Striding across the lobby of the Burbank Hilton, John W. Dean III doesn't look much like a wanted man, someone on the short list to become Republican Enemy No. 1.
The rimless glasses, blue sports coat and walking shoes appear more professorial than his political resume might indicate: former White House counsel alternately dismissed by various camps as a squealer, world-class snitch and chief whistle-blower to one of the most notorious burglaries in American history.
Three decades ago, Dean became the star witness in the Senate Watergate hearings, testifying that his boss, President Nixon, helped orchestrate the coverup of the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters on June 17, 1972.
The public rendering of White House secrets, after Dean had warned Nixon privately that his illegal actions had created a "cancer growing on the presidency," sent Nixon spiraling toward his eventual resignation. It also forced Dean, who later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Watergate affair, to spend several nervous months in the federal witness protection program.
Now, at age 65, Dean is at it again. From his home in Beverly Hills, the writer and lecturer is shining a light on the closed-door doings of another president, George W. Bush. His bestselling new book, "Worse Than Watergate," sets its sights on what Dean calls the Bush administration's "Nixonian" record of obsessive secrecy, political stonewalling and intimidation of its enemies, including the press and whistle-blowers like himself.
While no conspiracy theorist, a still-cautious Dean admits to the occasional glance over his shoulder for any sign of Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove.
"Let me put it this way," he says, carving into a chef's salad at the hotel restaurant. "I didn't write all I know about Karl Rove. One thing I do know is that he has eyes and ears all over the country. It's part of an apparatus he's spent a lifetime setting up. So it's not in total jest when I say I live in fear of Karl Rove sleeper cells."
Rove might have reason to get riled. In a fast-paced 253 pages, "Worse Than Watergate" catalogs the failings of an administration Dean says has created the most secretive presidency of his lifetime.
"Once ensconced in their offices at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Dean writes in the book's preface, "they quietly closed their doors, pulled the shades and began making themselves increasingly inaccessible to the media and Congress while demanding complete control over government information. Government under a virtual gag order became their standard operating procedure."
Dean describes a deeply flawed Bush White House that he says "spends far more time crafting the president's public image and working on the politics of reelection, than on truly addressing the business of the American people."
He claims the administration has exploited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while sabotaging any efforts to reveal why the nation was so unprepared. He calls Bush the first president to start a war since James Polk led America into the Mexican-American conflict. Worse, he says, Bush lied to Congress in rationalizing the Iraq war, which Dean calls an impeachable offense.
Dean applies equal scrutiny to Vice President Dick Cheney, whom he calls a "co-president incognito" who "does not answer to Congress or the public." Cheney's biggest trick, he says, is "making George Bush wake up every morning and believe he's the president."
All that said, could any of the Bush administration's foibles even come close to Watergate -- that gold standard of American political corruption?
"Well, there's certainly going to war when you might not have had to go to war, and people are dying," Dean says. "No one died as a result of Nixon's so-called Watergate abuses."
Dean's book joins a crowded market of presidential tell-alls, including former Bush White House advisor Richard Clarke's "Against All Enemies" and "Plan of Attack," Bob Woodward's examination of Bush's tenacious plans to invade Iraq. "Worse Than Watergate" jumped to No. 1 on Amazon.com's bestseller list upon its release earlier this month.
Bush officials bristle at its mention: "We don't do book reviews from the White House," said spokesman Ken Lisaius.
Adds Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson: "Mr. Dean should stick to writing about what he knows best, and that is the Nixon administration, not the Bush administration."
Why, critics ask, trust a disgraced former Nixon insider who turned on his boss to save his own skin? And what does a 1970s political dinosaur have to tell us about today's complicated world, anyway?
Plenty, say White House scholars. With books like "Blind Ambition," "The Rehnquist Choice" and a new biography on former president Warren G. Harding, Dean has emerged as a formidable voice on the human failings within the halls of power.