John Dean

For other people named John Dean, see John Dean (disambiguation).
John Dean
White House Counsel
In office
July 9, 1970  April 30, 1973
President Richard Nixon
Preceded by Charles Colson
Succeeded by Leonard Garment
Personal details
Born John Wesley Dean III
(1938-10-14) October 14, 1938
Akron, Ohio, U.S.
Political party Republican (Formerly)
Alma mater College of Wooster
Georgetown University

John Wesley Dean III (born October 14, 1938) served as White House Counsel for United States President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973. In this position, he became deeply involved in events leading up to the Watergate burglaries and the subsequent Watergate scandal cover-up. He was referred to as the "master manipulator of the cover-up" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).[1] He pleaded guilty to a single felony count, in exchange for becoming a key witness for the prosecution. This ultimately resulted in a reduced prison sentence, which he served at Fort Holabird outside Baltimore, Maryland.

Dean is currently an author, columnist, and commentator on contemporary politics, strongly critical of Neo-Conservativism and the Republican Party, and is a registered Independent who supported the efforts to impeach President George W. Bush.[2]

Early years and education

Dean was born in Akron, Ohio, and lived in Marion, the hometown of former President Warren Harding, whose biographer he later became.[3] Thereafter, his family moved to Flossmoor, Illinois, where he attended grade school through the eighth grade. For high school, he was sent to Virginia's Staunton Military Academy. He initially attended Colgate University, and then The College of Wooster in Ohio, where he obtained his B.A. in 1961. He received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1965.[4]

Personal life

Dean married Karla Ann Hennings on February 4, 1962; they had one child, John Wesley Dean IV; they divorced in 1970. Dean married Maureen (Mo) Kane on October 13, 1972.[5]

Washington lawyer

After graduation, he joined a law firm in Washington, D.C. Having gone to prep school, Staunton Military Academy, since defunct, with Barry Goldwater Jr., the son of Barry Goldwater, he was a close friend of the senator and his family. Dean was subsequently employed as the chief minority counsel to the Republican members of the United States House Committee on the Judiciary from 1966 to 1967. Dean then served as associate director of the National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws for approximately two years.

Joins Nixon campaign, administration

Dean volunteered to write position papers on crime for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968. The following year, he became an associate deputy in the office of the Attorney General of the United States, serving under Attorney General John N. Mitchell, with whom he was on friendly terms.[6] In July 1970, he accepted an appointment to become counsel to the president, after the previous holder of this post, John Ehrlichman, became the president's chief domestic adviser.[6]

From "master manipulator" to star witness

Start of Watergate

On January 27, 1972, Dean, then White House Counsel, met with Jeb Magruder (Deputy Director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CRP and CREEP) and John N. Mitchell (Attorney General of the United States, and soon-to-be Director of CRP), in Mitchell's office, for a presentation by G. Gordon Liddy (counsel for CRP and a former FBI agent). At that time, Liddy presented a preliminary plan for intelligence-gathering operations during the campaign year 1972. Reaction to Liddy's plan was highly unfavorable. Liddy was ordered to scale down his ideas, and he presented a revised plan to the same group on February 4, which was, however, left unapproved at that stage.[7] A scaled-down plan would be approved by Mitchell in late March of that year in Florida.

This scaled-down Liddy plan would lead eventually to attempts to eavesdrop on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C., and to the Watergate scandal. The burglars' first break-in attempt in late May 1972 had been successful, but several problems had arisen with poor-quality information from their bugs, and they wanted to photograph more documents. Specifically, the burglars were interested in information they thought was held by Lawrence F. O'Brien, head of the DNC. On their second attempt to break in, on the night of June 16–17, 1972, the burglars were discovered by hotel security. After the arrests of the burglars, Dean took custody of evidence and money from the White House safe of E. Howard Hunt, Jr., who had been supervising the Watergate burglaries, and later destroyed some of the evidence before it could be found by investigators.[8]

On February 28, 1973, Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding his nomination to replace J. Edgar Hoover as Director of the FBI. Armed with newspaper articles indicating the White House had possession of FBI Watergate files, the committee chairman, Sam Ervin, questioned Gray as to what he knew about the White House obtaining the files. Gray stated he had given FBI reports to Dean, and had discussed the FBI investigation with Dean on many occasions. It also came out that Gray had destroyed important evidence entrusted to him by Dean. Gray's nomination failed and now Dean was directly linked to the Watergate cover-up.

White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman would later claim that Dean was appointed by Nixon to take the lead role in coordinating the Watergate cover-up from an early stage, and that this cover-up was working very well for many months. Certain aspects of the scandal had come to light before the 1972 elections, but Nixon was re-elected to a second presidential term by a dominant margin.[9]

Cooperation with prosecutors

On March 22, 1973, Nixon had requested that Dean put together a report with everything he knew about the Watergate matter, and even invited him to take a retreat to Camp David to do so. Dean did go to Camp David and performed some work on this report, but since he was one of the cover-up's chief participants, this report-writing task placed him in the difficult position of relating his own involvement, as well as that of others, and he concluded he was being fitted for the role of scapegoat in the cover-up by those higher up. Dean did not complete the report.[10]

On March 23, the five Watergate burglars, along with G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, were sentenced with stiff fines and maximum prison time of up to 40 years.

On April 6, Dean hired an attorney and began his cooperation with Senate Watergate investigators, while continuing to work as Nixon's Chief White House Counsel and ongoing participant in Nixon's cover-up efforts, not disclosing this obvious conflict to Nixon until some time later. Dean was also receiving advice from the attorney he hired, Charles Shaffer, on matters involving vulnerabilities of other White House staff with the cover-up.

Dean continued to provide information to the prosecutors, who were able to make enormous progress on the cover-up case, which up until then they had virtually ignored, having concentrated on the actual burglary and events preceding it. Dean also appeared before the Watergate grand jury, where he took the Fifth Amendment numerous times to avoid incriminating himself, and in order to save his testimony for the Senate Watergate hearings.[10]

Firing by Nixon

Dean at the Miami Book Fair 2014 during the presentation of his book The Nixon Defense

Coupled with his sense of distance from Nixon's inner circle, "The Berlin Wall" of advisors H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Dean sensed he was going to become the Watergate scapegoat and despite going to Camp David, he returned to Washington without having completed his report. Nixon fired Dean on April 30, the same date he also announced the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

Dean had earlier asked Nixon for formal immunity from prosecution for any crimes he may have committed while serving as White House counsel. Nixon refused to grant this request and his refusal led Dean to cooperate with the prosecutors very soon afterwards. Upon going to the prosecutors, Dean also requested immunity, which was not granted despite his many revelations.[9]

Testimony to Senate Watergate Committee

On June 25, 1973, Dean began his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee. The committee had voted to grant him use immunity (doing so in a divided vote in a private session that was then changed to a unanimous vote and announced that way to the public). In his testimony, Dean implicated administration officials, including Nixon fund-raiser and former Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon, and himself. Dean's testimony attracted very high television ratings since he was breaking new ground in the investigation, and media attention grew apace, with more detailed newspaper coverage. Dean was the first administration official to accuse Nixon of direct involvement with Watergate and the resulting cover-up in press interviews. Such testimony against Nixon, while damaging to the president's credibility, had little impact legally, as it was merely his word against Nixon's. Nixon vigorously denied all accusations against him that he had authorized a cover-up, and Dean had no corroboration beyond various notes he had taken in his meetings with the president. It was not until information about secret White House tape recordings having been made by President Nixon (disclosed in testimony by Alexander Butterfield, on July 16, 1973) and the tapes having been subpoenaed and analyzed that many of Dean's accusations were largely substantiated. Dean had earlier had suspicions that Nixon was taping conversations, but had not known this for sure, and he tipped prosecutors to ask witnesses questions along this line, leading to Butterfield's revelations.

Watergate trial

Dean pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice before Watergate trial judge John Sirica on October 19, 1973. He admitted supervising payments of "hush money" to the Watergate burglars, notably E. Howard Hunt, and revealed the existence of Nixon's enemies list. Archibald Cox, Watergate Special Prosecutor, was interested in meeting with Dean, and planned to do so a few days later, but Cox was fired by Nixon the very next day, and it was not until some time later that Cox was replaced by Leon Jaworski. On August 2, 1974, Sirica handed down a sentence to Dean of one-to-four years in a minimum-security prison. However, when Dean surrendered as scheduled on September 3, he was diverted to the custody of U.S. Marshals, and kept instead at Fort Holabird (near Baltimore, Maryland) in a special "safe house" holding facility primarily used for witnesses against the Mafia. He spent his days at the offices of Jaworski, the Watergate Special Prosecutor, and testifying in the trial of Watergate conspirators Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Robert Mardian, and Kenneth Parkinson, which concluded on January 1, 1975. All except Parkinson were convicted, largely based upon Dean's evidence. Dean's lawyer moved to have his sentence reduced and on January 8, Judge Sirica granted the motion, adjusting Dean's sentence to time served, which wound up being four months. With his conviction for felony offenses, Dean was disbarred as a lawyer, so could no longer practice law.[11]

Research on memory for conversations

While the Watergate scandal prompted the first and only resignation from the Presidency, sent people to prison, and undermined the public’s trust in government,[12] there was a silver lining.

John Dean's statement spanned 245 pages and involved dozens of different conversations.[13] His memory was so precise that reporters dubbed him the “human tape recorder".[14] When it was later uncovered that President Nixon secretly recorded all the meetings in the Oval Office, a famous psychologist and memory researcher, Ulric Neisser, saw "a valuable data trove".[14]

Neisser was a sharp critic of studying memory in the laboratory.[15] He believed that memories created in a laboratory environment were something very different from how memory works in everyday settings.[15] However, everyday memory is often difficult to study because it's challenging to establish controls and know whether the events a participant remembers actually occurred.[16] When the tapes surfaced, Neisser saw an ecologically valid opportunity to study memory for conversations. Likewise, Dean claimed he was "ecstatic" that there were tape recordings because he believed that the tapes would corroborate everything he told to the Senate Watergate Committee.[17]

However, despite Dean’s confidence, the tapes proved that his memory was anything but a tape recorder.[18] Not only did he fail to remember any conversations verbatim, he often failed to even recall the gist of conversations correctly.[18] Yet, Neisser did not explain the difference as one of deception, rather he thought the evidence supported the conclusion that memory is itself not a tape recorder and instead should be thought of as reconstructions of information that are greatly affected by rehearsal.[13] "What seems to be specific in [Dean's] memory actually depends on repeated episodes, rehearsed presentations, or overall impressions."[13] While testifying to the Senate Watergate Committee Dean explained his use of newspaper clippings to refresh his memory.[19] This may be the explanation for the discrepancies between the tapes and his testimony, because "[w]hen we rehearse inaccurate information which may have infiltrated our recollections during attempts to fill gaps in fragmentary engrams, we may unwittingly create mistaken–though strongly held–beliefs about the past."[18]

Neisser concluded that the brain does not encode conversational memory verbatim and often has trouble remembering the gist of single independent conversations, but what Dean’s memory and likely everyone else’s does do well is retain “the common characteristics of a whole series of events.”[13] In other words, Dean may have gotten some details wrong, who said what at what time, but he did get the big picture of all the conversations combined right.[14] "Nixon wanted the cover-up to succeed; he was pleased when it went well; he was troubled when it began to unravel; he was perfectly willing to consider illegal activities if they would extend his power or confound his enemies."[13] Dean's mind is "not a tape recorder, but it certainly received the message that was being given."[13]

Life after Watergate

John Dean in 2008 at the annual conference of the Society of American Archivists.

Shortly after Watergate, Dean became an investment banker, author, and lecturer. Dean chronicled his White House experiences, with a focus on Watergate, in the memoirs Blind Ambition (1976) and Lost Honor (1982). Blind Ambition was made into a 1979 TV miniseries with Martin Sheen playing Dean.

In 1992, Dean hired famed attorney Neil Papiano and brought the first in a series of defamation suits against G. Gordon Liddy for claims in Liddy's book Will, and St. Martin's Press for its publication of the book Silent Coup by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin. Silent Coup alleged that Dean was the mastermind of the Watergate burglaries and the Watergate coverup, and the true target of the burglaries was to seize information implicating Dean and the former Maureen "Mo" Biner (his then-fiancée) in a prostitution ring. After hearing of Colodny's work, Liddy issued a revised paperback version of Will supporting Colodny's theory.[20] This theory was subsequently the subject of an A&E Network Investigative Reports series program entitled The Key to Watergate in 1992.[21]

In the preface to his 2006 book, Conservatives Without Conscience, Dean strongly denied Colodny's theory, pointing out that Colodny's chief source (Phillip Mackin Bailley) had been in and out of mental institutions. Dean settled the defamation suit against Colodny and his publisher, St. Martin's Press, on terms which Dean stated in the book's preface he could not divulge under the terms of the settlement, other than stating that "the Deans were satisfied." In the footnote to this portion of the preface, Dean stated that the federal judge handling the case forced a settlement with Liddy.[22] Also in 2006, Dean appeared as an interviewee in the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, about the Nixon administration's efforts to keep John Lennon out of the United States.

Dean retired from investment banking in 2000 while continuing to work as an author and lecturer, becoming a columnist for FindLaw's Writ online magazine. He currently resides in Beverly Hills, California.

In 2001, Dean published The Rehnquist Choice, an exposé of the White House's selection process for a new Supreme Court justice in 1971, which led to the accession of William Rehnquist to the United States' highest court. Three years later, Dean authored a book heavily critical of the administration of George W. Bush, entitled Worse than Watergate, which called for the impeachment of Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney for allegedly lying to Congress.

His subsequent book, released in summer 2006, is titled Conservatives without Conscience, a play on Barry Goldwater's book The Conscience of a Conservative. In it, he asserts that post-Goldwater conservatism has been co-opted by people with authoritarian personalities and policies, citing data from Bob Altemeyer. According to Dean, modern conservatism, specifically in the Christian Right, embraces obedience, inequality, intolerance, and strong intrusive government, in stark contrast to Goldwater's philosophies and policies. Using Altemeyer's scholarly work, he contends that there is a tendency toward ethically questionable political practices when authoritarians are placed in positions of power, and that the current political situation is dangerously unsound because of it. Dean cites the behavior of key members of the Republican leadership, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Frist, as clear evidence of a relationship between modern right-wing conservativism and this authoritarian approach to governance. He places particular emphasis on the abdication of checks and balances by the Republican Congress, and of the dishonesty of the conservative intellectual class in support of the GOP, as a result of the obedience and arrogance innate to the authoritarian mentality.

After it became known that George W. Bush authorized NSA wiretaps without warrants, Dean asserted that Bush is "the first President to admit to an impeachable offense".[23] On March 31, 2006, Dean testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during hearings on censuring the president over the issue. Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who sponsored the censure resolution, introduced Dean as a "patriot" who put "rule of law above the interests of the president." In his testimony, Dean asserted that Richard Nixon covered up Watergate because he believed it was in the interest of national security. This sparked a sharp debate with Republican South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who repeatedly asserted that Nixon authorized the break-in at Democratic headquarters. Dean finally replied, "You're showing you don't know that subject very well." Spectators laughed, and soon the senator was "sputtering mad".[24]

Dean's 2007 book Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches is, as he wrote in its introduction, the third volume of an unplanned trilogy. In this latest book, Dean, who has repeatedly described himself as a Goldwater conservative, built on Worse Than Watergate and Conservatives Without Conscience to argue that the Republican Party has gravely damaged all three of the branches of the federal government in the service of ideological rigidity and with no attention to the public interest or the general good. Dean concludes that conservatism must regenerate itself to remain true to its core ideals of limited government and the rule of law.

John Dean at the 2014 Texas Book Festival.

In 2008, Dean co-edited Pure Goldwater, a collection of writings by the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and former U.S. Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater, in part as an act of fealty to the man who defined his political ideals. His co-editor was Goldwater's son Barry Goldwater, Jr..

In the 1979 TV mini-series, Blind Ambition, Dean was played by Martin Sheen. In the 1995 film, Nixon, directed by Oliver Stone, Dean was played by David Hyde Pierce. In the 1999 film Dick, Dean was played by Jim Breuer.

Dean frequently served as a guest on the former MSNBC and Current TV news program, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and The Randi Rhodes Show on Premiere Radio Networks.

Historian Stanley Kutler was accused of editing the Nixon tapes to make Dean appear in a more favorable light.[25]

On September 17, 2009, Dean appeared on Countdown with new allegations about Watergate in hand. He stated that he had found information via the Nixon tapes, that showed what the burglars were after: information on a kickback scheme involving the Democratic National Convention in Miami, Florida. Dean also asserts that Nixon did not directly order the break-in, but that it was ordered by Ehrlichman on behalf of Nixon.[26]

In appearances at speaking gigs throughout 2014, Dean called Watergate a "lawyers' scandal" that, for all the bad, ushered in needed legal ethics reforms.[27]


See also


  1. Office of Planning and Evaluation (July 5, 1974). "FBI Watergate Investigation: OPE Analysis" (PDF). Federal Bureau of Investigation: 11. File Number 139-4089. Retrieved July 19, 2011.
  2. Matthew Rothschild (May 20, 2006). "An Interview with John Dean". The Progressive. Retrieved July 19, 2011.
  3. Dean, John W. (2004). Warren Harding. Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 0-8050-6956-9. Retrieved 2011-10-19.
  4. "John Wesley Dean III". Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  5. Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003. (February 19, 2003). "John Wesley Dean, III". Yahoo groups. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
  6. 1 2 Blind Ambition, by John Dean, Simon & Schuster 1976
  7. Magruder, Jeb Stuart (1974). An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate. New York: Atheneum. pp. 192–197. ISBN 0-689-10603-3.
  8. Blind Ambition, by John Dean, Simon & Schuster 1976; Watergate, by Fred Emery, Touchstone Publishers 1994
  9. 1 2 Haldeman, H.R.; Joseph DiMona (1978). The Ends of Power. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0-8129-0724-8.
  10. 1 2 Blind Ambition: The White House Years, by John Dean, New York 1976, Simon & Schuster, pp. 196–274
  11. Blind Ambition: The White House Years, by John Dean, New York 1976, Simon & Schuster, pp. 274–390
  12. How Americans View Government. (1998). Retrieved April 15, 2016, from
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Neisser, U. (1981). John Dean's memory: A case study. Cognition, 9(1), 1-22.
  14. 1 2 3 Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything. Penguin.
  15. 1 2 Neisser, U. (1982). Memory: What are the important questions. Memory observed: Remembering in natural contexts, 3-19.
  16. Banaji, M. R., & Crowder, R. G. (1989). The bankruptcy of everyday memory. American Psychologist, 44(9), 1185.
  17. Dean, J. W. (1976). Blind Ambition: The White House Years. Simon & Schuster.
  18. 1 2 3 Schacter, D. L. (1996). Searching for Memory: The Brain, The Mind, and the Past. Basic Books.
  19. Hearings before the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of the United States Senate, Ninety-third Congress, First Session, 1973.
  20. Stephen Bates (February 5, 2001). "Flipping His Liddy". Slate. Retrieved July 19, 2011.
  21. Dean, John Doing Legal, Political, and Historical Research on the Internet: Using Blog Forums, Open Source Dictionaries, and More, Findlaw, September 9, 2005. Taylor Branch states: "Blind Ambition (ghostwriter for John Dean) (Simon & Schuster: 1979)" under the heading "Past Writing".
  22. Dean, John: Conservatives Without Conscience, Viking, 2006.
  23. Jackson, David (December 28, 2005). "War-powers debate on front burner". USA Today. Retrieved July 19, 2011.
  24. Milbank, Dana (April 1, 2006). "Watergate Remembered, After a Fashion". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 19, 2011.
  25. Patricia Cohen (January 31, 2009). "John Dean's Role at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 29, 2011. Retrieved July 19, 2011.
  26. MSNBC transcript
  27. ABA TECHSHOW conference

Further reading

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Legal offices
Preceded by
Chuck Colson
White House Counsel
Succeeded by
Leonard Garment
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