Watergate forever changed American politics, and in light of the revelations about the NSA’s widespread surveillance program, the scandal has taken on new significance. Yet remarkably, four decades after Nixon was forced to resign, no one has told the full story of his involvement in Watergate.
In The Nixon Defense, former White House Counsel John W. Dean, one of the last major surviving figures of Watergate, draws on his own transcripts of almost a thousand conversations, a wealth of Nixon’s secretly recorded information, and more than 150,000 pages of documents in the National Archives and the Nixon Library to provide the definitive answer to the question: What did President
Nixon know and when did he know it?
Through narrative and contemporaneous dialogue, Dean connects dots that have never been connected, including revealing how and why the Watergate break-in occurred, what was on the mysterious 18 1/2 minute gap in Nixon’s recorded conversations, and more.
In what will stand as the most authoritative account of one of America’s worst political scandals, The Nixon Defense shows how the disastrous mistakes of Watergate could have been avoided and offers a cautionary tale for our own time.
This is my third book with Viking/Penguin, and working with this organization is a wonderful experience, an author’s delight. Let me explain why this is true with this new book—The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.
I wrote this book to understand how someone as politically savvy and intelligent as former President Richard Nixon could destroy his presidency over a bungled burglary and bugging at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. He was not personally responsible for this disaster, yet he became deeply involved in the cover up. He created a series of bogus defenses that ultimately ended his presidency.
Because I served as Nixon’s White House counsel, not to mention my testimony was integral to his fall, I knew much of what was going on, but very little about what occurred behind the president’s closed door. I did not deal with Nixon on Watergate until seven months after the June 17, 1972, arrests at the Watergate. When we started meeting, the cover up was in place, although it was starting to come apart. Among a number of matters I had never understood was how and why Nixon developed his increasingly risky and fictitious defenses. In all these years no one had really examined or explained Nixon’s behavior, notwithstanding the fact that the information is available. I knew it could be found in Nixon’s secretly self-recorded conversations.
In proceeding I appreciated that gathering the information on his tapes would not be easy, otherwise it would already have been done. But only after I began this project did I grasp that it was a truly massive undertaking. To understand Nixon’s Watergate-related actions and activities it was necessary to track them day-by-day. When I started in 2009, no one had ever catalogued all these Watergate recordings, and when I did so I discovered some 600 conversations that no one outside the National Archives (where the tapes have been processed and stored) had likely ever heard. And I also discovered the available transcripts of Watergate conversations were mostly only partial, often omitting information I found relevant and revealing. So in 2010, I decided I had to transcribe more than a thousand Nixon Watergate conversations to understand his role and tell that story.
As I explain in the book’s preface, transcribing these recordings was extremely difficult and time-consuming. After I had done several dozen, I began recruiting graduate students to assist. I found it easier to correct someone else’s transcript than to start from scratch. Nixon’s recording system was very primitive. They sound much like police surveillance tapes, with the quality depending on where the speakers were located relative to the microphones hidden in his desks. All too often the person speaking was just out of range, making it difficult and sometimes all but impossible to transcribe. But with effort, most of them could be captured. This was not very pleasant work so there was inevitable turnover with my students, except for one young woman, a former legal secretary now completing her Ph.D. in archival science, who transcribed more than 500 conversations. Personally, I did about 250 of them, and the other students transcribed approximately 250 conversations. They range in length from less than a minute to many longer than three hours or more.
My deadlines for this book came and passed, for there was no way to really speed the process—I was the bottleneck because I wanted to review the transcripts and there were not enough hours in the day. When the transcripts for Parts I, II, and III of the book were completed, I began writing, recasting the transcripts into narrative and dialogue, and supplementing the recorded conversations with other relevant material. (I have pulled thousands of additional pages of documents from the National Archives, as well as all relevant testimony and memoirs.) The first three parts of the book are based on roughly 300 Nixon conversations. In Part IV, which addresses the period when Nixon became intensely involved in Watergate, there are some 600 conversations, most of which are longer, not to mention often highly repetitive, making it all the more difficult to later compress the material into narrative and dialogue. To write Part IV, I had to overwrite it to see it all before trimming it back, but sending each part to my editor, Rick Kot, for his deft touch and further trimming as I proceeded.
Researching and writing the book was a long process. Suffice it to say that without the talented and professional staff at Viking I could have never completed it by August 9, 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, which was our long held final target for publication. To make that date, I had transcribers working until 90 days before publication, and at times Viking had four copy editors working simultaneously on various parts. There is so much more to a book than an author producing a manuscript. The editing, copyediting, designing, indexing, and production—not to mention the enhanced eBook that accompanies it—really made this book. This undertaking was organized like a precision military maneuver. The end result is for me the most elegant I have ever authored. From the texture of the jacket to the way the pages sit when open, this book is a joy to handle.
This is my tenth book. Maybe my most important book, for I recognize that I am uniquely situated to understand Nixon’s conversations and report this long-ignored but not unimportant history. While the outlines of this story have long been known, Nixon’s recordings provide page after page of new information and significant detail. Because these recordings are real-time, they allowed me to report the events as they were occurring, not as later recalled through the filter of memory. What I have discovered is more than what happened and why, for I discovered true human drama that can be felt in these conversations. As I write this, pre-publication, I have only received limited feedback. But I thought one friend stated it nicely and succinctly: “It’s like being a fly on the wall in the courts of Caesar, King George, the House of Borgia, or the Corleone crime family.” While this story is not pretty, it is real. And I believe there is much more to learn from mistakes than successes, and there are no shortage of mistakes reported in this account.
As for this letter, I am pleased to give a heartfelt thank you to Viking, under the leadership of Clare Ferraro, for making it possible for me to report this story and producing such a well-designed book. This letter is also a chance to invite readers to share reactions with me, or pose questions, through social media. You can find me on Twitter: @johnwdean.
With the hope that you find this as engaging to read as it was to write, I am
John W. Dean