One morning last week, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel woke from a dream about Donald Trump and nuclear war. This is somewhat typical.
John W. Dean III starts most days wondering how the current president will exceed the narcissism and paranoia of his old boss. Then Dean moves on to Twitter, where he routinely filets the Trump administration with a knife that was sharpened in the tribal warfare of the Nixon White House; these tweets are really a running list of mental notes about a book he’ll eventually write on Trump. His book on the last Republican administration, featuring George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, was titled “Worse Than Watergate.”
“I should’ve saved that title actually,” says Dean, the top aide whose congressional testimony was instrumental in taking down the Nixon presidency.
He’s on the phone from his home in Beverly Hills, where he keeps a sunny office above the garage with a distant view of the ocean through a big coral tree. It’s 81 degrees, and his inbox and voice mail are overflowing. Posy, his 15-year-old teacup poodle, needs an insulin shot every 12 hours, which is about how often many Americans need to know whether the 45th president will go the way of the 37th.
“It is not Watergate at this point,” Dean says of TrumpWorld’s improprieties and indiscretions, alleged and otherwise. “It is not Watergate 2.0. I’ve described it as having echoes of Watergate, from what I can hear. What got Nixon in trouble was his dark side and his revenge against other people.”
And yet: “His paranoia about leaks — we’re seeing that. His authoritarian manner in dealing with situations that most people would let go. . . . That amazing Feb. 17 news conference is way beyond what Nixon would tangle with, even if he was inclined. Nixon had great respect for the office.”
All the president’s men are mostly dead. G. Gordon Liddy, the swaggering campaign operative who masterminded the Democratic National Committee burglary, is 86 years old, and Dean hasn’t heard from him in three or four years. Dean, 78, who served a four-month sentence for his involvement in the coverup, is still writing, still lecturing, still appearing on television. The Watergate break-in turns 45 this year, as does his marriage to his wife, Maureen. His Twitter followers have quadrupled in number since November, with a certain faction of the public seeking him out as an oracle.
“Trump has taken the presidency from a class act under Obama to pure pettiness about inauguration crowd size,” Dean tweeted the day after the inauguration. “This is so Nixonian.”
(On the infamous Oval Office tapes, Nixon recorded his own words for Dean: “Bastard,” “son of a bitch.”)
Lately in his TV and Twitter commentary, Dean has been rating the two presidents based on a 0-to-10 scale of authoritarianism.
He gives Nixon a 6, maybe a 7.
He gives Trump a 10.
Trump has yet to take public notice of Dean’s slights, which have included “small man,” “blowhard clown,” “the greatest national security threat to the USA in decades.” But who knows if the story of John Dean — who was convicted of obstructing justice and testified to the similar crimes of other White House staffers — is even on the president’s radar. As recently as last summer, Trump acknowledged never having read a presidential biography. Nonetheless, Trump, like the rest of the media, uses Nixon and Watergate as shorthand.
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process,” Trump tweeted, without offering evidence, on March 4. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Dean’s assessment of the Watergate invocation: “It was very interesting that Trump used it against Obama. He thinks it’s still powerful.”
Since the Nixon White House remains our touchstone for executive line-crossing, we asked Dean to compare and contrast the past and present in a lightning round, if you will:
Vice President Pence. “He’s certainly not Spiro Agnew. And he’s not Dick Cheney. But he’s no Mondale. Or Gore. I mean that in a process way as much as philosophically. But I could see him being — if Trump got in trouble — somebody that congressional Republicans could be comfortable with.”
Chief of staff Reince Priebus. “He’s no Haldeman, [who] ran such an efficient operation. He really was a natural manager, an honest broker, most of the time.” (H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, went to prison for his role in the Watergate coverup.)
Strategist Stephen K. Bannon. “No parallels. . . . He strikes me as having an influence above Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and maybe a little above Kissinger.” (John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic affairs adviser, also went to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.)
Adviser Stephen Miller. “No precedent.” Dean tweeted, on Feb. 12, that Miller “may be the most obnoxious White House staffer I’ve seen over 5 decades. His arrogance is fully matched by his ignorance. He will fall.”
Press secretary Sean Spicer. “He’s not [Nixon press secretary] Ron Ziegler. Ziegler had a real thing about lying to the press. . . If he was ever caught lying he felt he would lose his credibility. . . The press corps liked Ziegler. He had drinks with them after work.”
Now, couldn’t the Nixon template be applied to Hillary Clinton, with her irksome reputation for secrecy? Wouldn’t we still be talking about Nixon even if she had won?
“She is,” Dean says, “the antithesis of a Nixonian character.”
He believes Clinton’s email controversy was “silliness.” The Benghazi affair demonstrated, he argues, that Clinton is the opposite of Trump and Nixon. He notes that she invited the FBI to rummage through her staff and her operation, that she laid herself at the foot of a congressional panel for hours on end, and so on.
So has Dean become a full-throated leftie in his emeritus years? Nixon always viewed him as a little bit “hippie,” given that he was all of 31 years old when he became White House counsel. Dean, who is not registered with a political party, calls himself a centrist but says that the modern GOP has essentially left him way to the left. He called the George W. Bush administration “worse than Watergate” chiefly because Bush authorized torture, which Dean says Nixon would never have done, even in his darkest moods. In 2006, Dean wrote a book called “Conservatives Without Conscience,” which traces the GOP’s slide toward authoritarianism via “strident and intolerant politics.”
“Watergate symbolizes totally unacceptable presidential behavior,” Dean once wrote, and much of his work since has been about trying to understand how Watergate happened in the first place — and how a young lawyer from the Midwest could find himself conspiring with the president of the United States to cover up crimes. While developing a Watergate lecture series for law students, Dean studied prospect theory and other decision-making research and saw that people who lack attractive solutions to a problem — who are mired in what’s known as a “loss frame” — tend to make irrational choices and then double down on them.
Says Dean: “I think we might have in the White House today somebody who’s in the loss frame a lot.”