Based on Nixon's previously overlooked secret recordings, a revelatory new look at Watergate by one of its key figures. 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 he was forced to resign, no one has told the full story of Nixon's involvement in Watergate. In The Nixon Defense, former White House Counsel John 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 18.5 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.
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Anybody who still thinks Nixon was railroaded in Watergate should consider this: within four days of the breakin, Nixon had talked to Chuck Colson about E Howard Hunt’s involvement, and to Haldeman about Gordon Liddy. They concocted a scheme to use the Cubans as a front for raising money from the Cuban American community in Miami. Would the men who were arrested be strong, Nixon wondered, or would they crack? Haldeman described to Nixon the kind of bugging equipment the burglars had, and noted that Hunt and another operative were in the Howard Johnson’s across the street, where the bugging receivers were located. They wondered if Hunt should be spirited away to an "undisclosed location."
The thing is, while the prosecutors were aware of some of this, they didn't know about Liddy yet. Someone operating in full disclosure mode would have called in the prosecutors and said, "Here's a guy who was involved in this, and this is where you can find him." Instead, at the urging of John Mitchell, they began looking for ways to turn off the FBI investigation. Within another few days, they had settled on trying to get the CIA to intervene - a blatant obstruction of justice that ultimately cost Nixon his presidency.
Nixon never, to his dying day, operated in full disclosure mode. And that fact becomes glaringly obvious as John Dean meticulously reconstructs the many conversations Nixon had about Watergate over the course of a year.
By the end of 1972, Nixon had a pretty clear picture of what had happened and who was involved. He was sketchy on some of the details, but he knew that Mitchell, Colson, and Haldeman were all involved; that Ehrlichman was at risk if the activities of the Plumbers were revealed; that Magruder had committed perjury to protect Mitchell; that Mitchell had probably committed perjury; that the people involved in the burglary were receiving clandestine financial assistance and promising to maintain silence in return. (In other words, he knew they were being bribed.)
When Dean sat down with Nixon on March 21, 1973, for the famous "cancer on the presidency" briefing, very little of what he said was news to Nixon. In fact, only a couple of days earlier, John Ehrlichman had had a long discussion with Nixon that went over much of the same material.
At that point, from the standpoint of the justice system, there were only seven people involved: the original five burglars, plus Hunt and Liddy. Nixon - the "chief law enforcement officer in the land" - knew the crime involved many others in his administration, yet continued to focus on Watergate as a PR problem. He dictated to Haldeman the substance of what an "internal investigation" - an investigation that never took place - should report. It has never been more clearly demonstrated how complicit Nixon was in the coverup - planning, reviewing, directing, troubleshooting.
And that was only in the first 6 months after the breakin. In January 1973 and the months following, it got far worse. Nixon became increasingly desperate as members of his administration began hiring lawyers. Some, like Dean, began talking to prosecutors. Nixon finally settled on his last defense: he would claim he knew nothing about Watergate until Dean sat down with him on March 21st. This book is the ultimate refutation of that lie.
It's important to keep in mind what the book is intended to be. It's not the definitive book about Watergate. It's not a rehash of Dean's earlier books with the "deleted scenes" added back in. Dean is quite explicit: his intention is to present a catalogue of every conversation - at least every one Dean can track down - that Nixon had about Watergate.
The tapes are the primary sources. Where tapes are not available, Dean turns to contemporaneous diary entries; and in the absence of those, gleans what he can from the various memoirs published by participants. Always, though, again and again, he turns back to the tapes.
The reader of this audiobook, Joe Barrett, gives a wonderful, sustained performance. He does a dead-on impression of Nixon. That's not always helpful or desirable in a nonfiction audiobook, but in this one - which is 95% taped conversation and 5% commentary - it definitely adds to the pleasure. At times it almost feels like you're sitting in a dark corner in the Oval Office itself.
One last comment on the story. There is unintentional hilarity in the conversations of late April 1973. At that point, Dean has begun meeting with the prosecutors. Nixon asks Haldeman to listen to the famous March 21st "cancer on the presidency" speech. The one thing that bothers me, Nixon says, is whether he had a tape recorder on him. Is there any way you could find out (he asks Haldeman) if he could have smuggled in a little tape recorder? He comes back to that point over and over again. He's having nightmares about whether Dean has his own tape.
Because, of course, if he did, people would know that Nixon's response, when Dean observed that they might need a million dollars in hush money, was NOT "we could get it, but that would be wrong" (as Haldeman later testified, resulting in his being indicted for perjury), but:
"We could get a million dollars. We could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. ... Don't you agree that we need to keep the lid on that Hunt thing, in order to have any options?"
This is without question the best documentary analysis I have ever read/heard and certainly the most riveting look at this riveting subject, Watergate. Whatever view you might have of John Dean and his role in Watergate, there can be no doubting his intellect, thoroughness and acumen. I can only sit back and admire his skills as a lawyer, an analyst and the enormous work ethic he must have to have collated this material in such a readable way. Having acknowledged Dean, it is important to praise Joe Barrett. I am not sure I could have read the 26 hours worth of text without Barrett's fantastic capturing of the characters; Nixon, Haldeman, Erlichman, Haigh and numerous others. I enjoyed it so much I have purchased the hardback and I will re-visit Dean's earlier apologia, "Blind Ambition", that I read 30 years ago. I have reams of notes that I can't possibly use in this review, but I wish I could. This is truly an outstanding piece of work, at least 90+% supported by the Watergate tapes and the remainder being very astute inference by Dean that is hard to fault. It is essential reading/listening if you are at all interested in this remakable piece of history.