Tuesday, October 8, 2013

John Dean


By Bill Kraus

He was booked for the UW Law School's annual Robert Kastenmeier lecture series which honors the former congressman and is usually held in a large classroom in the law school building. The site was moved to a very large hall in another building on campus to accommodate the crowd.

Dean is now 75 years old and what remains of his hair is white. He is a forceful and amusing speaker.

His talk, "Crossing the Line: Watergate, The Criminal Law and Ethics," was mostly about a forthcoming book and was particularly appropriate for an audience larded with lawyers, law students, and judges.

His publisher urged him to do this book to take advantage of the release of the White House tapes and papers. Much of this material--1,000 Nixon conversations, and 150,000 uncatalogued documents--was new to him. As he said, “I may have been in the room for a meeting, but what I hadn’t been privy to till now was what others talked about before and after the meeting.”

Interesting tidbits included the clip from the Senate hearing where freshman Senator Fred Thompson, with his full, abundant head of hair asked the question that elicited Dean’s response about the cancer growing on the presidency with which he is most frequently identified.

Dean thought his more important observation came later in that hearing about how many lawyers in the White House at that time were on the wrong side of the law.

This will be the focus of his new book.

It is sprinkled with other revelations as well.

You might have thought, as I did, that the burglary of Democratic Chairman Larry O’Brien’s office was authorized by Nixon to find out what O’Brien, who had worked for Howard Hughes, knew about Nixon’s long relationship with that peculiar man. It wasn’t. It was about another, very minor possible campaign issue, and it was done without Nixon’s knowledge. It deserved the label one White House staffer gave it: a third-rate burglary.

Another revelation was that the notorious 18-minute gap in the machine that taped everything that was said in the oval office could not have been erased inadvertently or even intentionally. Nixon’s loyal, longtime secretary Rosemary Woods took the rap. Someone else did the deed, probably at Nixon’s request.

The meat of his talk is about why all those lawyers would turn all their time and talent to a cover-up instead of coming clean, taking the rap, getting rid of the fall guys, and getting on with the campaign.

He gave several reasons.

The lawyers ignored or overlooked the fact that their real client was the presidency not the president or certainly not the people who approved the burglary.

Arrogance played a large role in the dangerous and irrational decision to resort to an elaborate, unsustainable cover up. This dangerous attitude is traceable to the president himself who, in his famous interview with David Frost, said, “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

A more esoteric and more powerful explanation from Dean's speech comes from the Nobel Laureate author of the brilliant Thinking, Fast and Slow about the human tendency to make irrational choices to avoid losing. People, including lawyers, are much more circumspect about the decisions they make when the choice is about winning. Given an opportunity to win $10 for sure or to maybe win $20 and risk winning nothing, we will go for the sure thing. Given a choice between losing $10 for sure or maybe losing nothing or $20, we will roll the dice.

Misguided loyalty, arrogance, and taking a risky, irrational course of action brought down a presidency.

Hmmmmmmm. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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