John Dean: Why Nixon Risked His Presidency

6 minute read

To understand how someone as politically savvy and intelligent as Richard Nixon gambled away his presidency, employing increasingly spurious defenses, I decided to do what no one else had done: Identify, listen to, and transcribe all of Nixon’s secretly recorded Watergate-related conversations. I doubt if anyone outside the National Archives has ever heard even half of the one thousand conversations I discovered. It took me four years and a great deal of assistance to accomplish this task, the results of which I have reported in The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It. My book is primarily an almost day-by-day narrative of Watergate scandal as it unfolded, covering the period from the break-in in June of 1972 to Alexander Butterfield’s revelation of Nixon’s secret taping system in July of 1973. Most of this account consists of a carefully culled record from over four millions words of direct dialogue of the principal figures, with context and comments as necessary.

The object of my search was an explanation of why Nixon would risk his presidency with the concocted defenses he ultimately offered—defenses based not in fact but in his effort to twist and distort events. Broadly speaking, what I found was that at the outset, Nixon considered Watergate merely a political embarrassment that would pass. He incorrectly concluded, however—based on less than complete information from White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman—that Watergate did not directly involve the White House, or him. This is not to say that the president was uninvolved, for clearly he did not want Watergate to destroy his former attorney general and campaign manager, John Mitchell, who he correctly suspected had approved the illicit operation undertaken by former White House aides G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, with their team of amateur operatives.

Unintentionally, within days of the Watergate arrests, Haldeman drew the president into a conspiracy to obstruct justice by covering up what had actually transpired there. The tapes and related records clearly establish that this initial conspiracy was formed and directed by Haldeman, Mitchell, and John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s top domestic adviser, who had commissioned the earlier criminal activities of Liddy, Hunt, and their men. The president himself was not informed of some key facts of the situation, such as the prior criminal activities of those involved at the Watergate had been undertaken earlier for the White House. Although Nixon’s role in the affair was initially surprisingly passive, he did expressly approve elements of the subsequent cover-up, including payments to the Watergate defendants and the perjury necessary to make the scheme work.

It was not until eight months after the arrests at the Watergate that I was summoned by the president to discuss the matter. I was uncertain then about what he did or did not know; as it turned out, he knew much more than he let on. But when Nixon soon began insisting that I write a bogus report about Watergate, I warned him we were involved in criminal conduct with the payments to the Watergate defendants, and that it was almost certain these cover-up activities would soon collapse. Following that March 21, 1973, conversation, Nixon began to focus on the details of White House’s response to the break-in, carefully examining everything that had occurred in the relevant period, particularly his own conduct. When he realized he was culpable he fell into a period of protracted dread and denial, which was manifested by increasingly obsessive-compulsive behavior. In the following months he discussed Watergate with his aides ad nauseam, as he endlessly rehashed and refashioned his justifications and rationalizations—all the while distorting his own role to protect himself and his presidency at the expense of everyone, notwithstanding having approved their actions. Nixon, realizing that he had clearly violated criminal laws, understood that he had few options, and none of them was good. While as president he was immune from criminal prosecution, he knew he could be removed from office, then prosecuted and even further disgraced by being sent to prison.

While working on this book, I became aware of a number studies conducted after Watergate, research with well-tested findings by psychologists and economists who examined risk-taking and decision-making by people in a “loss frame”—that is, a situation in which none of the options is good. Study after study demonstrated how decision-making becomes remarkably illogical in conditions like that which the president faced in Watergate. Nixon, who boasts during the recorded conversations of this period of his prowess as a poker player, initially tried to bluff his way through the scandal with small bets. As he kept losing, however, the more exposed he became, and the more he was inclined to risk. Nixon’s defenses were, in effect, a series of increasingly bad bets. Had I known in March 1973 what I know today, when warning him of a cancer on his presidency I would have also cautioned him about the nature of decision-making when there are no acceptable choices. The prudent thing for a person in a loss frame who must make a decision is to discuss the problem with someone who is not in that loss frame.

Nixon, as the tapes reveal, confided in no one outside his immediate circle, all of whom had their own motives to support the deceptions, and was thus he was a classic loss-frame decision maker. That, of course, was not his only problem, but certainly among the more glaring for his deeply flawed defenses and related decisions which would cost him his presidency.


John W. Dean was legal counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, and his Sen­ate testimony lead to Nixon’s resignation. In 2006, Dean testified before the Senate Judiciary Commit­tee investigating George W. Bush’s NSA warrant­less wiretap program. He teaches a continuing legal education program throughout the country, drawing on the lessons of Watergate, and contributes political/legal commentary to He is the New York Times bestselling author of Blind Ambition, Broken Government, Conservatives Without Conscience and Worse Than Watergate.


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