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The ’70s and Now, and the Big Difference Between the Two

Former White House counsel John Dean testified before the House judiciary committee on Monday, and it gave us a nostalgic feeling. The last time Dean was before the committee was way back in the early ’70s days of the Watergate scandal, and we well remember what a very big deal it was.
Although we were mere junior high school students at the time we already had a precocious interest in politics, and closely followed the Watergate story from the first day a couple of Washington Post reporters relegated to the late night crime beat reported that some burglars had broken into the Democratic party’s national headquarters in the fancy Watergate complex and attempted to place a wire-tape on the phones. That initial short story buried in the inside pages of the paper included the intriguing detail that all of the burglars and would-be wiretappers were closely associated with the Committee to Reelect President Richard Nixon, already better known as CREEP, and eventually led to Nixon’s resignation after impeachment charges had been brought by the House of Representatives.
There was an interminable two years or so before it all played out, which included Nixon winning reelection with a popular and electoral landslide, but it was a fascinating and unforgettable spectacle for an impressionable young political geek to watch. We read everything about it that ran in the local morning and afternoon newspapers — Wichita had both back then, and both were well worth the dime-a-day subscription rates our parents happily paid — and during summer vacation we’d take time out from bicycle-riding and basketball-playing and other normal boyhood pastimes to watch the congressional hearings that preempted the soap operas and game shows and old movies on the city’s three television stations.
One of the most compelling episodes of that reality show was Dean’s televised testimony to the House judiciary committee. The youthful lawyer who had already risen to the job of White House counsel freely confessed to various crimes he had committed at the behest of President Nixon to cover up the campaign’s clear connection to the break-in, spoke of various other requested crimes he had declined to carry out in service of the cover-up, and had a quotable line about a “cancer at the heart of the presidency.” After that the Watergate scandal inevitably hurtled toward Nixon’s resignation, with significant help from some conversations that Nixon had ill-advisedly recorded on audio tape, which the courts ordered released to the public and corroborated pretty much everything Dean said, including the self-incriminating parts of his testimony/
Dean wound up being disbarred and serving a short time behind bars for his confessed crimes, along with Nixon’s Attorney General and a few other high-ranking administration officials, but so far history has treated Dean more kindly. He did admit to the crimes he committed at Nixon’s behest, was provably innocent of other crimes he’d been requested by Nixon to commit, and ultimately told the verifiable truth and accept its consequences, which is more than you can say for any of the people who have been caught up in any subsequent political scandals.
Dean’s latest testimony to the House judiciary committee is far less consequential. At this point he’s an 80-year-old and graying and balding ex-lawyer and ex-felon, appearing on some very low-rated hearings televised on a few of the thousands or so television channels, and he has no more personal knowledge of President Donald Trump’s alleged scandals than we do. The Democratic majority running the committee inquiry called him to testify again for the clear purpose of getting some stories in the newspapers that mention both Watergate and Trump, which obviously have nothing to do with one another, but there are enough similarities that we can’t blame the Democrats for asking Dean’s opinions.
One of the many currently litigated spats in the current presidential scandals is whether former White House counsel Dan McGahn will testify to the various congressional committees looking into the matter. A 400-plus-page report by the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” included several pages about McGahn testifying to the investigation about diligently declining presidential orders to obstruct the investigation, so the Democratic majorities in Congress have ordered him to testify about that, while McGahn’s ex-boss is ordering him not to testify, and we’ll have to await the courts’ rulings about that. Our guess is that McGahn eventually testifies, and will reiterate the exculpatory-to-himself but damning-to-Trump testimony he gave to the special counsel investigation, but it probably won’t have the same effect as when Dean spoke out way back in the ’70s.
For one thing there are now a few hundred other reality shows to watch on television during summer vacation, and far fewer junior high political geeks tuning into the congressional hearings. For another thing, many of the new media that Nixon didn’t enjoy back in the day will be providing coverage that portrays McGahn or anyone else casting aspersions against Trump as an enemy of the people, and these days the people seem to believe whoever’s telling them what they want to hear. Back in the Watergate days the Republicans had relatively liberal members in the northeast, and the Democrats had some very conservative members in the the south and west, and politics was more a matter of facts than party affiliation, but that doesn’t seem to be the case these days.
Trump would have been well advised to ignore Dean’s inconsequential testimony on Monday, but he couldn’t help “tweeting” that Dean is a disbarred lawyer and ex-felon and yet another loser who dares criticize our dear leader, and once betrayed the Republican party’s deal leader Nixon. That’s all true enough, we suppose, but Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen is also disbarred and in prison, and his former campaign manager is also in prison on charges that involve his dealings with hostile foreign governments, and his past national security advisor is awaiting sentencing on charges that arguably rise to the level of betraying his country, and his former White House counsel is clearly ready to testify to Congress about all the obstruction of justice order he disregarded. By comparison, Dean doesn’t look so bad.
Nixon still has his die-hard defenders, but Trump doesn’t seem to be one of them. Trump couldn’t help “tweeting” that the cowardly Nixon had resigned, something Trump boasted he would never do in the currently more favorable media and partisan political landscape, even as he blamed Dean’s betrayal for the resignation. At this point your average die-hard Trump supporter is too young to know or care about any of it, and the oldsters hanging on for the next election won’t mind that Trump’s discreetly dissing Nixon, while the young Democrats who know nothing of history seem intent on nominating the same sort of too-far-left candidate who lost by a popular and electoral landslide to the already obviously corrupt Nixon back in ’72.
Politics remains a compelling show, even to our jaded eyes, and despite our advanced age and all the tempting diversions of those hundreds of other channels we’ll remain tuned in.

— Bud Norman

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