The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It

BOOK: The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
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Also by John Dean

Blind Ambition:
The White House Years

Lost Honor

The Rehnquist Choice:
The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court

Worse Than Watergate:
The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush

Warren G. Harding

Conservatives Without Conscience

Broken Government:
How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches



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First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by John W. Dean

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Dean, John W. (John Wesley), 1938-

The Nixon defense : what he knew and when he knew it / John W. Dean.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-698-16346-1

1. Watergate Affair, 1972-1974. 2. Nixon, Richard M. (Richard Milhous), 1913-1994. 3. Dean, John W. (John Wesley), 1938- I. Title.

E860.D385 2014



While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.


This book is dedicated to the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration, who made it possible to locate and listen to former President Richard Nixon’s self-recorded conversations relating to

It occurs to me that at this point the central question . . . is simply put: What did the president know and when did he know it?

Question asked by Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr., during the testimony of John W. Dean before the Senate Watergate Committee, June 28,


Also by John Dean

Title Page





List of Principal Characters



June 20 to July 1, 1972

June 20, 1972 (Tuesday)

Before and After the 18½-Minute Gap

June 21, 1972 (Wednesday)

Creating the Cover-up Scenario

June 22, 1972 (Thursday)

First Watergate-Related Press Conference

June 23, 1972 (Friday)

Firing the “Smoking Gun”

June 24 to July 1, 1972

Martha’s Breakdown, John’s Resignation and Another Scenario


July 1972 Through December 1972

July 6 to July 18, 1972

The Call from Gray and a Walk on the Beach

July 19 to August 16, 1972

Concern over Magruder’s Testimony

August 17 to September 15, 1972

Investigations, Indictment and the President Meets with His White House Counsel

Late September Through October 1972

Segretti Merges with Watergate

November 1 to December 30, 1972

Reelection, Reorganization, a Dean Report Considered, Chapin’s Departure and Dorothy Hunt’s Death


January to March 23, 1973

January 1973

Keeping Magruder Happy, Giving Hunt Assurances and the Watergate Break-in Trial

February 3 to 23, 1973

Senate Watergate Committee and Gray’s Nomination

February 27 to March 15, 1973

Nixon Discovers His White House Counsel, and Gray Puts Me in the Spotlight

March 16 to 20, 1973

Return of the Dean Report, the Ellsberg Break-in and Hunt’s Blackmail

March 21 to 23, 1973

A Cancer on the Presidency and Nixon’s Response


March 23 to July 16, 1973

March 23 to April 13, 1973

Options and Indecision

April 14 to 30, 1973

Pricking the Boil and Cleaning House

May 1 to 10, 1973

New Team, Tough Tactics and Rough New Issues

May 11 to 22, 1973

A Preemptive Defense Statement

May 23 to July 16, 1973

Discrediting Dean and the Beginning of the End



Appendix A:
Break-in at the Democratic National Committee

Appendix B:
The 18
-Minute Gap




he report of the arrests in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, of five men who had broken into the Watergate complex offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), wearing business suits and surgical gloves, their pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, was something like a scene from a circa 1940s low-budget black-and-white gangsters B movie. This caught-in-the-act stupidity seemed too dumb to be ours, since the undertaking was so conspicuously illegal and inexplicably risky, not to mention obviously bungled. But this political surveillance debacle
turn out to be ours, the work of a ham-fisted team of amateurs assembled by G. Gordon Liddy, a former Nixon White House staff member who was then serving as general counsel of the finance operation of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP). This was, in fact, the opening scene of the worst political scandal of the twentieth century and the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. It was the start of Watergate, a story that has been told and retold, but never as I am going to tell it in the pages that follow.

The central character in Watergate was, of course, the president of the United States, Richard Nixon. From beginning to end Nixon sought to defend himself and his presidency from the political and legal consequences that followed the arrests at the DNC on June 17, 1972. This is the story of Nixon’s defense, the story I found when trying to understand how someone as politically savvy and intelligent as Richard Nixon, a man who surrounded himself with those he thought the best and brightest, allowed this “third-rate,” bungled burglary to destroy his presidency. The story of the Nixon defense is Richard Nixon’s Watergate story.

Most of Nixon’s Watergate-related activities were secretly self-recorded. These surreptitious recordings eventually revealed that his public Watergate
defenses were colossal deceptions, patent lies that eventually forced his resignation. Nixon’s secret recordings provided much of the overwhelming evidence that sent his former top advisers to prison, not to mention forced his own early retirement. So some of this story has been around for several decades. Investigators and prosecutors, however, were not interested in the context and circumstances of Nixon’s ill-conceived defensive efforts; rather, they focused only on select portions of conversations that could provide evidence establishing wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt, so as to end any malfeasance and punish malefactors. Historians, in recounting the Watergate story, have relied largely and almost exclusively on the information gathered by the Watergate investigators and prosecutors. Remarkably, historians and other students of the Nixon presidency have chosen to ignore the full collection of secretly recorded White House conversations relating to Watergate, which slowly but surely have become almost fully available over the past four decades.

Before now, no one has attempted to catalog and transcribe all of Nixon’s Watergate conversations, and to examine and reconstruct this history based on this primary source material, the likes of which has never before existed. The account in the pages that follow is based on this unique collection, and it is presented not as transcripts but rather as narrative and dialogue drawn from and based on them. The story that follows is a first-person account of what I found in this unique historical record. In telling this story I have only edited the transcripts to make them readable and understandable, correcting the obvious anomalies that inevitably occur in spontaneous conversations and often compressing material to report its essence.
Almost all the conversations from which this account is drawn are available online at the Nixon Presidential Library’s Web site:; the exceptions are those from June 1972, which are available at the Miller Center, which is devoted to presidential scholarship at the University of Virginia: (see chron1).

The Nixon defense—both legal and political, because they were inseparable—was assembled behind closed doors in a process that began in the days following the arrests at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic Party. The first public statement of a defense was made by Nixon on June 22, 1972—that nobody in his White House was involved in this bizarre incident—and Nixon’s final firewall explanation of his defense
was issued eleven months later, on May 22, 1973; the latter followed the firing of his top aides, including your author, who had become the centerpiece of his defense. Because I was deeply involved in and later the focus of the Nixon defense, I always hoped someone else would tell this story. I also understood such an undertaking meant the not easily accomplished task of transcribing all of Richard Nixon’s Watergate conversations. Of course, we knew the broad outlines of his activities that led to his resignation, and he did provide some additional details in his memoir. But he, too, relied primarily on conversations that had been transcribed by investigators and prosecutors, leaving most of the historical facts buried in his secretly recorded conversations. Having now transcribed all those conversations, and grasping the content of the newly transcribed material, I understand why he wanted no more information than was already easily available made public, for while this additional information explains many of the activities he was responsible for, those rationales do not redound to Richard Nixon’s glory.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which Congress charged with the preservation of this historical Nixon material, has prepared, and continues to update and refine as it has released more of the Nixon recordings, a detailed “subject log” highlighting all the content of all the recorded conversations. This can be used to identify topics and the persons addressed, along with times and dates. No one has ever bothered to identify all the Watergate conversations that can be located with these subject logs. Today that can be done digitally. When I did it in 2009, I had to do it manually, which took several months, although given the volume of material, even today it would take almost as long. Depending on how you count them—as it is not always clear when one conversation ends and another begins—there are approximately one thousand Watergate-related conversations. Some of them run only minutes while others run many hours.

After “my” assembling a list, I first determined which of the conversations had previously been transcribed. Virtually all existing transcripts had been prepared from the analog recordings first made available by NARA. However, it is now possible to digitize these recordings, and when that technology became available, NARA began releasing digital editions. When I started this project in 2009, I was way ahead of the NARA release schedule for the Watergate-related material, so I decided to digitize that material
before NARA had done so. Because the sound on these is improved, making it easier to understand and transcribe the conversations, my project became somewhat less challenging. But today, the best copies of the recordings are found at NARA, for they prepared copies from the best editions of the analog tapes and have used the latest technology.

For example, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) transcribed all or parts of eighty Watergate-related conversations. When I checked the quality of the transcripts using the digital recordings, I found it was sometimes possible to hear material that those who prepared the WSPF transcripts had been unable to. Also, I found that those used in the cover-up trial,
U.S. v. Mitchell et al.
, were of better quality than those not used in the trial. Clearly the Watergate defendants had taken the time to listen to them carefully, and to make corrections, so those used at trial are more reliable than the drafts prepared by FBI secretaries; often the secretary was not sure who was speaking, so some were identified incorrectly, along with other such conspicuous errors.

Former University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Kutler, working with Alan Morrison’s Public Citizen Litigation Group, successfully sued NARA to make public Nixon’s so-called abuses of government power recordings long before the former president wanted them released, and these covered Watergate as well as earlier abuses of power. Professor Kutler published partial transcripts of 320 Watergate-related conversations from the first release by NARA in 1996, along with portions of hundreds of other unrelated ones, in
Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes
(New York: Free Press, 1997). These, however, were all based on analog recordings. When I began using modern digital listening equipment for the audio of randomly selected conversations transcribed by Professor Kutler’s team, I discovered I could hear things they had missed. I further found that information I thought important had not, for one reason or another, been included in the transcripts he published. Professor Kutler selected portions of conversations he felt relevant and interesting, and understandably he did not include Nixon’s almost obsessive-compulsive repetition of information related to Watergate; he had to trim many conversations, because there was simply too much material for one book, and he excluded most conversations previously transcribed by others. While I also had to trim material for this book, I focused on abuses that fall within the term “Watergate” (as it was later defined by Congress to mean both the break-in and the cover-up), and I did so only after having examined the entire available conversation.

In addition, in private conversations with his staff Nixon had a highly repetitive nature—and only those who may someday go through all these conversations will ever fully appreciate that my describing it as “obsessive-compulsive” is an understatement—that created something of an editorial problem. I did not want the repetition to become tedious for the reader, yet while drastically digesting and compressing these conversations as I have, it is also my hope to give the reader a feel for Nixon’s behavior, and clearly he was obsessive about Watergate.
And as Nixon obsessed over Watergate, particularly starting in April 1973, as well as later, he was constantly reinventing what happened, and this is vital to understanding the story. Accordingly, I have tried to trim as tightly as possible without removing this very Nixonian character trait in his dealings with Watergate.

Available transcripts also include those transcribed by the Nixon White House and turned over to the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry: forty-seven conversations (a collection running thirteen hundred pages) on April 30, 1974, that were published in a document known as the
Submission of Recorded Presidential Conversations to the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives
(SRPC). Because of the poor quality of the transcripts prepared by the White House, not to mention selective edits and omissions, many of these were retranscribed by the committee. When working on his memoir, Richard Nixon had one of his longtime secretaries, Mrs. Marjorie Acker, prepare transcripts of all his Watergate-related conversations with aides, chief of staff Bob Haldeman, assistant to the president for domestic affairs John Ehrlichman and special counsel to the president Charles Colson for the first month following his return to the White House after the arrests at the Watergate; that is, from June 20 through July 20, 1972. He included as well transcripts of his conversations with Haldeman in May 1973, but only when they were reconstructing what they remembered about the events of June 23, 1972—the date of the so-called smoking-gun discussion, when Nixon authorized Haldeman to meet with the CIA “to limit the FBI’s investigation of Watergate.”
Neither Nixon nor his estate has ever made his completed transcripts publicly available, although the material he drew from them is presented in the narrative of his memoir, which I have checked and noted as this book unfolds. By my count, Marjorie
Acker transcribed, at most, about forty Watergate-related conversations, based on Nixon’s description of her work.

In summary, I found (roughly) 447 Watergate conversations had been transcribed. Most were only partials, but a few were of complete conversations, plus the material used in Nixon’s memoir. (More specifically, I found 80 Watergate conversations transcribed by WSPF; 47 by the White House, including those retranscribed by the House Judiciary Committee; and 320 by Stanley Kutler.) Based on my list of all Watergate conversations, this meant that 634 conversations had never been transcribed by anyone, nor likely even listened to by anyone outside the NARA staff involved in processing them for public release (i.e., removing information that is classified for national security or designated personal/private, such as most of the conversations between the president and his wife or daughters).

Because all these transcripts were prepared from analog recordings, and most are only partials, I realized I needed to start from scratch and prepare ones of all the conversations to really be sure I understood what had occurred. There are good reasons no one had done this. Not only was it not easy to obtain digital copies of it all, but even with them, it is challenging work.

Most of the audio from telephone conversations is of relatively good quality compared with that obtained in other locations. Telephones in the Oval Office, the Executive Office Building (EOB) and the Lincoln Sitting Room in the residence and the telephones in the president’s study in Aspen Lodge at Camp David created near-broadcast-quality recorded telephone calls. In the Oval Office, if the speakers were seated not too far from the president’s desk, where the microphones were embedded, conversations are discernible with patience. Recordings made in the president’s study at Camp David are similar to those from the Oval Office. But those from the EOB office are consistently challenging, when not totally impossible, because of where people typically sat: They were usually out of the range of the microphones. Similarly with the Cabinet Room: It is possible usually to pick up only the gist of the president’s remarks, while others almost never can be understood.

Because of the poor sound quality, transcribing Nixon’s recordings is extremely arduous and time consuming, sometimes not even possible. It can take many hours to transcribe less than a minute of conversation from the poor-quality recordings in the president’s EOB office; sometimes these efforts are especially essential, as particularly important discussions were often held
there. Most people who have transcribed these tapes discover that listening over and over and over enabled them to better understand what is being said, as does listening on different audio equipment, with different digital software, and at different speeds—and I occasionally employed all these techniques to the same conversation to tease out important information.

BOOK: The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
9.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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