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Beyond Watergate with John Dean

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(Court TV) -- Court TV Host: Chat live with John Dean, the man who divulged the extent of the Watergate scandal, and, ultimately, brought down a presidency. The former Nixon White House counsel is analyzing the intersection of law and politics in a number of current news stories on Catherine Crier Live, and he'll be chatting with us afterwards.

Court TV Host: Thank you, Mr. Dean, for joining us today.

John Dean: Wonderful to be with you today.

Question from marshmallow: What happened to that 18 1/2 minute gap? What do you think was on it?

John Dean: You were referring to the 18 1/2 minute during Watergate, or the 18 1/2 minute gap in the President's speech the other night?

Question from marshmallow: Got anything to say about the California recall?

John Dean: Those of us living in California are fascinated by this drill in direct democracy. While the recall provisions became a part of the California constitution during the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, they have never really been tested in the modern information era of today. While those outside of California find it entertaining, I believe Californians are going to act quite responsibly, and I will be surprised if Gray Davis is recalled.

Question from watergater: Do you think recent Republicans have shown a trend to try to do an end run around elections -- the impeachment, the 2000 election, and now the recall?

John Dean: There is no question that there has been an effort by the Republican party to use nontraditional approaches to augment their power. As a political independent, it has no effect on me, but I can understand why Democrats are distressed. For example, the undertakings in both Colorado and Texas to reapportion the states other than following a census, and doing so when Republicans control the legislature, creates a precedent that is very unhealthy. In politics, there is always a yin and yang period, what one party does to another is inevitably reversed and soon becomes a standard practice. If we start fooling with congressional district lines every few years, it will lead to tremendous instability, or if we draw lines as soon as one party dominates, it will create an unhealthy politicization of the process itself. So I'm opposed by the methods by either party to gain an advantage.

Question from Carolyn: John, how does the relationship between Cheney and the energy providers affect our energy options and costs in California and throughout the U.S? Why are so many politicians allowing the energy companies (to) destroy our economy without aggressively addressing these issues?

John Dean: Good question. On the first part, It is difficult to find a direct link between Cheney's action in giving special attention to energy providers, and the increasing costs of energy in California. However, the fact that the national energy policy report virtually ignored the problem of the industry manipulating prices in California certainly shows that the VP was unwilling to chastise the industry for price-gouging. On the second part of the question, I think it is quite obvious why many politicians are ignoring the problems with the energy industry and creating an advantageous climate for energy companies to exploit the public is because of the enormous amount of money the industry is giving to elected officials at both the state and federal level. Indeed, they are getting a tremendous return on their investment in politicians.

Question from politicallycorrect: Do you think George Bush lied to the American people about the war in Iraq? And if he did, what should happen?

John Dean: When determining if a person has lied, it is obviously necessary to know what their intention was, or what information they possessed. At this time, because of the secrecy that surrounds the Bush White House, we don't know what Bush knew and when he knew it. Therefore, it is difficult to say he lied. Nonetheless, it is equally difficult to believe that he was unaware of the degree to which assumptions, estimations, and guesstimations were being pushed to create a case for war. Unfortunately, the Congress, under the control of the same party of the president, is unwilling to try to find the answers to the questions about the president's knowledge. Still, information continues to trickle out that certainly suggests the president was hell-bent on misleading the American public, because he wanted to go to war.

Court TV Host: What did you think of the National Archives' recent efforts to recover what was on the 18 1/2 minute gap?

John Dean: I've had regular dealings over the years with the National Archives and the people who handle the tapes. They are a very able and dedicated group. Their greatest concern after requesting bids to see if the 18 1/2 minute gap could be recovered was that it could end up destroying the tape containing the information, because the technology existing today apparently will require using the best copy -- which is the original -- of the tape. Therefore they made the decision to not take the risk at this time of potentially destroying the information and waiting until there's a revolution in such recovery technology. I have talked with some experts who believe that because of the number of efforts to erase the information, between seven and nine erasures, that it is likely the information has been so obliterated that it will never be possible with any technology to re-assemble it. But one never knows what science will bring. As to the content of that 18 1/2 minute gap, I'm one who happens to think it is probably not as extraordinary as we once thought. Indeed, I always figured it was rather sensational information. But as I have listened to tapes, when writing a book that relied heavily on the tapes, I realized that Nixon almost always repeats himself in later conversations in matters that he's addressed in earlier conversations. And given that likelihood, whoever did the erasing probably did it inadvertently. Because there's no way one can erase everything.

Court TV Host: But Judge Sirica's panel of audio experts at the time said it appeared that the tape was erased many times.

John Dean: There's no question that somebody pressed the erase button between seven to nine times back and forth, which appears to be intentional. But if people realized how clumsy and un-mechanical Richard Nixon was -- a man who couldn't drive a car, a man who couldn't open the top of his medicine bottle, a man who couldn't open a desk drawer -- it is not difficult for me to imagine it was Nixon thinking he was turning the machine on or off seven to nine times. And the only people with access to the machine who did the erasing were Rosemary Woods, his secretary, who had no difficulties with machinery, and Steven Bull, an aide who was similarly mechanical, and Richard Nixon.

Question from belladonna: I have always wondered...What was Nixon thinking? He knew the tapes were running.

John Dean: Good question. When listening to the tapes, it's obvious at times Nixon's very aware the machine is running. But the taping equipment was voice-activated, because Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman was sure Nixon would never be able to turn it on and off at the right times. So what happened is that Nixon often obviously forgot the tape was running, and that happened quite frequently. When one understands why the taping was going on, that becomes understandable. What happened was that there was a system in place with the staff to prepare memoranda for meetings, including what the president said to others during the meeting. The president wanted a historical record of what happened, but he wanted a record of what he said when meeting outsiders. When that system started breaking down because of backlog, Haldeman recommended the taping system, and the president agreed.

Question from swervy: How important is McCain-Feingold? What do you think the Supreme Court should do? What do you think they will do?

John Dean: It is obviously a very important law. Its significance is emphasized by the Supreme Court returning from its summer break to hold hearings on it. Based on the reactions of the justices during Monday's oral argument, it is difficult, as always, to glean the court's thinking. Because of their earlier ruling in Bush v. Gore, I suspect they will take a particularly hard look at this law, and seek to render a "judicial" ruling rather than a "political" ruling. While it's tricky to guess how the court might rule, particularly without focusing on the various sections being contested, I think much of the law is going to survive, while some of it will be ruled unconstitutional. Some earlier decisions we know the court has said that speech can be regulated to restrict appearances of corruption. Unlimited soft money certainly creates such an impression. But we'll all have to wait until late November or December of this year for the court to sort it all out. But I fully anticipate they will rule before the 2004 primaries.

Question from historian: What do you think of Magruder's recent statements in the Watergate documentary that Nixon knew of the break-in before it took place, and that he never said anything about it because, basically, nobody asked him?

John Dean: I was surprised by Magruder's statement. I have no evidence that either supports nor rebuts his contention. However, throughout Watergate, I had my antennae quivering to learn if anybody at the White House had advance knowledge of the break-in. I never saw any evidence, nor received any indication that that was the case. What Jeb has done is raise an issue that historians must now look for on the countless hours of Nixon tapes that have never been transcribed, because if Nixon had given such an order, it's likely at some time that he said something to someone. Without corroboration, all we have is Magruder's contention, which is suspect, because it took so long for him to make his assertion public.

Court TV Host: Any closing thoughts?

John Dean: As a closing thought, many of the issues we've talked about, and that I discussed with Catherine Crier on the air, I have addressed in some detail in my regular columns at Thank you for the visit.

Court TV Host: Thank you very much, John Dean, for being our guest today. We hope you'll come back after future "Dean's Lists."

John Dean: I look forward to it.

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