BOSTON — Even by the standards of the Nixon White House, the plan to blow up Washington's preeminent think tank seemed crazy, presidential counselor John W. Dean III recalled here Monday.
But there was White House aide John Ehrlichman on the phone one day in 1971, telling Dean that "Chuck Colson wants me to firebomb the Brookings [Institution]." Describing the incident Monday to several hundred presidential history junkies at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Dean said he was dumbfounded.
"I said, 'John, this is absolute insanity,' " he remembered. " 'People could die. This is absurd.' "
Dean, who served four months in prison for his role in the Watergate coverup, spun the story casually -- just another believe-it-or-not factoid from the annals of a dark and complicated presidency -- at a two-day conference here, which ended Monday, on the effect of White House taping systems on seven 20th century presidents.
The practice began in 1940 with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wanted to make sure he was quoted accurately in the media. White House taping ended in 1974, after thousands of tapes exposed illegal and unethical activities that led to the demise of Richard Nixon's presidency. About 3,700 hours of tapes from the Nixon White House have been transcribed and made public. Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, ordered the practice halted the day he was sworn in.
The conference attracted scholars, journalists and two grown White House "children": University of Pennsylvania professor David Eisenhower, grandson of President Eisenhower; and Lynda Johnson Robb, elder daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Also in attendance was Alexander Butterfield, the White House aide who in 1973 informed a Senate committee that all of Nixon's White House conversations had been taped. Butterfield, 77, lives in San Diego.
In a Monday panel titled "The Participant Perspective," Dean captivated the audience with story after story about Nixon, his tapes and the motley retinue of aides who surrounded the president. As if he had been telling the president about some trivial change in his schedule, Dean recounted the day he told Nixon there was "a cancer on the presidency" -- the fateful phrase that became forever linked with the corruption of Watergate.
Dean, looking fit and tan at 64, said Nixon was careful even with his most trusted aides to guard his involvement in the scandal.
"When I first started dealing with Nixon, I wasn't sure how much he knew," Dean said. "I now know he knew far more than I was ever aware of."
Dean said he and other top Nixon aides sometimes knew they were taking actions that put the president's interests above the best interests of the American people.
But, said Dean, "it seemed to me that the president always came first, rather than what was [for] the best and greatest good."
Dean was disbarred in 1976. He lives in Beverly Hills and works as a writer, lecturer and private investment banker. He told the Kennedy Library conference that "by and large, I don't feel bad about anything I said on the tapes," although he did remember one day in September 1972 that was "quite embarrassing."
The occasion was "one of my first one-on-one sessions with the president," Dean said, and it happened to be "the day all the indictments had been handed down."
Summoned to the Oval Office for "a stroking session," Dean listened in amazement as Nixon talked about "who he is going to get when he gets reelected."
Dean said he quashed his instinct to say something like "Are you kidding?" Instead he told the president, "Boy, that's an exciting prospect!"
Later, when asked if that was an example of delusion, Dean rejoined, "That's what you call sucking up to the boss."
As for the proposed bombing of the Brookings Institution, Dean said Colson floated the idea as a way to retrieve documents Nixon wanted that were housed in the research center not far from the White House. Colson suggested that while firefighters were trying to douse the damage caused by a bomb, White House operatives could rush in and seize the papers.
It seemed incredible, but now that he has listened to earlier tapes, Dean said he has heard Nixon "literally pounding on his desk, saying, 'I want that break-in at the Brookings [Institution].' "
Along with the disintegration of the Nixon presidency, Dean said the tapes allowed him to watch his own evolution. One lesson was that he should have spent more time studying criminal law.
"I had not been trained as a criminal lawyer, to become counsel to the president," Dean said, evoking laughter. "I realized later it was essential."
Said Dean, "I did criminal law the hard way."