New tapes reveal Nixon admitting criminality again and again. (Charles Tasnadi/Associated Press)
July 31

Bob Woodward is an associate editor of The Washington Post, where he has worked for nearly 43 years. He is the 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. Evelyn Duffy contributed to this review.

President Richard Nixon’s decision to install a secret recording system — and then to retain the tapes — perhaps ranks as 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, 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 that conclusion, perhaps forever. He brings the microscope as close to the Nixon of Watergate as anyone has, and he has done so in a generally dispassionate presentation of hundreds of pages of content from the tapes, plus quotations and scenes from previously released recordings, including conversations in which he participated.


“The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It” by John W. Dean. (Viking)

“Watergate,” Dean concludes, “as the overwhelming evidence revealed, was merely one particularly egregious expression of Nixon’s often ruthless abuses of power. Had Richard Nixon not encouraged his aides to collect political intelligence by any means fair or foul, or insisted from the moment of the [Watergate] arrests that there must be no coverup, neither would have taken place. 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 counter-maneuver, with a crookedness that makes Netflix’s “House of Cards” look unsophisticated. Dean himself was eventually charged with obstruction of justice and served four months in prison. Describing himself and Nixon’s other top aides in the spring of 1973, he writes: “We had become something of a criminal cabal, weighing the risks of further criminal action to prevent the worst while hoping something might unexpectedly occur that would resolve the problems. Watergate conversations had become like the devil’s merry-go-round with the same basic tune played over and over while various people climbed on and off.”

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 reelection committee and the White House. Dean writes that the story “reframed Watergate as more than a mere bungled burglary at the DNC.”

The broad extent of the malfeasance was evident in a conversation that Charles W. 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 might be.

Three months later, after the president won reelection, Colson bragged to his boss: “I did a hell of a lot of things on the outside, and you never read about it. The things you read about were the things I didn’t do, Watergate” and the sabotage and espionage operations against the Democrats run by California lawyer Donald Segretti.

“But you see, I did things out of Boston,” Colson said, referring to his home town. “We did some blackmail and — ”

“My God,” Nixon interrupted. Even he was apparently surprised.

“I’ll go to my grave before I ever disclose it,” Colson continued. “But we did a hell of a lot of things and never got caught. Things that — ”

Colson abruptly stopped, and Nixon inquired no further. In a footnote, Dean writes that he had a similar conversation with Colson, who said that his “secret activities” could send him to jail if they were ever revealed. Colson died in 2012.

Dean shows White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and the top domestic adviser, John D. Ehrlichman, at one moment denying to the president any role in clandestine, criminal activities, then acknowledging it. The tapes also capture Nixon shading the truth after admitting knowledge of the activities. On April 14, 1973, Ehrlichman told the president that, based on his own investigation of the Watergate cover-up, “there were eight or 10 people around [the White House] who knew about this, knew it was going on.” He told Nixon that “Bob [Haldeman] knew, I knew, all kinds of people knew.”

“Well, I knew it, I knew it,” Nixon replied. But then he quickly tried to backtrack. 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.” Nixon is then heard on the tape saying, “I knew, I must say though, I didn’t know it.” This type of classic doubletalk appears time and again on the new tapes.

“The Nixon Defense” offers tantalizing hints that White House aides were gleaning information from the telephone wiretap that had been secretly placed in the DNC’s Watergate headquarters. On March 16, 1973, Ehrlichman told the president that it was his “hunch” that key campaign and White House aides, including former attorney general John Mitchell, were receiving reports from the wiretap. “And there’s some pretty juicy stuff in there,” Ehrlichman said. The fruits of the bug have not been made public. Dean notes that the National Archives is holding back some material, citing privacy and because it was obtained using an illegal wiretap.

On April 9, 1973, three months before the secret White House recording system was revealed publicly, Nixon instructed Haldeman to get rid of all the tapes. “I think we should take all that we’ve got and destroy them,” the president is heard saying on tape. “I don’t want to have in the record the discussions we’ve had in this room about Watergate.”

As Dean writes, “Had he destroyed the tapes he would have survived, tarnished but intact.” But the order was not carried out. Nine days later, Nixon repeated his request. “I would like you to take all these tapes, if you wouldn’t mind,” he said, as if he were asking Haldeman to perform a routine task. He wanted Haldeman to destroy most of the tapes. “Would you do that?”

“Sure,” Haldeman said.

But Nixon did not pursue the matter. The White House was chronically prone to insufficient follow-through, and Nixon was often indecisive as he tried to untangle himself from the Watergate crimes. Not only did the tapes escape the trash bin, but the president kept the secret recording system going through the spring of 1973 while he directed the cover-up. During those months he developed another, deeper illegal obstruction of justice — the cover-up of the cover-up.

After White House aide Butterfield publicly disclosed the existence of the secret recordings to the Senate Watergate committee on July 16, 1973, Nixon told his new chief of staff, Alexander Haig: “Al, I’ve thought about this all night. Maybe Alex Butterfield has done us a favor. These tapes will be exculpatory. I know I never said anything to anybody that could be interpreted as encouragement to cover things up. Just the opposite.” This is preposterous and indicative of Nixon’s state of denial.

Although an abundance of tape material now exists, it is likely that still more evidence is on the horizon. Some tapes or key sections are inaudible and defy reliable transcription. Improved technology could someday retrieve additional content. In addition the National Archives, which houses the tapes, may eventually release more of them.

Dean, as always the model of precision and doggedness, has performed yeoman service in this more-than-700-page monster of a book. Even for someone who has covered Watergate for 42 years, from the morning of the burglary through the investigations, confessions, denials, hearings, trials, books and attempts at historical revisionism, Dean’s book has an authoritative ring. Page after page of taped dialogue reveals the rambling, ugly fog of scandal as Nixon and his top aides scramble to deceive one another and save themselves.

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 Haig. “The president of the United States can never admit that.” He just had, of course, and the new tapes show him making admissions of criminality again and again.

Bob Woodward is an associate editor of The Washington Post, where he has worked for nearly 43 years. He is the 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. Evelyn Duffy contributed to this review.

Read more from Outlook:

Books on tapes: ‘Chasing Shadows’ and ‘The Nixon Tapes’

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THE NIXON DEFENSE

What He Knew and When He Knew It

By John W. Dean

Viking. 746 pp. $35