President Richard Nixon’s decision to install a secret recording system — and then to retain the tapes — ranks as perhaps the most consequential self-inflicted political wound of 20th-century America.
The criminality, abuse of power, obsession with real and perceived enemies, rage, self-focus and small-mindedness revealed on those tapes left him abandoned by his own party and forced him to resign 40 years ago.
To date, the dissemination of some 250 White House conversations has defined his presidency and its corruption. Now comes John W. Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel and later his chief accuser, to transcribe and analyze at least 600 new conversations in his book “The Nixon Defense.”
The title is misleading, because it suggests there is a case for Nixon’s innocence. Dean quickly clears that up when he writes in the preface, “Fortunately for everyone, his defense failed.”
The new material reveals further examples of the administration’s contempt for the law. It provides a detailed narrative of precisely what happened inside the Nixon White House beginning three days after the June 17, 1972, burglary, when five men were arrested in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex, and continuing until the taping system was shut down after aide Alexander Butterfield revealed it 13 months later.
I never doubted that Nixon was the ringleader and driving force behind the Watergate crimes and mind-set. The evidence on previous tapes, the testimony at hearings and trials, and the memoirs of his closest aides made that clear. But Dean’s book seals it, perhaps forever.
“Watergate,” Dean concludes, “as the overwhelming evidence revealed, was merely one particularly egregious expression of Nixon’s often ruthless abuses of power. … Nixon was not only responsible for all that went amiss during his presidency, he was in almost every instance the catalyst, when not the instigator.”
The new tapes depict a White House full of lies, chaos, distrust, speculation, self-protection, maneuver and countermaneuver, with a crookedness that makes Netflix’s “House of Cards” look unsophisticated.
The book contains no new blockbusters, but the new tapes suggest that the full story of the Nixon administration’s secret operations may forever remain buried along with their now-deceased perpetrators. For example, on Oct. 10, 1972, Carl Bernstein and I wrote in The Washington Post that Watergate was not an isolated operation but only part of a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage run by the Nixon re-election committee and the White House.
The broad extent of the malfeasance was evident in a conversation that Charles Colson had with the president the same day, according to the book. Colson, Nixon’s shadowy operative and special counsel, told him almost gleefully that “nothing in that article this morning has anything to do with my office. The things that I have done that could be explosive in the newspaper will never come out, because nobody knows about them. I don’t trust anybody in my office.”
Nixon did not ask what these things might be. Colson, who did mention blackmail, took his crimes to the grave in 2012.
Dean shows the White House chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and Nixon’s top domestic adviser, John D. Ehrlichman, denying to the president any role in clandestine, criminal activities, then acknowledging it. On April 14, 1973, Ehrlichman told the president that, based on his own look into the cover-up, “there were eight or 10 people around who knew about this, knew it was going on. … Bob knew, I knew, all kinds of people knew.”
“Well, I knew it, I knew it,” Nixon replied.
But then, Dean writes: “Realizing what he had just confessed and possibly realizing that it had been recorded, the president immediately tried, rather awkwardly to retract it.”
He is then heard on the tape saying, “I knew, I must say though, I didn’t know it.”
Dean, as always the model of precision and doggedness, has performed yeoman service in this more-than-700-page monster of a book with its authoritative ring.
The new tapes provide even more incontrovertible evidence of the administration’s illegal conduct. Look no further than a May 23, 1973, tape in which Nixon addressed his initial authorization of Tom Charles Huston’s top-secret 1970 plan to expand break-ins, wiretapping and mail openings.
“I ordered that they use any means necessary, including illegal means, to accomplish this goal,” Nixon told his new chief of staff, Alexander Haig. “The president of the United States can never admit that.”
He just had, of course.
Bob Woodward is an associate editor of The Washington Post and author or co-author of 17 books. Four are about Watergate, including “All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days,” both co-authored with Carl Bernstein.
The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, By John W. Dean (746 pages, Viking, $35)