John Dean: Why Watergate endures

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Story highlights

  • A burglary in 1972 led to an extensive coverup that brought down the Nixon adminstration
  • Nixon White House Counsel John Dean says we must not forget the abuses involved in Watergate

John W. Dean, former counsel to the president during the Nixon White House, is the author of 14 books, most recently "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It." Dean also writes a biweekly column for Verdict at Justia.com. Watch John Dean being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer in the 6 p.m. hour Wednesday and see the story of Watergate on CNN's "The Seventies" at 9 p.m. ET Thursday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Watergate was a complex and difficult story to cover from the start, first for journalists and then historians, but it is understandably considered the mother of all modern political scandals.

Now, four decades later, there is no American scandal as well-documented as the some 900 days of Watergate, nor is there any scandal that has left a deeper scar on American politics.
As President Richard M. Nixon's White House counsel, I was in the middle of the scandal, but my interest in it didn't end there.
    Over the past 40 years, I have devoted considerable time to studying much of this remarkable record as it has slowly surfaced in testimony, autobiographies, diaries, with the release of contemporaneous documents and secret tape recordings, investigative files of the FBI, the Watergate-related grand juries, a Senate Watergate committee and House impeachment committee -- not to mention extensive federal court civil and criminal records.
    John Dean
    We are a nation that easily forgets its history. But do we want to repeat the mistakes of the 1970s, particularly Watergate?
    That story began on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of five burglars dressed in business suits, wearing surgical gloves, their pockets stuffed with new $100 bills and carrying suitcases filled with electronic bugging equipment. It was during the middle of President Richard Nixon's campaign for re-election.
    When one of the five men arrested in the Democratic National Committee was identified as the director of security for the Committee to Reelect the President, suspicion immediately focused on the Nixon White House, where the President's top aides -- and my bosses -- hastily constructed a cover-up that would bring down the President when it fell apart.
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    As it happened, I was out of the country giving a speech in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and made my first of many mistakes by coming back to Washington when I had planned to spend a few days in San Francisco on my return from this whirlwind trip.
    By the time I arrived in my office on Monday, June 19, 1972, and read the story in The Washington Post about the arrests, along with a statement issued by former Attorney General John Mitchell, who was the head of re-election effort, claiming that his director of security and the other four men arrested "were not operating either in our behalf or with our consent," I knew a cover-up was being launched.
    By the end of that day, I understood why the White House was assisting in this cover-up. I learned that essentially the same men involved with the Watergate break-in had undertaken an earlier operation for the White House by breaking into and ransacking the files of a psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, who a year earlier had leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, a study of the origins of the war in Vietnam.
    President Nixon had been plagued by leaks, and when he became unhappy with the FBI's investigation of the Ellsberg leak, he had created a secret unit in the White House to investigate.
    While I have never found any evidence Nixon knew in advance of, or ordered, the Watergate break-in, I do know now that he had ordered an earlier break-in at the Brookings Institution, when he believed they had a copy of the Pentagon Papers. Indeed, Nixon's secret recordings of his conversations during those first few days after the arrests at the Watergate evidence his concern that he might have ordered the Watergate break-in.
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    Today, the tapes and written documents show that had the Watergate burglars not been arrested at the Democratic headquarters the night of June 17, they would have gone on to their true mission that night, which was to break in and bug the campaign headquarters of Nixon's Democratic opponent, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. That mission is traceable directly to the Oval Office, for Nixon wanted "a plant" placed in McGovern's campaign -- and he was not talking about a flower.
    Watergate did not really end with Nixon's resignation and departure from the White House August 9, 1974. Rather, it played out for many months more in headline-grabbing events during the cover-up trial of his top aides: former chief of staff H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, former top domestic affairs adviser John D. Ehrlichman and former attorney general John N. Mitchell, who would be found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice on January 1, 1975.
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    While these men claimed at the time they were innocent men wrongly convicted, the record now shows that each of them quietly admitted to Judge John J. Sirica that in fact they had committed the offenses a jury had found them guilty of beyond a reasonable doubt.
    For political reasons, some have tried to recast the story of Watergate.
    In openly admitting my own guilt in the cover-up, I have always believed we can only learn from the truth. I had become the person through whom my superiors -- Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and the President -- communicated and when I realized we were obstructing justice but was unable to convince others that the only solution was to explain truthfully what had occurred, I would break rank.
    I was unwilling to write the bogus report about Watergate the President wanted me to write and told him everyone involved needed to resign. He fired me and accepted the resignations of the others. When the President and my former colleagues sought, as Nixon's tapes show, to make me their scapegoat, it did not work out so well -- I had the truth on my side, as the tapes proved.
    This segment of CNN's series on the 1970s tells this story as it happened. CNN, Playtone and HBO have not only told the story honestly, they have uncovered video footage of the events long buried in archives, bringing to life memorable moments from these historic events. The program is informative, engaging and accurate.