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Book Review: The Nixon Defense - What He Knew and When He Knew It by John Dean

A year ago, in August of 2013, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) made available to the public the last 340 hours of White House tapes from the Richard Nixon Administration, recordings which had been under government control for almost 40 years. Author, former White House Counsel and Watergate defendant John Dean draws upon the transcripts of these, as well as the contents of previously released recordings to produce his latest book entitled The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It. The book's title comes from a question that Dean was asked by Republican Senator Howard Baker on June 28, 1973 at the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, when Baker asked Dean "what did the president know and when did he know it?" For the most part the answer to those questions emerge from Nixon's own mouth in the recordings, though as Dean concedes, some mysteries still remain.



Dean meticulously reviews all of Nixon's recorded Watergate-related conversations commencing on June 20, 1972, when news of the Watergate break-in first hits the news, until July of 1973 when news breaks that Nixon has secretly recorded all of his conversations, leading to a chain of events that results in Nixon's resignation.

The recordings are very telling about the Machiavellian president and his "if you're not for us, you're against us" mentality. Dean describes in exceptionally great detail, the chain of events, day by day, conversation by conversation, in which this historical train wreck unfolds as Nixon rejects advice to simply let the investigation proceed unimpeded and let the chips fall where they may. Dean does not suggest that Nixon was complicit in the initial break-in, but by choosing to try and cover-up certain things, including the break-in of Daniel Ellsburg's psychiatrist's office, Nixon brings about the transformation of what might have simply been political embarrassment into the downfall of his presidency and his resignation in disgrace.

Much of the book focuses on conversations about the relationship between Nixon and Dean. We see how Nixon at first regards Dean as a bright light, an up-and-comer with a promising future, and how Dean's crisis of conscience leads to his finding himself at the top of Nixon's enemies list. Towards the end, it seems as if Nixon is unable to finish a sentence without adding why Dean is the most despicable man on the planet. The conversations tell much about Nixon's mindset, and in particular about his complete loss of perspective and his disingenuous justifications for many kinds of wrongdoing.

The book also paints an interesting picture of other players in the Watergate saga: Bob Haldeman, Nixon's fiercely loyal chief of staff; John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic advisor whose words and actions portray someone with questionable ethics and integrity, whose loyalty to Nixon extends only to the point where it conflicts with his own self-interest; and the stoic John Mitchell, Nixon's former Attorney-General and campaign manager, who appears coolest under pressure, but who also possesses a very skewed sense of right and wrong.

In reading this book, I wondered several times whether Dean's position as a central character might render his accounting of the story questionable because of a lack of objectivity. But Dean addresses this issue by sticking to the words as spoken in the recordings, letting all of the characters (himself included) speak for themselves. In that sense it is hard to argue about the fairness of his telling of the Watergate story.

The book leaves some mysteries unsolved. For instance, Dean makes the case that the 18 1/2 minute gap in one recorded conversation could not have occurred as explained, and while he presents alternative theories, he concedes that precisely how this happened and what the significance of the erasure were will never be known. He also ponders the mystery of what the need for the break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters might have been, and presents some interesting theories, but concedes that the tapes do not disclose the answer to this question.

This book is not recommended for the reader with only a passing interest in Watergate. It contains too much detail as the conversations of the participants rehash over and over again what has happened, with their own self-serving spin. It can seem tedious for those with a limited interest. But for the serious history geek, this books is fascinating as various incriminating statements emerge from the mouths of Nixon, Erhlichman, Haldeman and others, though one has to sift through a lot of other meaningless chatter surrounding them. This book presents a reasonably clear picture of how a stupidly planned burglary by some zealous Nixon loyalists turned into the downfall of a president with so much potential. Dean not only tells us what Nixon knew, and when he knew it, but also how his poor judgement, wrong choices and character flaws led to his ruin.
Tags: author: d, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history
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