The History Society of Occidental (HSO) hosted a question and answer (Q&A) session with John Dean, former White House Counsel to President Richard Nixon leading up to and during the Watergate Scandal, in Fowler 302 Oct. 12. The Q&A was a follow-up to the screening of the film, All the President’s Men — the story of two Washington Post journalists investigating Watergate — held one week prior.
The event was part of HSO’s speaker series titled “History Confronts the Present.”
“We’re going to have events throughout the year where we’re looking at the present crisis and connecting it to something that happened in the past,” Marla Stone, chair of the history department, said.
Dean went from being an alliance of the team that orchestrated the June 1972 burglary into the DNC office, to divulging the information in sworn testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee in June 1973. Dean spent four months in jail for his role in the cover up of the Watergate burglary. The Georgetown Law graduate and current Beverly Hills resident has gone on to author and co-author 17 books, including four memoirs about Watergate and “Conservatives Without a Conscience,” a book published in 2006 analyzing the diversity of conservatives in the United States.
“For some reason I expected him to be much more intimidating than he was,” Camille Wyss (senior), vice president of HSO, said. “I guess when we read a lot about people in history books you forget that they are actually people. It was nice to put a face and a personality to a name I have read so much about.”
Dean helped implicate Nixon in the scandal by revealing tapes of his conversation with the president in which Dean advises Nixon that the cover-up of the scandal is a cancer on the presidency.
“I had 37 recorded conversations with Nixon on Watergate,” Dean said. “I didn’t start meeting with him until 8 months after the [initial] arrest [of the Watergate burglars].”
Dean spoke on the relevance of his inside experience with a White House scandal in the context of today’s political atmosphere. Despite being a regular political commentator on national news networks such as CNN, Dean said he did not claim to have any special answers to whether Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
“No one has any idea when this Russia collusion matter will end, or how it will end,” Dean said. “But there certainly are a lot of echoes of Watergate. We wrote the book of what not to do, and everybody in the Trump White House seems to not have read that.”
Dean cited Nixon’s threatening of the Washington Post’s licenses and a number of their broadcasting stations as a similarity between the Watergate Scandal and Trump’s threat to take some national news channels’ network licenses away.
“Trump thinks you can take a network license away, you can’t,” Dean said, “There are agreements between independently licensed stations that result in a network, so you can’t take the network license away.”
Although the height of Dean’s political career was around four decades ago, he said he stays active in American politics as a regular consultant on broadcasting networks such as CNN and NBC and through his Twitter. His tweets during the Trump campaign have gained him around 65,000 followers. Members of HSO read some of his tweets out loud, including one on the Trump administration.
“When I awake in the morning the world seems normal,” Dean said via Twitter. “But I quickly realize Trump is POTUS, and the USA is abnormal. His chaos appears endless.”
According to Dean, Trump lacks the qualifications to lead.
“Trump is probably the least qualified person we’ve ever had fulfill the office,” Dean said. “I don’t say that as a partisan or to be pejorative, it’s just a fact. And he does not seem, to me, to be very inclined to learn much about the job.”
Although he is a conservative, Dean said that he greatly admires Occidental alumnus Barack Obama.
“They were scandal free for eight years. Everyone on that staff knew they had to perform at a level that was way above what the normal White House would have to do. And they did a remarkable job,” Dean said. “We’ve gone from something that was a model presidency to what is now not a very good model right now.”
Dean said that individuals that go into government work do so because they want to help their fellow human beings, while those that are more entrepreneurial and like to make money for themselves tend to avoid public service jobs. According to Dean, that culture can serve as a check on Trump’s actions.
“Well, the bureaucracy doesn’t like what it’s seeing what right now,” Dean said. “And it’s one of the checks on presidents; we have—generally— a progressive government; we’re a liberal democracy, that’s the nature our whole system.”