HUDSON — John W. Dean, the lighting rod former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon, compares Nixon to President Donald Trump — as both ascended to political power during turbulent times, and both recognized a silent majority to do so.
Dean's Senate testimony during the Watergate hearings in 1973 — when he went from "master manipulator" (as the FBI referred to him) of the Watergate scandal to star prosecution witness — led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
The Akron-born Dean, now 79, was joined June 11 at the Hudson Library & Historical Society by James D. Robenalt, author of "January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever." The crowd exceeded 200 people.
On June 17, 1972, burglars were arrested in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C., caught stealing documents and wiretapping phones in the office of the Democratic National Committee. Nixon took steps to cover up the crime afterward, which Dean’s testimony exposed — in fact, Dean was the first to directly accuse Nixon of a cover-up.
Dean's testimony began June 25, 1973, with a seven-hour opening statement:
"The Watergate matter was an inevitable outgrowth of a climate of excessive concerns over the political impact of demonstrators, excessive concern over leaks, an insatiable appetite for political intelligence, all coupled with a do-it-yourself White House staff regardless of the law."
His testimony about "a cancer growing on the presidency" would be substantiated by tapes given to the Senate Watergate Committee by Alexander Butterfield, a deputy assistant at Nixon’s White House.
"We have a cancer within, close to the Presidency, that's growing. It's growing daily," was Dean's direct warning to President Nixon, captured on record.
Dean, who was 34 at the time, pleaded guilty in October 1973 to obstruction of justice charges in connection to his supervision of hush money payments to the Watergate burglars. He served four months in prison — really, a safe house in Baltimore that housed mafia witnesses — and testified against other Watergate figures, leading to the conviction of H.R. Haldeman, John Mitchell, John Ehrlichmann and ultimately Nixon’s resignation.
Dean said he listened to all of the Watergate tapes, which became a five-year project. He said his first clue that Nixon was taping conversations came when Nixon moved a potted plant to make a comment. Not only did the Oval Office have multiple recording sites, the Executive Business Office had recording devices and the phone in the Lincoln Room was wired.
Dean told a packed house at the Hudson Library that he was challenging the leader of the Western World.
"The law profession was permanently affected by Watergate," Dean said. "It put obstruction of justice on the map."
Prior to Watergate, a lawyer could quietly resign if their client was doing something wrong — but the rule changed. Now, lawyers can warn clients that if they don’t quit breaking the law, the attorney can go outside client/attorney privilege and report the crime, Robenalt said.
"Today it’s clear who the office of White House counsel represents," Dean said, adding that counsel represents solely the office of the president. "Nixon thought it represented him personally, as well as his family and the presidency."
Last year, Dean and Robenalt were asked by the Professional Education Group to travel the country, compare Nixon and Trump and document people’s feelings on the comparison.
Both Nixon and Trump are obsessed with enemies and critics, Robenalt said.
Traits Nixon displayed included insecurity; being authoritarian or a bully; disliking elites; seeking revenge on enemies; fearing losing; easily lying, from big to small issues; covering up mistakes; blaming others for those mistakes; and being a dirty campaigner, Robenalt said, as Dean agreed.
"Both of them used turbulent times to achieve power," Robenalt said.
Nixon ascended to the presidency in 1968 during the Vietnam War and amidst the fallout from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The chaotic times created a backlash and a "Nixon revolution."
Trump, Dean notes, was also elected during turbulent times, amidst "racism" toward President Barack Obama, "elitism" toward Hillary Clinton, and "anger" toward social programs for the poor, gay marriage and planned parenthood, Robenalt said.
"A lot of people voted for Trump because of [control of] a Supreme Court," Robenalt said. "They didn't want change."
Both presidents, Dean says, identified the "silent majority" who felt they weren't being heard, Dean said. They are the hard working citizens who want to take their country back, Dean said.
Lies, cover-up and irrational decisions are a result of avoiding loss or expressing contrition, he said.
In the Trump presidency, Dean says, the cover up started with Trump’s attempt to limit the Michael Flynn investigation into suspected Russian collusion.
"I don't think we're at Watergate 2.0, but we're close," Dean told the audience.
In 2006, Dean also testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating George W. Bush’s NSA warrantless wiretap program. He is the New York Times bestselling author of "Blind Ambition," "Broken Government," "Conservatives Without Conscience," and "Worse Than Watergate."
Robenalt is a partner in the firm Thompson Hine LLP and a member of the Advisory Board for the U.S. District Court, the Northern District of Ohio and an instructor at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. He is the author of "January 1973," "The Harding Affair," and "Linking Rings." His latest book, "Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland," will be published in July 2018.
Reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or firstname.lastname@example.org