On Wednesday we got some relief from the incessant post-Oscar chatter around whether Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper had been a couple, were a couple, should be a couple, or were destined to open a Subway sandwich shop together. Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, grabbed the media spotlight from them when he testified before Congress. What followed was incessant chatter about whether Cohen’s characterizations of Trump were accurate and if the President himself might be prosecuted and end up working behind the counter of a Gaga/Cooper owned Subway sandwich shop.
Post Cohen testimony, John Dean, himself an experienced presidential lawyer turned Congressional publicity puppet, offered Cohen some advice in a New York Times opinion piece. Dean’s column was absent any real advice but was instead another self-serving move on Mr. Dean’s part to cast himself as the truth tellers’ truth teller. In his column, Dean castigated those who rewrite history offering, “Presidential scandals tend to attract a remarkable number of dishonest historians.” Dean’s authority to make such an observation is based on the age-old quip “it takes one to know one.”
Dean tells us that “Mr. Nixon first called on me regarding Watergate some eight months after the arrests of his re-election committee operatives at the Watergate." Dean's memoir, originally published in 1976, tells a different story. In chapter four, Linchpin to Conspiracy, Dean, says that soon after the break-in he “knew that the vulnerability of the Watergate affair spread broadly across the whole administration,” and that “I did not know precisely how the President was reacting, but I worked from the premise that he needed protection.” And protect him he did. And it wasn’t eight months after the arrests that Nixon called on Dean. In chapter five, Containment, Dean tells about learning what his role was from the President himself while watching Nixon on television. Nixon claimed Dean had conducted an investigation of Watergate and determined "no one in this White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident." On September 15, three months after the break-in, not eight, Dean was called to the President’s office. In the presence of Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, Dean talked Watergate and accepted congratulations from Nixon, who Dean recalled saying, "Well, you had quite a day today, didn't you?" and who added, "You got Watergate underway, huh?" Dean’s recollections are supported by the transcripts of the tapes of the conversation. In the same meeting Nixon said, “Well the whole thing is a can of worms, as you know…But the way you’ve handled it, it seems to me, has been very skillful…” The eight months post-Watergate Dean refers to are probably the late February 1973 conversations he had with Nixon about Dean’s handling of then-Attorney General Richard Kleindienst as well as specific details of the cover-up. Although this conversation may have been the first long, in-depth conversation Dean had with Nixon about Watergate, it wasn't the first, and Dean knew what his role was from the moment he was contacted after the break-in.
Dean, like Cohen, was a fixer. Someone whose job it is to make problems go away. They both failed. Bad enough that the fixers could not fix themselves.
Dean’s life is about Dean’s attempt to influence history. With the deaths of other participants in the burglary and its subsequent cover-up like, John Mitchell in 1988, H.R. Haldeman in 1993, John Ehrlichman in 1999, Howard Hunt in 2007, and Jeb Magruder in 2014, Dean’s recollections and characterizations go unanswered.
John Dean and Michael Cohen may want history to label them as truth tellers who came forward to unveil the crimes of a sitting president publicly. But history can't ignore that both of their testimonies came after they were identified as criminals themselves.
The closing credits of a recent six-part documentary series, Watergate, state, “John Dean made a career out of Watergate.” A career out of crimes that Mr. Dean first heard about when they were in their initial planning stages and before they were carried out. Crimes he, as White House Counsel, had an obligation to report on and stop, and at the very least protect the office of the President from becoming ensnared in it. Not protect him after they were committed.
Dean warns Cohen that some people have tried rewriting Dean’s life and they will rewrite Mr. Cohen’s too. Perhaps Dean should be more accurate in writing about his own life and not worry about Mr. Cohen’s. What might be more credible advice from Dean is for him to acknowledge his career as a self-promoter and suggest if Cohen truly wants to follow in his footsteps he should hire a good publicist.
Blind Ambition is the title of Dean’s 1976 autobiography. A reference to what motivated his actions in the Nixon White House. If Dean were to write a biography covering his actions in the years since he could retain the title.