As former counsel to Richard M. Nixon, John W. Dean thinks he knows a cancer on the presidency when he sees one. Dean, whose testimony before the Senate Watergate committee helped bring about Nixon's resignation in 1974, addresses the current administration in his recently released book, "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush." The country's most famous whistle-blower, now an author and visiting scholar at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, discusses what Bush knows and whether we'll ever know it, too.
Your book focuses on secrecy about 9/11, the Iraq war, the "outing" of CIA agent Valerie Plame and other events more than on substantive policies.
I tried to call attention to an issue that is being ignored, secrecy as a matter of policy. When [the Bush administration] got [to the White House] in January of 2001, it invoked it immediately. It's a pre- 9/11 situation that 9/11 has been used to further exploit. I tried to set out a polemic and use strong evidence that this is serious and it does have potentially dire consequences. By shining light on it, maybe we can prevent some of the dire consequences.
What acts are you comparing to the crimes of the Nixon White House?
I don't look at them in exactly that parallel way. What I'm looking at is the mentality of the Nixon administration and of the Bush-Cheney administration. Cutting to the bottom line, nobody died as a result of Nixon's Watergate abuses. People are dying today as a result of abuses of power now occurring.
You say no one died from Nixonian wrongdoing. What about the bombing of Cambodia?
He told people in key places in Congress what he was doing, which dissolved the issue of it being an impeachable offense. Miraculously, they kept it secret.
Is this different from any administration? Clinton was impeached for lying.
I don't put lying about a private sexual affair in the same category as something that involves the blood and treasure of the United States. It's just not in the same league. It's nothing to be condoned, [but] I don't see any parallel in what is going on with the 9/11 investigation and the surprising reaction of the Bush administration. They tried to prevent investigation of what they knew and what they'd done and how prepared they were.
There are numerous Bush-bashing titles in the bookstores just now. How is yours different?
I don't view it as Bush-bashing. I didn't write this in a partisan sense. I saw good government/bad government issues that I'm trying to raise, to send a warning out. I think that these are men of zeal, and zealous men are some of the most dangerous. They won't listen to anyone outside of their own circle. That doesn't mean that I think that they are evil men. I think that they are misguided, obviously, in their secrecy. Bush is a highly isolated president.
What secrecy is an administration entitled to?
There is no question that you need some secrecy. You can't reveal nuclear secrets or atomic secrets. There is a tendency in the national security area that, when in doubt, over-classify it. We have over-classified billions of documents--huge warehouses full. Surprisingly, Nixon actually tried to get a lot of that stuff de-classified, from World War I, World War II, Korea, what have you. It wasn't that he was such a great fan of openness, but he thought that the Democrats probably had more to hide in there.
You told the truth about the Nixon White House only after there were prosecutors on the trail.
I came forward voluntarily. I first tried to warn the president. [When] I realized that I'd failed to convince anybody that this was as serious as I believed it was, I told my superiors that I was going to meet with the prosecutors. I was not "flipped," as they say. There are two things that I read constantly. One, that I became a state's witness, which didn't happen. Secondly, is that I went to prison, which I didn't. I did 127 days in the custody of the U.S. Marshal's, where I already was. I had to stay in a safe house at night, but every day I was driven to the prosecutor's office. It wasn't what you would call hard time.
Whom did you vote for in 2000? Who will get your vote in 2004?
I've never done it in 30 years, talk publicly about who I support. I've voted for Republicans and I have voted for Democrats. I was never an ideologue. I register as an independent because that's really what I've been all my life.
You also have something of a Hollywood career, do you not?
I write screenplays, as everybody in this city does, and I've actually sold some.
Have any been produced?
No. So long as the check clears, that's all you care about.