Based on Nixon's previously overlooked secret recordings, a revelatory new look at Watergate by one of its key figures.
Watergate forever changed American politics, and in light of the revelations about the NSA's widespread surveillance program, the scandal has taken on new significance. Yet remarkably, four decades after he was forced to resign, no one has told the full story of Nixon's involvement in Watergate.
In The Nixon Defense, former White House Counsel John Dean, one of the last major surviving figures of Watergate, draws on his own transcripts of almost a thousand conversations, a wealth of Nixon's secretly recorded information, and more than 150,000 pages of documents in the National Archives and the Nixon Library to provide the definitive answer to the question: What did President Nixon know and when did he know it?
Through narrative and contemporaneous dialogue, Dean connects dots that have never been connected, including revealing how and why the Watergate break-in occurred, what was on the mysterious 18.5 minute gap in Nixon's recorded conversations, and more.
In what will stand as the most authoritative account of one of America's worst political scandals, The Nixon Defense shows how the disastrous mistakes of Watergate could have been avoided and offers a cautionary tale for our own time.
©2014 John W. Dean (P)2014 Penguin Audio
# Nixon's defense
Anybody who still thinks Nixon was railroaded in Watergate should consider this: within four days of the breakin, Nixon had talked to Chuck Colson about E Howard Hunt’s involvement, and to Haldeman about Gordon Liddy. They concocted a scheme to use the Cubans as a front for raising money from the Cuban American community in Miami. Would the men who were arrested be strong, Nixon wondered, or would they crack? Haldeman described to Nixon the kind of bugging equipment the burglars had, and noted that Hunt and another operative were in the Howard Johnson’s across the street, where the bugging receivers were located. They wondered if Hunt should be spirited away to an "undisclosed location."
The thing is, while the prosecutors were aware of some of this, they didn't know about Liddy yet. Someone operating in full disclosure mode would have called in the prosecutors and said, "Here's a guy who was involved in this, and this is where you can find him." Instead, at the urging of John Mitchell, they began looking for ways to turn off the FBI investigation. Within another few days, they had settled on trying to get the CIA to intervene - a blatant obstruction of justice that ultimately cost Nixon his presidency.
Nixon never, to his dying day, operated in full disclosure mode. And that fact becomes glaringly obvious as John Dean meticulously reconstructs the many conversations Nixon had about Watergate over the course of a year.
By the end of 1972, Nixon had a pretty clear picture of what had happened and who was involved. He was sketchy on some of the details, but he knew that Mitchell, Colson, and Haldeman were all involved; that Ehrlichman was at risk if the activities of the Plumbers were revealed; that Magruder had committed perjury to protect Mitchell; that Mitchell had probably committed perjury; that the people involved in the burglary were receiving clandestine financial assistance and promising to maintain silence in return. (In other words, he knew they were being bribed.)
When Dean sat down with Nixon on March 21, 1973, for the famous "cancer on the presidency" briefing, very little of what he said was news to Nixon. In fact, only a couple of days earlier, John Ehrlichman had had a long discussion with Nixon that went over much of the same material.
At that point, from the standpoint of the justice system, there were only seven people involved: the original five burglars, plus Hunt and Liddy. Nixon - the "chief law enforcement officer in the land" - knew the crime involved many others in his administration, yet continued to focus on Watergate as a PR problem. He dictated to Haldeman the substance of what an "internal investigation" - an investigation that never took place - should report. It has never been more clearly demonstrated how complicit Nixon was in the coverup - planning, reviewing, directing, troubleshooting.
And that was only in the first 6 months after the breakin. In January 1973 and the months following, it got far worse. Nixon became increasingly desperate as members of his administration began hiring lawyers. Some, like Dean, began talking to prosecutors. Nixon finally settled on his last defense: he would claim he knew nothing about Watergate until Dean sat down with him on March 21st. This book is the ultimate refutation of that lie.
It's important to keep in mind what the book is intended to be. It's not the definitive book about Watergate. It's not a rehash of Dean's earlier books with the "deleted scenes" added back in. Dean is quite explicit: his intention is to present a catalogue of every conversation - at least every one Dean can track down - that Nixon had about Watergate.
The tapes are the primary sources. Where tapes are not available, Dean turns to contemporaneous diary entries; and in the absence of those, gleans what he can from the various memoirs published by participants. Always, though, again and again, he turns back to the tapes.
The reader of this audiobook, Joe Barrett, gives a wonderful, sustained performance. He does a dead-on impression of Nixon. That's not always helpful or desirable in a nonfiction audiobook, but in this one - which is 95% taped conversation and 5% commentary - it definitely adds to the pleasure. At times it almost feels like you're sitting in a dark corner in the Oval Office itself.
One last comment on the story. There is unintentional hilarity in the conversations of late April 1973. At that point, Dean has begun meeting with the prosecutors. Nixon asks Haldeman to listen to the famous March 21st "cancer on the presidency" speech. The one thing that bothers me, Nixon says, is whether he had a tape recorder on him. Is there any way you could find out (he asks Haldeman) if he could have smuggled in a little tape recorder? He comes back to that point over and over again. He's having nightmares about whether Dean has his own tape.
Because, of course, if he did, people would know that Nixon's response, when Dean observed that they might need a million dollars in hush money, was NOT "we could get it, but that would be wrong" (as Haldeman later testified, resulting in his being indicted for perjury), but:
"We could get a million dollars. We could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. ... Don't you agree that we need to keep the lid on that Hunt thing, in order to have any options?"
Eclectic mixer of books of my youth and ones I always meant to read, but didn't.
This is without question the best documentary analysis I have ever read/heard and certainly the most riveting look at this riveting subject, Watergate. Whatever view you might have of John Dean and his role in Watergate, there can be no doubting his intellect, thoroughness and acumen. I can only sit back and admire his skills as a lawyer, an analyst and the enormous work ethic he must have to have collated this material in such a readable way.
Having acknowledged Dean, it is important to praise Joe Barrett. I am not sure I could have read the 26 hours worth of text without Barrett's fantastic capturing of the characters; Nixon, Haldeman, Erlichman, Haigh and numerous others.
I enjoyed it so much I have purchased the hardback and I will re-visit Dean's earlier apologia, "Blind Ambition", that I read 30 years ago. I have reams of notes that I can't possibly use in this review, but I wish I could.
This is truly an outstanding piece of work, at least 90+% supported by the Watergate tapes and the remainder being very astute inference by Dean that is hard to fault. It is essential reading/listening if you are at all interested in this remakable piece of history.
I would if they're interested in Watergate.
The narration. The narrator's excellent with voices as well as accents.
Excellent voice work.
Some of the bits with Nixon's reactions to events made me crack up.
Cranky elderly writer/copy editor
Granted it helps if you're a Watergate junkie (I am) but this was and is an important story. This is a meticulously annotated analysis of what the President knew, when he knew it, and how he continued to persuade himself that he didn't know. It's a breathtaking study of what, in another context, Hannah Arendt referred to as the "banality of evil."
As long as it was John Dean's word against the President's, there was plenty of room for doubt. Once the world learned that Nixon had bugged himself, it became the President vs. the President as his own tapes supported Dean's accusations. Those tapes are the heart, the meat, of this book.
Why read or listen to this now? Today, we need even more to be aware that 1) lawyers can be painfully, embarrassingly ignorant of the law; and 2) people who have a grip on power don't release it easily.
Joe Barrett reproduces the lead characters' speech styles without descending into satire. His voice is authoritative and clear. I plan to listen to this more than once.
Only if my friend were as immersed in Watergate as I have been.
The incredible level of detail. And, of course, Joe Barrett's narration.
My favorite narrator, and his Nixon is spot on. He was also the narrator for Thomas Mallon's Watergate: A Novel. and did his usual superb job.
Who could listen for 22 hours? No, it is better in smaller chunks.
To a Watergate aficionado, this book is a diamond mine!
Probably not--I have so many books to listen to that I do not listen more than once. However, if I was to listen to a book again this would be the book because it is so compelling.
Probably Martha Mitchell. While she was a minor part of this story, I was reminded of how badly she was treated and how lost she was in this political mess. Everyone else in the story is pretty despicable so I cannot say "favorite".
I was shocked to hear that Nixon and his people were fairly certain, BEFORE his reelection (but right after the break in) that Felt was the person leaking information to the news media (("Deep Throat"). They left him alone because they were afraid he might do more damage. Also, his overall role was fairly minimal in the scheme of things.
This is one of the most important books I have ever "read". I was continually shocked by what I heard from the tapes. As bad as we thought it was, it was a lot worse. The callousness, the ability to lie so easily, and the shifting of blame to others was unbelievable. Also, it was the coverup, not the thwarted break in, that was so important.
This book is important and needs to be read by every citizen. Dean's transcription and his linking together the meaning of the tapes in terms of the bigger picture was compelling. Every part of this book was thought-provoking (and anger-provoking!). This is the only book about any aspect of Watergate that needs to be read to understand exactly what happened and why it happened (and how they got away with it for so long).
Retired Political Science professor from a community college. Especially like Legal Thrillers.
I would not recommend this book unless the listener had a broad overview of the Watergate Saga. Without a broad overview, the listener is likely to be overwhelmed by the details. I lived through the sorry saga and thus had a framework for placing the details in perspective.
I believe that John Dean has performed a valuable service by transcribing the tapes. I hope that his efforts are rewarded by interested readers. I first learned of the book through an NPR interview of the author.
As this is taken from the actual recordings of private conversations between Nixon and his aides it offers a fascinating insight in to not only what they knew and when but what they were thinking and why they acted the way they did.
I do think (as another reviewer pointed out) that you need to know the basic facts of what happened before listening to understand everything. As someone who knew very little about Watergate I did find myself getting confused after a while. At that point I took a break from listening to watch the 1994 BBC/Discovery channel documentary called Watergate which was itself really interesting (there is a wiki page that lists the episodes, and these can be found on youtube).
In hindsight it would have been better to have familiarised myself with the facts before starting the book (instead of part way through).
However that is not a criticism of the book itself which is excellent and I was really sorry when it ended.
Having read introductory books on this topic (as a listener should, I think, before tackling this), I found this deep dive rewarding. Nixon the lawyer and junkyard-dog pursuer of Alger Hiss was, reluctantly, dragged into the legal poker game of his life. My mind reeled at the vast number and character of shifting variables he and his loyal staff (at each point) had to consider, based on contingencies of one or another of the facts being pried loose publicly, or the conspirators turning on Nixon at some point of personal stress. It was poetic justice, I suppose, that this canny but oh-so-sharp-elbowed political warrior should ultimately be brought to ground in precisely this way. Be warned, however, this is all assembled in service of conversation-by-conversation sequence, and not as an amusing entertaining pot-boiler. So if your eyes glaze over at any lengthy sequence of things legal, then you might want to look elsewhere. Joe Barrett's narration is masterful as ever.
It is stunning that someone, as savvy as Richard Nixon was, could be so misguided by his own paranoia, and ill advised, so as to bring down what could have been a historic Presidency.
This book is an excellent start for anyone who wants to examine the Watergate scandal (contrary to some reviews I have seen). It is based on the infamous Nixon recordings, not only from the oval office, but various locations around the country.
I believe that John Dean is no innocent in this mess, and he seems to be forever trying to seek absolution through his literary confessions. On the other hand, he does seems more than willing to admit his guilt, and naturally, the guilt of others. He really doesn't care who's ox gored who.
I found the most interesting part to be the way the principles seemed to have realized the jig was up fairly quickly, but were slowly circling each other, to see who could either be framed for the blame, or pushed under the bus. The sad part of the whole ordeal is that, if Nixon had the personal fortitude to deal with the situation early on, instead of trying to stay loyal to what was ostensibly a troupe of maroons, he probably would have skated right through, unscathed.
At times, one needs a lineup sheet, as there are so many players, and there is a lot of overlap in dates. That said, the book does a decent job of trying to keep the listener's head from spinning.
A word about the narration. It is excellent.....except....; I have no idea why some narrators feel the need to assume characters, In this case, every time Nixon is speaking, we get a Nixon impression, albeit a pretty good one. If it was just Mr. Barrett, showing off his impressionistic talents for Nixon, I might grin and bear it, however...we get silly falsetto voices for females and southern drawls for some. It is totally unnecessary. Barrett's almost whispering tones for 75% of the rest of the narration, add to the notion of this being something that was being done on the hush hush.
Not wanting to end on a down note, I would say two thumbs up, for an excellent book, that puts the Nixon tapes into context, by one of the principles.
"So now we know"
Engrossing you have to listen to the next section and then the one after that. A good explanation of how they were drawn into the cover up.
Well read and well written, though don't forget Dean is telling his story.
I had no idea that they realised and at such an early stage, that Mark Phelps (Deep Throat) was leaking the information from the FBI.
Now we know, with all but certainty, what was on the erased 18 minutes. We are left to guess who did the erasing. But, for technical reasons, Rose Mary Woods could not have done it in the way she testified.
Nixon was so naive - his men around him were crooked and vague and hardly were advisors - yes men I think - and whilst I respect Nixon for his foreign policy work - this was super shambolic even down to why he didn't destroy the tapes.
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