In Over His Head: Dean in the White House

A Review of Blind Ambition: The White House Years
by John W. Dean III

Author Biography

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Watergate — perhaps the most shocking event in American history caused by the nation’s own leader. That the President of the United States and his closest advisors in the White House would authorize a break-in to the Democratic National Committee was an idea already chilling enough for American citizens, but this breach of faith was thrust even further when the White House’s cover-up began to unravel. In Blind Ambition, John W. Dean III gives an account of his years on President Nixon’s counsel before and during the Watergate scandal. Throughout the book, Dean refers to his own desire for power and importance, which led him to fall deeper into the crisis, how the constant shifting of recognition in the White House had him “thinking [he] had made it to the top just as [he] began to realize [he] had actually touched bottom.”1 This book brings to light that not all the alleged conspirators of Watergate were initially aware of the scandal—that some were in fact sucked into it after the matter, as in the case of John Dean.

The first chapter begins in May 1970, when John Dean is confronted by Bud Krogh, who asks if he would like to work in the White House. Dean’s career as a lawyer has only recently started, so this offer is unbelievable to him. Within the day, he’s in Washington DC meeting with Bob Haldeman, who, during the interview, asks Dean a rather odd question: “Do you believe that you can be loyal to Richard Nixon and work for the White House rather than for John Mitchell?”2 Dean thinks this question unusual because he was under the impression that Mitchell’s loyalty to the president was “unquestioned.”3 After the meeting, Dean notices that offices are constantly being remodeled; if a person’s office is getting bigger, he’s moving closer to the President, and if it’s getting smaller, he needs to work harder. When given a poor office adjacent to a restroom, Dean realizes he’s being tested by the higher-ups. “I soon learned that to make my way upward … I had to travel downward through factional power plays, corruption and finally downright crimes.”4 His first two chances to prove himself come quickly in Chapter 2, when Scanlan’s Monthly magazine attacks Vice-President Agnew by accusing him of wanting to repeal the Bill of Rights, and when he is given the Huston Plan. In both cases, Dean manages to get someone else to clear the problems for him because he feels uneasy about doing them himself. Dean had passed these two tests, but at the cost of “[crossing] an ethical line.”5 Dean’s law firm in the White House begins to gain recognition and grows at a steady rate, making him more well-known and popular throughout the administration.

A few months in, Dean is still getting acquainted with how the White House functions. In Chapter 3, he describes an entity known as “the tickler,” whose job is to keep people on track with deadlines, usually under the command of Bob Haldeman. Dean is put in charge of the delicate Howard Hughes affair but is given very little time to work on it. When he asks for an extension, it is refused by the tickler. After much research that leads nowhere, the case is dropped and the administration shifts its focus to its 1972 reelection campaign. Gordon Liddy is assigned position of general counsel for the Re-election Committee. Liddy suggests “Operation Gemstone,” essentially a plan of sabotage and spying on opponents to help Nixon’s re-election campaign. Dean’s opposition to Liddy’s brazen and dishonest plan shows that he “had stopped short of a hazy line that kept me off the first team, where men like Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kissinger, [etc…] trampled the rules.”6 This all changes in Chapter 4, after five men are caught trying to break into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at Watergate and evidence is found that they may be tied to the White House. Howard Hunt’s name repeatedly comes up, and suspicions are laid on the excessive Liddy, who many people believe would be willing to authorize such an order. Liddy reveals to Dean that Jeb Magruder was involved, meaning that Nixon was too. Dean slowly and unwllingly becomes more involved with Watergate himself, when he tries to think up cover up stories in an attempt to protect the President from any possible charges. In order to keep Hunt quiet, hush money is sent to his wife.

In Chatper 5, Dean notes that as he becomes more involved with the Watergate cover up, he gains more power and recognition. His office grows bigger, as does his enjoyment and feeling of fulfillment from his job. Polls show that most people no longer care about Watergate, and Nixon’s popularity has barely been hurt by the event, indicating success of the cover up. However, when Nixon mentions Dean on national television and talks about a “Dean investigation” of Watergate that never really took place, Dean lightly suspects that he’s “a fall guy.”7 He fears that Nixon is going to place the blame on Dean to clear his own name. He begins to develop a personal relationship with the President and soon enters his “inner circle,” but after Nixon’s re-elected, Nixon decides to fire Chapin, one of the President’s most loyal advisors, Dean realizes that “everyone is expendable” in the White House.8 Throughout Chapter 6, Dean is asked to actually write a “Dean report” on Watergate for the sake of settling the scandal once and for all, but he is hesitant to attach himself directly to the scandal. Upon reading through a book of criminal statutes, Dean realizes that he’s already guilty of a series of crimes, despite being only a middle man. Though he now has an empire growing under him, Dean feels drained, pressured by the new revelation and Hunt’s demands for more money, along with the stress of work. Finally sick of everything, Dean decides “to do something.”9

Still worried about the President, Dean continues to contemplate throughout Chapter 7 how to protect him from being found out by the media. He begins to have thoughts of perjury, and news of Hunt’s threats spread into the press. Again, demand for the elusive Dean Report rises, so Dean decides to confront Nixon about it. During this confrontation, he discovers that Nixon was aware of everything that was going on in the White House and realizes “my rise in the White House was over.”10 After figuring out that no one would own up to the scandal, Dean decides to try and save his own head by getting a lawyer—Charles Schaffer. In Chapter 8, Dean tells Schaffer everything except what could possibly incriminate Nixon, and Schaffer agrees to represent him. Dean is accused of personally allowing the bugging of the DNC, but Schaffer tells him that the prosecutors will focus on pre-June 17, when Dean was still oblivious to the matters at hand. Liddy begins leaking information to the press, revealing information about hush funds and Hunt’s demands to the public. It soon becomes clear to Dean that Nixon plans to feign ignorance at his expense, and on April 30, 1973, Dean is fired on national television.

Now just a citizen like any other man, Dean’s lost all the power he sacrificed the last few years of his life for. Believing that Nixon still isn’t done using him as a scapegoat, Dean tells Schaffer all of the President’s dealings that he’s aware of throughout Chapter 9. Schaffer then informs him that because it’s Dean’s word against the President of the United States, it will be a very hard uphill battle. The White House begins to spread slanderous and ridiculous stories against Dean through the press, and his lawyer tells him to fight back. His chance comes when he’s interviewed by Time magazine, where he states that everything the President has said so far is a lie. Dean then decides to go to the Senate to testify, and when he goes to the barbershop the weekend before the hearings, the barber states that he wants “to see this guy Dean get his butt kicked.”11 Chapter 10 starts with Dean entering the caucus room, trying to hide his nervousness. Herman E. Talmadge asks Dean a series of in-depth and specific questions. After a trying first day, Dean decides he’ll have to go on the offensive the next few days. He slowly gains his footing and his confidence rises. When he’s asked why he was so involved with the cover up if he was not a conspirator, he firmly answers that it was his duty as the President’s counsel to look into any problem of the White House. Upon returning home from a short vacation, Sam Dash comes to Dean’s house to tell him that tapes of his conversations with Nixon may exist. If they can get their hands on them, Dean’s case is strengthened greatly. Dean knows that even with the tapes, the fight will be hard, but it gives him new hope.

As Dean is giving a detailed first hand account of his own past, it would be hard to discern an accurate thesis. It could be said that his purpose in writing this book was to draw an accurate portrait of the background of Watergate—more accurate than what the media might have drawn up, in any case. By writing the book, he was trying to show that those supposedly behind the scandal weren’t evil or backstabbing, but merely products of Nixon’s “hardball” policy and human nature. Men—including himself—did not willingly support the White House’s deception of the United States, but were used by their higher-ups and unwittingly put in incriminating circumstances.

Because this book is a personal account, many critics have been quick to point out that this book may just be an attempt by Dean to clear his name by making it seem as if he were just an innocent person who happened to get caught up in scandal and conspiracy. They say that this book was in a sense his own cover up to clear him of charges of perjury made by the public. Since there’s no other source but Dean himself in this book, it’s possible that he may have omitted key facts that could possibly portray him or others in a worse light. In the same way, some characters that he felt certain animosity towards may have been vilified, consciously or subconsciously. From a skeptic’s point of view, this book could be seen as completely untrustworthy and false.

As far as how greatly the book was affected by events going on at the time of its writing, the Watergate trials obviously had a large influence on Dean. This book was probably written late 1974-75, when Dean was still going through his own hearings. If it’s true that Dean wrote this book to help clear his own name, then he would have done so in order to receive a lighter punishment by portraying himself as someone who unknowingly and innocently got tangled in with White House scandals.

This book is unique in that it is a detailed look inside the White House during the Watergate scandal period written by a central figure of the entire operation. In that sense, it gives readers much more depth and detail of the event that likely wasn’t available until this book’s publishing. In some ways, this could be a strength of the book, but in other ways—such as the question of how credible Dean is—it can be a shortcoming. Another potential fault of the book is how accurate Dean’s memory is. While he did “review an enormous number of documents” and “[speak] to others who were present with [him] during conversations” to ensure the precise unfolding of events, the accuracy of those events, however small and negligible, will always be under question.12

For John Dean, this book is a personal account of his own experiences in the White House, so he focuses less on the political impact of Watergate and more on how the event affected him. Still though, he makes subtle implications throughout his writing. Early in his career at the White House, Dean is amazed by Nixon’s charm and capabilities and infatuated with the power and influence surrounding him and closest advisors. As he rises in ranks, he begins to see those he once idolized in a more objective light, realizing that they have faults as well. When Nixon fires him in an attempt to cover himself, Dean comes to the sudden realization that he was betrayed. In the very same way, American citizens were betrayed by their President, a man who is supposed to lead his country in a responsible and democratic way, not scheme behind its back in an attempt to gain more power and security. This crime was so grave, that for the first time in US history, America seriously considered impeaching one of its own presidents.

In terms of how Watergate affected previously held values, Nixon’s betrayal was a sharp contrast to John F. Kennedy, to whom many Americans felt a strong tie to due to his familial image. People were left in shock as the cover up unraveled, and now they’re much more cautious of a figure they once admired at looked up to. Though he’s still looked upon as a leader for his nation and the world, many have lost respect for the title of president after Nixon had gone behind their backs and worked without their consent.

Watergate was a flaming net that caught everyone in the Nixon administration in its large radius. John Dean was a man who happened to enter and rise in the White House at the wrong time, getting caught up in his desire for more power and ending up a central figure in a massive scandal. He did not “rat” everyone else out in order to clear his name. In reality, he couldn’t take the injustices going on behind the scenes, with people being tricked and backstabbed for other peoples’ self-interest.

review by Chris Cho

  1. Dean, John W. Blind Ambition: The White House Years. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976, 31.
  2. Dean, John W., 17.
  3. Dean, John W., 17.
  4. Dean, John W., 30.
  5. Dean, John W., 35.
  6. Dean, John W., 88.
  7. Dean, John W., 131.
  8. Dean, John W., 150.
  9. Dean, John W., 193.
  10. Dean, John W., 200.
  11. Dean, John W., 306.
  12. Dean, John W., 5.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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