John W. Dean III and the Watergate Cover-up, Revisited


Mr. Nichter is Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University-Central Texas. He prepared this article for Passport, the newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. It is reprinted here with permission.

Related Links

  • HNN Hot Topics: The Watergate Transcript Controversy
  • On Super Bowl Sunday—because my wife is from Pittsburgh I remember that otherwise unimportant detail vividly—I picked up the New York Times from my driveway and was surprised to find a front-page article about Watergate. After all, this is 2009, not 1974. The article, “John Dean at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud,” by Patricia Cohen, explored accusations of misrepresentation leveled at a prominent scholar of Watergate, Stanley Kutler, by historian Peter Klingman. It quickly set off a heated debate in the blogosphere.[1] Stan Katz of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School called the Times article a “nonevent.”[2] John Dean called it the work of “Watergate revisionists.”[3] However, acknowledging the by now well-defined lines of demarcation with respect to Watergate, Joan Hoff admonished fellow bloggers that “what this dispute over the Nixon tapes really demonstrates is the need for an authoritative set of transcriptions which the government should have undertaken years ago.”[4] After all, nowhere in this controversy did actual evidence feature prominently, either in the Times article or in the discussion following the article’s publication.

    At the heart of the latest installment of a decade-old debate is the work most often cited on the Watergate portion of the Nixon tapes, Kutler’s Abuse of Power.[5] Working in the pre-digital era with difficult analog cassette audiotapes, Kutler set the standard for Nixon tape transcription. His permanent loss of hearing is the price he paid so that generations could learn from his groundbreaking work. Numerous critics—not all of them legitimate—have raised objections to Abuse of Power and to Kutler’s earlier book, The Wars of Watergate, but Klingman’s article, which was submitted for publication to the American Historical Review, is the most pointed and the most prominent of these critiques.[6] In it Klingman accuses Kutler of knowingly conflating two tape transcripts from March 16, 1973, both of which contained discussions between President Nixon and Counsel to the President John Dean about managing the Watergate cover-up. Kutler did indeed append an excerpt from a morning conversation in the Oval Office[7] to a transcript[8] that begins with an excerpt from an entirely different telephone conversation from the evening of the same day.[9] That fact is no longer in dispute, although it is unclear how or why Kutler conflated these conversations. Klingman argues that as a result of Kutler’s conflation and selective editing, Dean appeared to be much less involved in the cover-up than he really was.

    Other critics, including Len Colodny (Silent Coup), Russ Baker (Family of Secrets), and Joan Hoff (Nixon Reconsidered) have also accused Kutler of misrepresenting Watergate in Abuse of Power. The case they and Klingman make is complicated, but there are three main charges:

    1. The Nixon tapes for the period beginning March 13, 1973, are critical to our understanding of how the White House, including Dean, planned and managed the entire cover-up.[10] This period begins with Nixon first learning on March 13 of White House involvement in the Watergate break-in and ends with the famous “Cancer on the Presidency” conversation on March 21. The “Cancer” conversation is Nixon’s “Rubicon moment,” in that it set Dean on an irreversible path from Nixon’s defender-in-chief to whistleblower-in-chief. Within weeks Dean hired his own criminal defense attorney, was dismissed, and in June began his marathon testimony that expedited the unraveling of the Nixon presidency. In Abuse of Power, Kutler leaves out critical Nixon/Dean conversation material from March 13, 17, and 20. All of these conversations, coincidentally or not, were devastating to Dean. They show that not only was Dean one of the original planners of the “intelligence operation” that led to the break-in, but that he hired Liddy in part because of Liddy’s successful break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. In Kutler’s defense, some of these conversations were not part of his lawsuit to force release of the “Abuse of Government Power” Nixon tape segments.

          2. As noted in Patricia Cohen’s New York Times article, Kutler’s critics claim that he conflates two distinct conversations that occurred nine hours apart on March 16, 1973, in Abuse of Power.

    3. Finally, and this is where Kutler’s critics move from evidence to speculation, they argue that he deliberately omitted and conflated some conversations and that he harbors some motive for doing so. While this distortion does not change what we know about the break-in and only marginally affects our understanding of the president’s role in the cover-up, Kutler’s critics argue that Dean’s role on the path to “Cancer” has not received a proper exposition and that Kutler’s presentation of the critical week leading up to the “Cancer” conversation is skewed. As to allegations that he made Dean appear more benign on the path to “Cancer” than he really was, Kutler admits that he is friends with Dean but notes that the friendship blossomed only after Abuse of Power. Of course, this is the weakest part of the argument made by Kutler’s critics. Without evidence of any acts of commission or omission, Kutler must be taken at his word.

                The article in the New York Times obviously piqued the interest of many scholars, but they have reserved judgment, pending further evidence. Most people, I believe, were as surprised as I was to see this article on the front page of the Times, and they simply want to know whether this issue is worth paying attention to and whether there is anything “new” in this long-standing feud. The real story, which has been missed up to this point, is that we now have the technology to create improved transcriptions of the tapes and disseminate them and the original audio recordings widely. It is therefore time for a complete reevaluation of Watergate, and it is to be hoped that the Times article will prompt such a reevaluation, focusing in particular on the week of March 13 and the path to “Cancer.” This reexamination should do what David Frost was unable to do in the 1970s and what Stanley Kutler was unable to do in the 1990s.

    As someone with the necessary background in the Nixon tapes, I felt that I had a responsibility to try to explain the dispute to a wider audience, and when I was asked to do so, I agreed without reservation. I certainly do not seek to insert myself in a debate that began before I started graduate school. I happen to believe that Klingman’s fight against Kutler is misplaced and that the real story is not Kutler, although he plays a role in it. But readers should come to their own conclusions. To help them do that I have assembled all the uncut audio files and conversations from the six Nixon/Dean conversations now under scrutiny from the week of March 13. For reasons of space, I have condensed the hours of audio and hundreds of pages of transcripts here. Much of this material is being made readily available to the public for the first time.

    March 13, 1973, 12:42–2:00 p.m.

    Oval Office 878-014; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, H.R. Haldeman[11]

    Dean informed the president that the week of March 13 might be perhaps the single most important week of the cover-up.[12] The conversation began as a general discussion about why it would not be in the president’s interest to allow live testimony of Nixon aides before the Ervin Watergate committee. Nixon and Dean wanted to protect aides Dwight Chapin and Chuck Colson, then in the private sector, because of the likelihood that the investigation would more quickly penetrate the White House. The discussion turned towards other White House vulnerabilities. The Campaign to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) had paid a minor to infiltrate “peace groups,” a scheme that had recently unraveled because “he apparently chatted about it around school,” Dean surmised. “It’s absurd. It really is. He didn’t do anything illegal.”[13] Dean also told Nixon that a speech supporting the administration would be planted in Senator Barry Goldwater’s office for delivery on the Senate floor. “It’s in the mill,” Dean said.[14] Nixon asked Dean if he needed any help from the Internal Revenue Service, ostensibly to maintain discipline while managing the cover-up. Dean responded that he already had access to the IRS and had a mechanism to bypass Commissioner Johnnie Walters.[15] Referring to himself in the third person,[16] Dean informed the president for the first time that Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had advance knowledge of Donald Segretti’s “prankster-type activities.”[17] To slow the FBI’s investigation, Dean suggested restructuring the FBI[18] and emphasized the need to move the focus of the investigation immediately from the Nixon White House to Democrats and past administrations.[19] After complaining to the president about “dishonest” media reporting that was “out of sequence,” Dean explained the convoluted way in which Gordon Liddy received his Watergate break-in funds. Liddy’s error, Dean said, was unnecessarily involving a third party in the cashing of checks, which left a traceable record.[20] Another problem for the White House was former CREEP treasurer Hugh Sloan. Dean said he was “scared,” “weak,” and had “a compulsion to cleanse his soul by confession.”[21] Dean also stated his preference to answer all Ervin committee inquiries with “sworn interrogatories” rather than live testimony, since written responses could be “artfully” answered.[22] Finally, Dean predicted the direction that the investigation would take.[23] “I don’t think the thing will get out of hand,” he said, but those in danger included Charles Colson, John Mitchell, Gordon Strachan, Dwight Chapin, and by extension H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Dean also warned of a “domino situation” if bank records were traced.[24] For example, he told the president that bank records would show that the administration had been paying someone to tail Senator Edward Kennedy for “almost two years.” The tail began “within six hours” of Chappaquiddick.[25] In concluding the conversation, Dean said he would work with aide Richard A. Moore to work out a plan to broaden the focus of the investigation beyond the Nixon White House.[26]

    March 16, 1973, 10:34–11:10 a.m.

    Oval Office 881-003; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, Ronald L. Ziegler[27]

    Dean reminded the president of the need to get the focus of the investigation off the Nixon White House. “We have to get off the defensive. We have to broaden,” Dean said.[28] Nixon and Dean agreed that a falsified document that appeared to be an independent assessment of the Watergate cover-up would be helpful. “I have drafted such a document, back in December,” Dean stated. Nixon wanted to make sure the document appeared to be “a White House statement, not [a] presidential statement.” Dean clarified that he had originally drafted such a statement in an act of contingency planning after the 1972 elections. Dean said that it might be time to recirculate his report again, which was based on “written, sworn affidavits.”[29] However, Dean warned of the limits of such a report midway through the investigation. “Some questions you can’t answer, or if you do, you get people in trouble.” Therefore, to avoid perjuring those who have already provided testimony, a new more general falsified document had to be created. Dean stated his preference for the creation of “a good master plan” that would be more comprehensive than his previous report.[30]

    March 16, 1973, 8:14–8:23 p.m.

    White House Telephone 037-134; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III[31]

    In a phone call later that same day, President Nixon agreed with Dean’s earlier suggestion to work with Richard A. Moore on a new falsified report as discussed earlier that day.[32] Dean warned the president that such a report could make perjurers out of some witnesses: it could “open up a new grand jury” and “would cause difficulty for some who’ve already testified.”[33] Dean stated his preference for two reports: the first a written report based on “sworn affidavits” that was “not a total answer” intended for the Ervin committee and the public,[34] and a second oral report only for the president to inform him of additional vulnerabilities of which he might not have been aware.[35] Although Dean informed Nixon of White House involvement in the cover-up on March 13, Dean noted that the conclusions of his written report “were based on the fact that there was not a scintilla of evidence in the investigation that led anywhere to the White House.”[36] Relieved, Dean informed the president that the FBI files that Ervin would receive would not include grand jury minutes, which was a lot more thorough than the FBI had been.[37] Dean also recommended that his written report bundle Watergate with the previously disclosed “prankster-type activities” of Segretti.[38]

    March 17, 1973, 1:25–2:10 p.m.

    Oval Office 882-012; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, H.R. Haldeman[39]

    President Nixon reminded Dean that his falsified report should conclude that no one from the White House was involved, based on “Dean’s evaluation.”[40] Dean stated that he wanted to go even further than that: Nixon should hold a meeting with Ervin and disclose that CREEP had a legitimate “intelligence operation in place” based on “handwritten,” “sworn statements” and that the White House had cut itself off from anything illegal.[41] Dean then revealed that he knew about the “intelligence operation” six months before the Watergate break-in.[42] The initial meeting that set up the operation was attended by Dean, Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, and Liddy. Dean told Haldeman that the operation should be kept “ten miles” from the White House. Nixon then asked Dean who he thought was presently most vulnerable.[43] Dean noted that he himself was, because “I’ve been all over this thing like a blanket.” Colson, Chapin, Mitchell, and Haldeman were also vulnerable. Dean stated that he called break-in planner Liddy the Monday after the break-in for an explanation. According to Dean, Haldeman deputy Strachan pushed campaign aide Magruder to compel Liddy to do the break-in. Dean recommended that Magruder become the scapegoat and that an official statement to that effect from the White House would be helpful.[44] “Can’t do that,” Nixon replied. Dean then switched to using Segretti as a scapegoat, which won more favor with the president.[45] “It was pranksterism that got out of hand,” Dean said. Finally, Dean explained the discovery of the bizarre connection of the investigation to top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, who had used Liddy in previous operations, including the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.[46] Since Liddy was also caught at the Watergate, he would eventually lead the investigation to Ehrlichman, Dean warned.

    March 20, 1973, Unknown time between 1:42 and 2:31 p.m.

    Oval Office 884-017; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, Richard A. Moore

    Dean and Moore presented a draft of the recently completed falsified report to the president. Dean noted that Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler had concerns that it would raise more questions than it answered. Noting that it was just a draft, Moore stated that “it needs one more go around; we did the best we could.” In particular, “of the eight paragraphs, I think there are about three that are troublesome.”[47] Dean and Moore gave a copy of the report to Nixon, who directed various revisions on the spot, including how to rephrase Dean’s previous involvement with Strachan and Segretti.

    March 21, 1973, 10:12–11:55 a.m.

    Oval Office 886-008; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, H.R. Haldeman

    Dean warned Nixon that there was a “cancer” on the presidency,[48] and he offered for the first time a complete recollection of how the planning for Watergate originated, which started as “an instruction to me from Bob Haldeman.”[49] Dean claimed that Haldeman originally asked Dean to set up a domestic intelligence operation at CREEP. Dean initiated contact with Jack Caulfield, who was Nixon’s former bodyguard.[50] However, Mitchell and Ehrlichman did not like Caulfield.[51] Dean brought in Liddy instead, who came recommended by White House aide Bud Krogh on the basis of the successful break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.[52] Mitchell approved of Liddy. Next, Magruder invited Dean over to CREEP headquarters to discuss Liddy’s intelligence plan. Dean described the plan, which included “black bag operations, kidnapping, providing prostitutes to weaken the opposition, bugging, mugging teams. . . . It was just an incredible thing.”[53] After the initial meeting, Dean also attended a second meeting to discuss Liddy’s plan, which included “bugging, kidnapping, and the like.”[54] Dean, Mitchell, Magruder, and Liddy were present at the meeting. Dean said he did not hear anything about Liddy’s plan again after that meeting, so he assumed the more extreme elements would not be carried out.[55] However, Dean conceded that he and Liddy “had so many other things” going on. Dean said he thought that Haldeman assumed that the Liddy plan was “proper,”[56] which resulted in Haldeman aide Strachan pushing Magruder, who asked permission from Mitchell, who consented to the Liddy-led Watergate break-in. Dean noted that information gathered from the break-in was used by Strachan and Haldeman.[57] As the 1972 Democratic presidential campaign took shape, Haldeman authorized Liddy to change his target from Senator Muskie to Senator McGovern.[58] Once again, this message passed through Strachan-Magruder-Liddy. Dean noted that Liddy previously infiltrated Muskie’s secretary and chauffeur. “Nothing illegal about that,” Dean said. Although he had not heard anything again until the break-in, when Dean learned about it on June 17 he “knew what it was.”[59] Nixon then asked Dean for an update on any perjuries. Dean was not sure if Mitchell had perjured himself, but he was sure that Magruder had, as had Herbert Porter, a Magruder deputy.[60] Dean claimed they perjured themselves by testifying that they had thought that Liddy was legitimate, and that they did not know anything about activities related to the Democratic National Committee. After the break-in, Dean “was under instructions not to investigate” and instead worked on containing it “right where it was.”[61] All the burglars got counsel immediately and planned to ride out any charges until the 1972 election was over.[62] However, soon after, the burglars began making demands for money. Dean was present when Mitchell authorized raising cash for them, which was to be funneled through Howard Hunt. Dean noted that not only was it becoming more difficult to meet the burglars’ growing needs, but that it was “obstruction of justice,” and that Dean, Mitchell, Erhlichman, and Haldeman were culpable.[63] Dean summarized that the biggest problem was a “continual blackmail operation.”[64] Dean also expanded on other vulnerabilities, including a previous plan to do “a second-story job on the Brookings Institute, where they had the Pentagon Papers.”[65] Summarizing, Dean said that would have been too risky. “If the risk is minimal and the gain is fantastic, that’s something else, but with a little risk and no gain, it’s not worth it.” Dean also noted that there were other “soft spots.”[66] The problem of the “continued blackmail,” he said, is that “this is the sort of thing mafia people can do.” Dean estimated that a million dollars was needed over the next two years. Nixon responded, “I know where it can be gotten.” Dean suggested that Mitchell should handle the money, “and get some pros to help him.”[67]

    *          *          *

    These materials should help us see the Watergate cover-up in a new light. If this is “Watergate revisionism,” then so be it. Perhaps a little Watergate revisionism is needed, and technology, as is evident in this brief article, can be harnessed in ways that permit us to reconstruct these events and come to new interpretations. The president of the United States is barely moved when his counsel informed him in these conversations that most of the president’s top aides were involved in various illegalities. Dean told Nixon on March 13 that Haldeman deputy Strachan knew there was White House involvement in the Watergate break-in, even while Dean concluded in his falsified report for Senator Ervin and the public that the White House had no such knowledge. John Dean was not only involved in managing the cover-up, but by his own admission was part of the inner core of planners that set up CREEP’s “intelligence operation.” He stated that he and Haldeman initiated the planning that led to the Watergate break-in. Dean not only hired Gordon Liddy, but did so on the basis of his successful break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Dean admitted that he began the cover-up shortly after the 1972 election by creating a falsified report that concluded that the White House had nothing to do with the break-in. He conceded that he was present with Mitchell when authorization was given to bribe witnesses. Dean recommended to the president that Mitchell handle the bribes, but that some “pros” should help him. Dean, in his own words, admitted to the president that he was involved in “an obstruction of justice.” Most of all, neither Dean nor Nixon did anything to stop this reckless and illegal behavior. Paraphrasing the president’s mea culpa during the David Frost interviews, Nixon may have “let the country down,” but it was the country that had to endure, paraphrasing again, a “long national nightmare.” The nightmare is not over yet, not as long as we have still more to learn.

    [1] Patricia Cohen, “John Dean at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud,” New York Times, February 1, 2009, A1.

    [2] See http://chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/katz/whats-news-in-the-new-york-times.

    [3] See http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-02-04/the-times-has-lost-the-watergate-plot/.

    [4] See http://hnn.us/articles/61197.html#hoff .

    [5] Stanley Kutler, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (New York, 1997).

    [6] Klingman’s manuscript submission to the American Historical Review was rejected for being “too narrow in focus” for that particular publication, as well as of insufficient length. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/07/books/07dean.html.

    [7] Oval Office 881-003, March 16, 1973, 10:34–11:10 a.m.

    [8] See Kutler, 230-32.

    [9] White House Telephone 037-134, March 16, 1973, 8:14–8:23 p.m.

    [10] These conversations have never been readily available to the public in one format and location, apart from some disjointed transcripts. A number of the transcripts were imaged using OCR (optical character recognition) software and placed online, but in hundreds of places the text is corrupt, and the transcripts have not undergone any sort of editing or correction since. The audio files are no better: apart from a smattering available on various public and private websites, the analog cassette recordings are available only at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and they are of generally poor quality.

    [11] This conversation is not included in Abuse of Power.

    [12]http://nixontapes.org/watergate/878-014_00-06-40.mp3. To avoid the tedium of listening to these (in many cases) long and poor-quality conversations, the relevant clips have been extracted, and the time codes are noted in the file names. In this case, this excerpt can be found at approximately 6 minutes, 40 seconds in conversation 878-014. However, readers are also encouraged to listen to the entire conversations located at http://nixontapes.org/watergate.htm in order to gain maximum context.















    [27] This conversation is part B of the transcript that appears in Abuse of Power, 230-32. This conversation was conflated with the next conversation that occurred on March 16, 1973, from 8:14 to 8:23 p.m.




    [31] This conversation is part A of the transcript that appears in Abuse of Power, 230-232. This conversation was conflated with the previous conversation that occurred on March 16, 1973, from 10:34 to 11:10 am.








    [39] This conversation is not included in Abuse of Power.





























    comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Maarja Krusten - 4/25/2009

    Hi, Luke,

    I've been so busy this week, I haven't had time to comment here until now. You've done a very good job building on NARA's release of the Nixon tapes with your work at Nixontapes.org. As a former Nixon tapes archivist, I say, "Bravo, Luke."

    As to the way the Kutler-Klingman story played out in the NYT, the public editor, Clark Hoyt, took a long time to post comments submitted to him at his moderated blog. Most people probably assumed there weren't any comments submitted. (I think it took a month before Hoyt put them up.) If you want to see what I said at Clark Hoyt's blog in response to his follow up to Patricia Cohen's story, see



    Donald Wolberg - 4/20/2009

    Accurate documentation is the first line of analysis, and revisiting perhaps the most significant modern Presidential and constitutional event, the resignation of Mr. Nixon and its causes, makes Mr. Nichter's analysis interesting and critical. I admit that I have found the history of the cast of characters surrounding Watergate a very interesting history itself. Mr. Erlichman's reinvention in New Mexico as a writer and political commentator had real interest. Mr. Coulson'r "rebirth" as a Christian seemed odd ("let them twist in the wind". The ever entertaining G. Gordon Liddy as tough guy FBI, actor and radio host is the stuff of myth, and even the dapper Mr. Dean, intelligent and interesting and so frequently interviewed continues to be fascinating. Watergate, Nixon, the tapes, the characters, will continue to be worth the effort for more accuracy and interpretation.