Ever wonder what it must be like living with the fact that you were a central figure in one of the most important turning points in American political history? Well, if you're asking John Dean, you can keep wondering.
“I don't even think about it, to be very candid,” Dean says with a chuckle.
These days, Dean seems too busy thinking about the present condition of the country to be dwelling on his principal role in the demise of the Nixon administration 34 years ago. Nixon's White House lawyer, now 70, is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and the modern-day Republican Party, having written several books on the topics and appearing frequently on cable political talk shows.
“What amazes me,” Dean tells CityBeat in a phone interview, “is that people like Bush and Cheney didn't learn from the mistakes we made. I thought we wrote the book on what not to do. They thought that was the preface and have written a whole new book on what you shouldn't do.”
Dean will appear at an Oct. 30 public panel discussion sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union's San Diego chapter (and co-sponsored by CityBeat), along with San Francisco Chronicle-based syndicated columnist Robert Scheer and Union-Tribune-based syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Nixon's paranoia propelled his administration into well-known illegal behavior, but not even on Nixon's “darkest day,” Dean says, would he have been capable of such “remarkable” and “staggering” abuses of power committed by the Bush administration as warrantless wiretapping, extralegal detainment of “enemy combatants” and “likely” war crimes.
The concept of an “imperial presidency” was rejected by the American people after Nixon's downfall, Dean offers, but since then, that approach has been gradually rebuilt, culminating in the current administration, which did it “with steroids and stilts to make this current monster that's way beyond anything that is necessary for effective governing.”
Dean is particularly worried about believers in the unitary executive theory, which holds that the Constitution gives the president greater authority to run the government and limits Congressional oversight of the executive branch. Dean thinks four of the nine Supreme Court justices are adherents, and he believes John McCain has “already blown the dog whistle for the base to let them know that they'll get another [John] Roberts or [Samuel] Alito for any other further appointments” to the bench. “That would so dramatically change the nature of the law of this land through the court, in a way that neither of the political branches could ever risk doing, by creating this unitary executive.”
Nixon, Dean says, would be considered liberal by today's standards, in domestic and foreign policy alike.
Neoconservatives belittle Nixon's approach of détente with the Soviet Union and his China initiative, and contrary to McCain's horror at the idea of negotiating with perceived enemies without preconditions, Nixon conducted secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese during the war, Dean notes.
Dean has aimed considerable ire at the Republican Party, which he believe has lost its collective conscience as it's followed the lead of what he calls “authoritarian conservatives.” The rank-and-file, Dean says, “blindly follow the leaders. They do what they're told. They don't question it. Everything is black and white, and whatever the leaders say it should be, the followers comply with unquestioned enthusiasm, and it's a pretty spooky group.
“They are still showing strong support for the kind of ugly incivility that McCain has made a hallmark of his campaign without rejecting it,” he adds. “That's about 43 percent of the population right now that is supporting McCain, so there's a large group out there that has a high tolerance for this kind of behavior.”
Dean says that social scientists have told him that about 23 percent U.S citizens prefer authoritarian rule.The next president will have a real mess on his hands, points out Dean, an independent. “I don't think the Republican Party, with their core constituency being so anti-government, is in a position to govern, and they can't correct the problems. John McCain and his followers are philosophically incapable of really doing the regulation necessary to bring the markets back in line. Their neoconservative foreign policy is just asking for more trouble.”
That's all pretty serious stuff. So, what about that mention on Dean's Wikipedia page about Brad Pitt playing him in an upcoming movie?
“It's an Internet myth,” Dean says. “When I tried to run it down, we could find no such film in the works.” He adds that the Pitt information is about as accurate as the Wikipedia page on Dean is overall.
“It constantly changes, and it's never very accurate. I've never tried to change it because I'm just kind of curious to see if Wikipedia works, and it doesn't.”
For the full interview with Dean, click here.
The ACLU panel discussion, “Civil Liberties Under Fire: Election 2008,” begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30, at the Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave. A no-host happy hour, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Hawthorn's, next door to the theater, will precede the event.