Worse than Watergate
By John Dean
Review by Tim Howard for Professor Buzzanco
History 6393: April 25, 2005
Jefferson once said, “When government fears the people, there is liberty; When
the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” John Dean fears the government, and
so should we. In “Worse than Watergate” Dean documents the systematic control of
information which has been the hallmark of the Bush 43 administration, and compares
the current administration’s obsession with secrecy to the Nixon administration.
The Nixon administration, until now, was considered the high water mark of the
“Imperial Presidency”. The trend towards the centralization of power from Congress to
the Presidency can be traced back to FDR’s administration, where centralization of
executive authority was justified as a necessary evil to combat the Great Depression.
World War II, followed by the Cold War, and its attendant crises, both real and imagined,
also resulted in the Presidency gaining power and influence not only within the US
system of government, but throughout the world as well.
Vietnam and Watergate were, in a larger sense, the seemingly inevitable result of
the growth of the power of the executive branch. Scholars can debate over which
administration bears the greatest burden for Vietnam. However, note how nobody, for
good reason, entertains the notion that the 84th or 89th Congress bears the brunt of the
responsibility. The obsession with secrecy and the obsession with blunting criticism and
punishing political enemies, which marked the Nixon administration was the result of a
linear progression in the power of the presidency.
Following Watergate, presidential power declined. It declined further following
the end of the Cold War (or perhaps it would be more appropriate now to refer to the
Cold War as Cold War I). It is in this context that the efforts of the Bush 43
administration to control, not just information, but reality itself, can be best understood.
Until I read “Worse than Watergate”, I tended to view the efforts of the Bush 43
administration to control information as awkward attempts to hide the administration’s
incompetence and/or quid pro quo arrangements with its financial backers. Dean instead
has convinced me that Bush and Cheney’s efforts are not without design. At the very
least, they are attempting to re-establish a new imperial presidency. At worst, they are
engaged in a power grab in order to rearrange the world.
As I read “Worse than Watergate” it eventually occurred to me that perhaps a
more appropriate title for the book would have been, “Worse than Vietnam”. Dean
devotes an entire appendix to the book devoted to the inaccuracies and outright lies
contained in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address in order to make the point that Bush
and the people around him had to have known that their case for war against Iraq was
fabricated. This seems like a disturbing parallel to LBJ’s presentation of facts
surrounding the Tonkin Gulf incident. Additionally, the invasion of Iraq, justified by the
War on Terrorism, seems itself more of a parallel to Vietnam than Watergate.
“Worse than Watergate” was written prior to the 2004 election, and was/is no
doubt intended to serve as a wake up call to America. While Dean’s approach is not as an
“objective” historian, his work is well documented. Dean does not ask the reader to take
any of the facts presented on faith alone.
The book begins by recounting the 2000 election, and the dirty tricks employed
by the Bush campaign against John McCain in South Carolina, and later against Gore and
the democratic process in Florida. One of the more disturbing aspects of the recount
process recounted by Dean occurred when the Republicans flew in young people from
Washington DC to bang on the doors and windows where the recount was taking place in
an obviously fascistic attempt to stop the recount through physical intimidation (p. 5).
Dean places the blame squarely on Bush for these dirty tricks. “If George Bush had
wanted to stop (the dirty tricks), they would have been stopped.”(IBID) The dirty
campaign tactics do draw a more useful parallel to the Nixon administration than the lies
surrounding the Iraqi war.
Dean also draws other parallels to the Nixon administration and the Watergate
scandal throughout his book, independent of either the 2000 campaign or the Iraq war. He
makes the observation that, like his experience with the Nixon administration, the Bush
administration spends more time on crafting the president’s image and on re-election
matters than on running the country.
Perhaps the most disturbing image-related incident, which neither I nor any of my
colleagues at NHC were aware, is that apparently, according to Dean, the Thanksgiving
photo-op with Bush 43 and the troops in Iraq was completely staged. The troops were
pre-screened and hauled into a tent where Bush was photographed holding a platter of
what turned out to be a fake turkey (p.74).
Dean also directs much of his ire at the unprecedented role Dick Cheney plays in
this administration as well. Like Bush, Cheney also has a history of engaging in insider
trading and leaving his company worse off (at least until the Iraq war) than before. As I
read through the detailed recounting of how Bush and Cheney have systematically
withheld or maliciously leaked information (such as the Valerie Plume affair), I kept
thinking back to something Richard Clarke wrote about Cheney in “Against all
Enemies”. Clarke wrote to the effect that Cheney’s personal political views are so far out
of the political mainstream in this country, that if they were to become publicly known,
he doubts the American people would be able to accept them.
Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of the Bush/Cheney administration; to move the
country so far to the right politically that we won’t recognize it 10 years from now. In
fact, that’s pretty close to a quote attributed to former Attorney General George Mitchell
in Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972” when Mitchell
was asked what Nixon intended to do in his 2nd term.
Dean also documents, although in passing, and only in footnotes; attempts by
surrogates in the Bush administration to not only use information to control the political
agenda, hide mistakes and punish its enemies, but to change history as well.
For example, the accumulation of power in the executive branch was one of the
deepest fears of the founding fathers; but not according to Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales
told the New York Times (May 22nd, 2002), “the framers of the constitution, I think,
intended there to be a strong presidency…” Gonzales then goes on to say that he thinks
Bush intends to strengthen the presidency (p. 179). It is not possible for Gonzales to
actually believe what he is saying here regarding the founding fathers and the presidency.
If Dean’s intent in writing this book was to provide future scholars with a detailed
accounting of what he argues are impeachable offenses committed by the Bush
administration, then he would have been better served to have emphasized this aspect of
the Bush presidency a bit more, and to have placed the Bush presidency in a more
historical context. However, as an historically central figure in the Watergate scandal,
and the former general counsel to Nixon, it is entirely appropriate that Dean’s work reads
more like a case a prosecutor would present to a grand jury.
The central point of his books is obvious; if the Nixon administration is guilty of
having committed impeachable offenses, than the Bush administration is just as guilty, if
not more so. Additionally, unlike the Nixon administration, the Bush administration is
much more likely to get away with what they’re doing, at least in the short run. With the
Republicans controlling Congress, and the Democrats co-opted, the checks and balances
principle is not functioning. And although most of Dean’s case against the Bush
administration is made from the use of open sources (newspaper articles and such) the
press, at least the broadcast press, seem to be more concerned with not alienating viewers
than engaging in actual journalism. It will most likely be left to historians to educate and
explain to future generations how Bush and Cheney managed to get away with it all.
1. IF IT TAKES HOLD, COULD BE PERMANENT POWER GRAB
2. CHENEY’S QUOTE IN RICHARD CLARK’S BOOK
this is a systematic attempt to re-establish an imperial presidency