney, to talk to the federal prosecutors and finally to the Ervin Committee. Nor does Dean pretend otherwise.

There are no heroes, few decent folk, and many villains in this account. It is rare to find one’s sympathies engaged as one reads. One might sympathize with Mrs. Dean, but she appears as only a bit player—decent, upset, but nonetheless peripheral. Perhaps because Dean came from the Justice Department, perhaps because the political leadership there was marginally superior to the senior White House staff, the portrayals of John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst are softer than those of Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

If there is any group that receives almost unrelieved hostility, it is the media. Some of this can be explained by the natural resentment of a man on his way down toward the institution that was helping pull him down, but even from a skeptical reading of Dean’s remarks on the press, a convincing picture of media lying and distortion emerges that is as hard to defend as the scheming of the White House. Given the justifiable pride the media take in the accomplishments of Woodward and Bernstein, it is important to remember that as Dean began to crack, the press initially became a conduit for White House distortions about him. Jack Anderson printed, with no checking, unsubstantiated charges against Dean. Daniel Schorr broadcast on CBS an unsubstantiated and vicious rumor that Dean was seeking immunity from prosecution because he feared homosexual attacks in prison. Joseph Alsop referred to Dean as a “bottom-dwelling slug.” Newsweek editors rewrote an interview with Dean so as to make it an attack on him, even though none of the rewriters had ever met him. As Dean observes ironically at one point, “Reporters who swore publicly that they’d rot in jail before revealing their sources were calling [Dean’s press aide] with stories the White House was trying to plant on them . . . [and offering] to trade them for my stories on the White House.”

The book is fascinating, in part because of Dean’s facts, in part because of the considerable writing skills of Dean’s amanuensis, Taylor Branch. But it leaves Watergate unexplained, and Dean only slightly explained. We learn little of the innermost life of John Dean, but what little we learn is apparently all there is.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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