Blind Ambition, by John Dean*****

blindambitionJohn Dean was counsel to the president during the Nixon administration, and was the first to testify against all of the Watergate conspirators, including Nixon and including himself, a bold but necessary decision that led to Nixon’s resignation—done to avoid imminent impeachment—and Dean’s imprisonment. Dean’s story is a real page turner, and Nixon-Watergate buffs as well as those that are curious about this time period should read this book. I read the hard copy version, for which I paid full jacket price, shortly after its release, and when I saw that my friends at Open Road Media and Net Galley were re-releasing it digitally, I climbed on board right away. This title is available for sale today, December 20, 2016.

Dean was a young lawyer whose career rose rapidly. When Nixon found out that men employed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President had been arrested for the burglary of the Democratic Party National Headquarters, which was housed in the Watergate Hotel, he quickly became enmeshed in a plan to bury the whole thing. Once he realized (belatedly) that he and his closest advisors had made themselves vulnerable to criminal charges, he had Haldeman, his right hand man, reach into the White House legal staff to find an attorney that could serve as an intermediary so that none of them would need to have illegal conversations with each other. Dean was sometimes called upon as a problem solver, but more often he was essentially the messenger between the president and his closest advisors. Nixon’s thinking here was that everything that passed through Dean would be covered by client-attorney privilege. When this turned out to have no legal basis and heads were going to roll, Dean learned that his own head would be among those served up on a platter by the administration in its effort to save itself. He chose to strike first by testifying against everyone involved in the conspiracy to obstruct justice, and eventually this included President Richard Nixon.

 

Those old enough to recall having watched Dean testify on television will be interested in the back story here. Dean has a phalanx of his own attorneys, but he decides to appear at the microphone without them; they are among the faces in the back on the TV footage. He also chose to speak in a dead monotone, because the information he was transmitting was itself very dramatic, and he had already been represented as a squealer in some media sources. Instead, he chose to portray himself as a small man, slightly balding, with his horn rimmed glasses and his notes, sitting alone in front of a microphone in order to bravely announce the truth to the Senate and the world.  And it’s effective. See what you think:

 

 

When I first read this book I was not long out of high school, and I met the text with snarky disapproval, based more on the very idea that a man as young as Dean could choose to affiliate himself with the Republican Party during the time the Vietnam War raged than on the skill with which the book was written. This time I come to it as an adult with a lot more experience related to writing, and my reaction is completely different.  Dean writes his story like a legal thriller. It’s fascinating and enormously compelling.  I find that what I think of Dean morally and politically is irrelevant when I rate this text; the writing is first rate. Most interesting of all is the way he is able to inject wry humor into the series of events that ended his legal career and sent him to jail. His sentence is not long, though, and much of it is spent in a relatively gentle confinement. He becomes a college professor and writer later in life, which he still is today.

 

Those that have real depth of interest will also be interested in a later book, The Nixon Defense, written once all the Nixon tapes were released to the public:

 

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2014/09/01/the-nixon-defense-what-he-knew-and-when-he-knew-it-by-john-dean/

 

Both are riveting, and highly recommended.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas ****

beingnixonSuddenly, everyone is writing Nixon biographies; it’s a Watergate junkie’s dream come true! Here Thomas does his best to take us inside Nixon’s skin and tell us what motivated some of the decidedly strange things he did. It makes for highly engaging reading. 3.75 stars get rounded up to 4, along with my thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book is available for sale now.

When I signed on for this galley, I imagined that perhaps Thomas had a background in psychology or psychiatry and was going to take a stab at diagnosing a mental illness that might explain what in the world Nixon was thinking when he did the things he did; if he’d had different meds, would things have shaken out differently? But that isn’t what this book is about. Instead, it is a glimpse at Nixon’s life, including his early childhood and adolescence, postulating that childhood experiences may have shaped the politician Nixon became.

To this, I will admit that I said, “Psssh. Right. Whatever.”

Because it’s a plain and simple fact that many presidents had lives that were scarred by events as bad or worse than what Nixon experienced, and most of them still managed to do their jobs without coming within a hair’s breadth of impeachment. So I don’t buy that theory.

Nevertheless, there are so many interesting tidbits and stories in this memoir that even if the reader doesn’t buy the overall thesis, it’s a compelling read. The conversational narrative kept me rolling along, and every time I found an opinion I thought was baloney, I made a note of it and kept going. I would have continued reading even if I didn’t have an obligation to the publisher, because it really is fascinating stuff.

Imagine, for instance, a solitary candidate with a love for classical music, sitting all by himself in his hotel suite, with the 1812 Overture blasting away, with his arms furiously directing an unseen orchestra. Just one aide saw this, and Thomas ferreted the incident out and presented it here. I doubt you’ll find these tidbits anywhere else!

In addition, few other biographers have managed any insights into what went on in the Nixon residence. I often wondered about Pat, Tricia, and Julie. When he showed up to home, did he storm in and turn the coffee table over? Get quietly drunk? Blame his family for all his ills? Drawing heavily on the memoirs written by family members that I am unlikely to ever read, Thomas gives us a little voyeuristic peek behind the curtains, and I found it intriguing indeed.

When it comes to Watergate, Thomas holds Nixon responsible for what he did, for the greater part, but I rolled my eyes at the repeated claim that if he hadn’t been too shy to socialize with the staff, with the Washington socialites who invited him to dinners, and so forth, maybe he would not have become so isolated…if his childhood hadn’t been so poor, and if his father hadn’t kept him home from his Yale scholarship because there was no money for dorm fees…if…if…if…

I felt much more certain that the author’s research, which is mostly done via secondary sources and the Nixon family’s memoirs, including heavy use of Nixon’s own (RN), was based on fact when he dealt directly with Nixon’s personal life. Although various quotes by the Watergate conspirators were interesting, some are more believable than others. I found one fact in this bio that directly conflicts with that of biographer Tim Weiner, and it has to do with the choice of Spiro Agnew as a running mate. Thomas cites reasons personal and political; Weiner documents that the choice was bought and paid for by Greek financial interests. Here, I believe Weiner. It’s just one directly conflicting fact, but when I found it, just as a humble reviewer rather than as a researcher, it called other things into question, which is where ¼ star fell off this review.

The author thanks a number of people in his after-notes. I always read those, because you can pick up little things lost elsewhere. He especially thanks the man that told him to beware the various items found in the prodigious memoirs by “that old thespian”, Richard Nixon, who was a student actor before he went into politics. It was strong advice.

In perusing this biography, I realized two things. The first is that the reason Nixon had so little domestic policy, and the reason the country moved so smoothly without him during the tortuous period prior to his departure, is because he didn’t have much of a tool kit to start with. The author notes that although Nixon has gained a sinister reputation as an evil, sneaking genius, in fact there were areas in which he really wasn’t all that smart, and this was one of them. He focused on three things: foreign policy, in which he was better equipped to carry out the wishes of the bourgeoisie than most presidents have been; running for office again and when that was done, honing his legacy, about which enough has been said; and of course, revenge, revenge, revenge.

The second thing I realized is that the reason he was virtually cast out of office in a situation in which other presidents might have been able to pull their chestnuts out of the fire, had to do with the fact that he believed himself, as US president, to be more powerful than the ruling bourgeoisie. He misjudged the relationship of power between himself and those that rule us quietly, usually in an unseen way. In attempting to yank the broadcasting license of CBS as part of a personal vendetta against the owner of the Washington Post, he took on a sector of the ruling rich, and he made of himself an object lesson.

By my count, this was my twelfth Nixon biography, though I may have read and forgot about some others. It’s neither the best nor the worst, but for those fascinated with Nixon’s rise and fall, and with Watergate, it should go on the to-read list. It’s just too good to miss!

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner*****

onemanagainsttheworldQuestion: What do an old typewriter, a copy machine, Scotch tape, and a razor blade share in common?

Answer: They were all tools used by White House employee Howard Hunt, at President Richard Nixon’s request, to forge a cable that would make (dead) President JFK appear to have ordered the assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem.

My, my, my. The things you can learn once you start digging. This is by no means the most important part of the Nixon story as told by veteran political writer Tim Weiner, nor even the most humorous, in a grim, gallows sense; it’s just a small sample of the bizarre, the paranoid, and above all, the crooked, reprehensible deeds committed by Nixon and his creepy co-conspirators during his administration. And by now I am already supposed to have told you that I read this book free, thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company.

So, can we find a way to go back and make it look like I told you during the first paragraph, like I was supposed to? And for God’s sake, don’t tell anyone.

How much will it cost to keep this thing quiet?

I was just a kid during Nixon’s first term. But as young as I was, I have to tell you, dear reader, that the times were so polarized, so politicized (not unlike the time in which we now find ourselves) that issues like Civil Rights and the Vietnam War could not be relegated to the more traditional venues, such as the evening news or the newspaper. As soon as someone opened the newspaper, or turned on the television, or started to talk about something they had seen on the news, everyone within hearing range erupted in one direction or another. It happened at home; it happened at school; and it probably happened in workplaces. Even if I hadn’t been so fascinated, there was no getting away from it.

During the time Nixon was in office, most of the media criticism of his behavior was initially soft-pedaled out of respect for his office. It took awhile before anyone in the journalistic community used the word “lie”, for example. The words I heard were “discrepancies” and “evasions”. And all of us, kids and adults alike, were stunned by the number of times the words “expletive deleted” were used.

The fact that President Nixon referred to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as “black of course…dumb as hell” was redacted until after Marshall’s death. The horror.

All that was a long time ago, of course, and Weiner is unfettered by any of the above considerations. His story is remarkably complete yet succinct, and oh so darkly funny. Even though others in my household do not share my absorption in things Nixon-related, I can’t get through more than three pages of this book without having to stop and repeat something on the page to whoever is walking through the room. For example, after having invaded Cambodia without the consent of Congress, and in direct violation of every US and international military law on the books, Nixon announced the invasion to the American people on television thusly:

“This is not an invasion of Cambodia.”

One more thing: Nixon’s cover up; the vast number of dead people, mostly young, who should have emerged alive and unhurt rather than killed against their will in an unjust war; the outrageous wrongdoings that unfolded in our capital and that were paid for with our tax dollars; and the outright theft of Federal monies for personal gain…the parallels that shake out between Nixon and Stalin, whose biography I reviewed two weeks ago, are disquieting.

And that much really isn’t funny.

Weiner, whose journalistic pedigree to date may make him America’s finest living political writer, does an outstanding job of eloquently stating what needs to be said and its significance without tossing in a lot of arcane trivia to muddy the water. Unlike most that have written about Watergate, he had no role in the crimes that took place and has no personal ax to grind. So if you want to just read everything that gets printed about Watergate, as I have so far, then read this along with everything else. But if you weren’t around during this time in American history and want to read one—and just one—book about Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation, then let this be it.

At the end of the book is a treasure trove of web links that will take the reader to primary resources, very valuable to those doing research.

Read it for your own political education, or look at it as grim, terrible humor, whichever suits you. For me, I guess it was some of each. But if you want to avoid stepping into the abyss, whether here in the USA or in whatever nation you call home, you’re better off being aware of what took place in the past.

Because it’s better to be watching, participating, and engaging in honest dialogue, and better to back your statements with actions that demonstrate integrity, than it is to hide in the fucking basement and scheme against enemies, real or imagined. Honest social and political discourse carried out as citizens of the world are what keep the rest of us from going down that rabbit hole.

Weiner’s masterpiece will be available starting July 21, but it’s probably best to order your copy now. So much of the future depends on what we know of the past.

The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, by John Dean *****

the nixon defenseJohn Dean is a man with a mission, one that has lasted him most of his adult life. This comprehensive tome is the sort of documented, primary evidence that is only done by someone who’s got a large stake in setting the historical record straight. Dean is that man.

It goes to show that even though the First Amendment has become narrower in some ways, what with the NSA helping itself to all of our phone records and no reporters or photographers being permitted in war zones anymore, yet in some ways it has become much broader. If you are curious about these transcripts yourself, you can get onto the website Dean offers at the very beginning of his missive, or you can do as I did, and go to YouTube. I don’t know whether all of the transcripts are there; I wasn’t on a mission with a scope as large as Dean’s, and there were so many, many hours of taped conversation, but YouTube has so much material, some of it historical and/or arcane. But during my surf I did note that there was a lot of what would previously have been considered restricted material there. It wasn’t just the resignation and the Checkers speech; it was a tremendous amount of data. Send out your thanks to the gods of technology, which is what made Dean’s newer and more comprehensive transcription possible.

I was in high school during the Watergate scandal, and I wasn’t in Seattle then, but in a nearly 100% Caucasian,mostly affluent Republican suburb outside Portland, Oregon. My high school peers said things like, “Oh well of course he lied, but he’s still a better president than McGovern would have been”, and “Wow. Rose Mary Woods. Now there’s loyalty!”

My own father, a conservative Republican, scowled at my sister and me as we avidly viewed the presidential resignation speech. He poured himself another, another and yet another glass of bourbon and shook his head, telling us that the president was a fine man who had been viciously hounded by a liberal press. So, for those of us who lived through this American political saga, it’s about context.

For those who seek less detail than is included here or want a novel-like story arc, I would recommend “All the President’s Men”, which is a briefer and less repetitive narrative told by one of the investigative journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal. For those who are sticklers for detail, either for academic or professional reasons or because, like me, you are addicted to Watergate material, this will be a deeply satisfying read.

To put it another way: if, like me, you had to get a copy of The Pentagon Papers and read what the US government tried to suppress, then you also ought to read this book.

At first, I thought Dean’s tone was a little too plaintive, given that he had cooperated in a cover-up himself, albeit under protest, for nearly a year. Once I got into the trial material and saw the vindictive and purposeful way Richard Nixon and those who worked for him set about to “destroy Dean”, I no longer felt that he protested too much. The machinations of Nixon’s revenge are worth a thesis unto themselves, so I will let that bit go and move on. You’ll have to read the book if you want more about Nixon’s vengeance.

What did Nixon know? I started to provide it in bullet points here, and realized it was just no fun that way. Let me say this much: Dean does answer the question. Nobody living knows more about this subject than John Dean. It has become his life’s work. If you invest yourself in 700+ pages of text, you will not come away feeling cheated, unless you skim and miss things. I didn’t.

It was not only Nixon’s self-righteous attitude when it was clear that he was legally and morally wrong that I found disturbing, but also the tone. The racist and sexist remarks that punctuate the conversations he has with his highest-level advisors cannot simply be written off as relics of that point in history. It is appalling.

What is equally appalling is that upon learning of the burglary at the Democratic headquarters, Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman find no moral objection to what has been done; hell, they’ve authorized far worse things, as we later learn. No, what disturbs them is how badly the job was done, how unprofessional the burglars were. It sounds like something out of a Godfather sequel.

And it just gets worse. By the time Dean decides that Nixon cannot be redeemed and goes to the prosecutor to explain what has happened and try to gain immunity, we see Nixon vow first not to speak to him and to fire him as White House counsel; then to “destroy” him, which is ugly but can have multiple meanings, literal and figurative…and then ultimately Dean must enter a witness protection program for awhile because of the mountains of death threats that are received daily. Dean’s counsel wants to know whether Nixon would try to have him killed, and at first Dean, who did not ruffle easily, thought not. But then he mused that it was possible the president would arrange something through his pal, Bebe Rebozo.

I had heard from friends who had read more than I had that Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman were serious thugs. This transcript and the brief paraphrasing that connects its pieces (not unlike Sheehan’s Pentagon Papers) makes all of it quite real. This man was supposedly the leader of the “free world”! He used public monies to bring down retribution on his enemies (his own word), and used other people’s tax dollars to fund a remodeling and extension of his home in San Clemente. He continually revised the truth according to what was convenient for him.

At first, I wondered: did the guy have some sort of psychiatric disorder that made him unable to process clearly? But as the story unfolded, I could see exactly how well he tracked events. His temperament and loyalties were ever-changing and always in line with his own self-interest. He could not, absolutely could not bear for the burglary scandal to touch his dear friend and former law partner, John Mitchell, who headed up the Committee to Re-elect the President. Absolutely not! It was unthinkable, but only until the jig was obviously up. And when Mitchell had to be sacrificed, then Nixon just didn’t talk to him anymore. That was it, over, done. And then, everything was Mitchell’s fault; his old friend was more like a waste basket by the door. When you see a problem, toss it onto the Mitchell pile. He did it.

Then of course he had other two best friends, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, who were the only people he still trusted (and though this book is about politics, I found it interesting that the First Lady is never mentioned; he doesn’t eat dinner with her, doesn’t have her out on the presidential yacht…we hear from Tricia and Julie, his daughters, during the peak of crisis, but the guy’s wife was practically invisible).

But Haldeman and Ehrlichman should not be culpable for all the illegal things they had helped him plan and execute, and so he decided that his counsel, John Dean, should serve as the go-between, so that everything that was told to Nixon by Dean would (he thought) be covered by attorney-client privilege. And this is when Dean begins to squirm, as things that are illegal, immoral, and untenable are sent via him as the presidential filter. At first he just does what the boss says; then he starts to tentatively warn him that he’s getting into some deep water here; and eventually he is laying it on the line, and Nixon tells him that of course, those discussions never occurred, and these things never happened.

Later, when Dean realizes that he cannot work with Nixon without breaking the law, he goes to the prosecutor, hoping to avoid prison. Then, Dean is no longer the guy Nixon trusts, and in fact every bad thing anyone who ever worked for Nixon ever did, is said to have been done by Dean. It is a fascinating transformation. And the way Nixon first clings to Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and seems to actually be a little afraid to fire them, but he then is ready to lay blame at their door (while suggesting to Haldeman on the side that he can pardon him when the whole thing is over). Fascinating. It is so dreadful that I found myself tempted to add this book to my “horror” shelf.

Here’s the obvious analogy I see: when people go to the zoo, some of them want to see the giraffes, the hippos, the monkeys, and then they get their cotton candy and take the kiddies home.

But others have to visit the small dark building where the reptiles slither around.

And so it is with Nixon buffs: we cannot help but be transfixed by that which seems so sinister, so repulsive to our own humanity. We look because we can’t stand not to look. Once we look, we cannot look away.

Dean’s revenge is in having the last word about what was done during that terrible time, and in making absolutely plain what the truth is. He is painstaking in using new technology to improve the historical record. Payback is sweetest when you are absolutely correct, and if there is a theme to this publication, there it is. And now most of the ugliest players are dead and cannot come back to wreck havoc upon the living anymore. May they rot where they lie.

If like me you cannot look away, read Dean’s record of this criminal conspiracy to cover up covered up obstructed justice by the man who held more power than any other politician, and by his loyal minions. The repetition of the conversations in some ways is entirely appropriate because it shows the level of obsession, and in particular, of Nixon’s obsession with the power that his presidency provided, at least for a time, and how badly the public’s trust and resources can be misused and abused.

If you read it at night, you may want to leave the light on when you go to sleep. Nixon is dead, but you just never know who the hell is out there.