July 30, 2006

John Dean Reflecting on Why Nixon Was Not As Bad as Bush/Cheney

This weekend I had a chance to see John Dean talk about his new book Conservatives Without Conscience at the Capitola Book Cafe in Capitola, California. I'd picked up my copy of his book a couple of weeks ago, and had finished reading it before I went to his talk. He is a very articulate and entertaining speaker and one can see why he is in demand on the public speaking circuit, especially when they need someone to talk about impeachment or the overreach of government figures.

His new book is quite interesting and timely. He believes that it was necessary to warn the country and Republicans about the dangerous road on which they are embarking when they allow the authoritarians to take control. He adds much to my own picture of what is happening with these fanatical power-hungry people.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that he also had come to the conclusion that Richard Nixon was actually a less fanatical person than the current occupants of the White House and so our country is under much greater danger with them than even with Richard Nixon. Here's what Dean said about those last days of Richard Nixon's presidency (pp. 180-182).

Like Dick Cheney's, my memory is seared by Vietnam and Watergate, and so it appears is Bob Altemeyer's. His work initially caught my attention because he noticed that as Watergate unfolded, the public was very slow to react. For example, the Watergate burglars from the Nixon reelection committee were arrested inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972. Polls conducted shortly before the 1972 elections showed that some 62 percent of the voters dismissed the Watergate break-in and resulting investigation as "mostly politics." Notwithstanding the growing and hard evidence of the president's deep involvement, public opinion was slow to change or turn against Nixon. Americans want to believe in their president, and for that matter, their own representatives or senators -- although they may hold Congress and politicians in general in low esteem. Altemeyer understood what few did: It was not public opinion that forced Nixon from office. He correctly noted that Nixon resigned "because [Nixon's] attorney had forced the disclosure of evidence so damaging that it seemed certain he would be convicted of high crimes by the Senate. This is true, but there is more to the story.

In fact, Nixon had many defenses that he could have mounted had he gone to trial in the Senate, many of which Bush and Cheney are promoting today under the rubric of national security and the inherent power of the presidency. The reason Nixon did not go to trial was not his loss of support on Capital Hill, which he might have rebuilt, but rather because he lost support of his defenders, principally on the White House staff. Other than White House counsel Fred Buzzhardt, and possibly chief of staff Al Haig (with whom Buzzhardt had roomed at West Point), no one was aware that Nixon was lying about what he knew and when he knew it once the cover-up had initially fallen apart. Nixon provided the lawyer he had hired to defend him in the House's impeachment inquiry, James St. Clair, with false information, and St. Clair -- as it happened -- was a man of integrity and not a right-wing authoritarian follower. When he found out that his client had lied to him he had two choices: to resign or to join the cover-up. He was, as it happened, interested in participating in the latter. Nixon at one point considered defying the Supreme Court ruling that he turn over his incriminating tapes (evidence that revealed that his defense was a sham) on the very grounds that Bush and Cheney argue: They have authority under the Constitution to read it and comply as they see fit. Once it was apparent that Richard Nixon had broken the law, he made the most significant decision of his presidency: the decision to honor the rule of law and resign.

What does this have to do with authoritarianism? Everything, for there is little doubt in my mind that Bush and Cheney, in the same situation, would not budge: rather, they would spin the facts as they always have, and move forward with their agenda. The president and the vice president, it appears, believe the lesson of Watergate was not to stay within the law, but rather to not get caught.

John Dean believes that Nixon's conscience was not totally atrophied.

I also believe that Nixon has more conscience than either Bush or Cheney as shown by another decision he made that I am convinced they would never make. In the early days of 2003 before the Iraq war started, Living On Earth had a program about the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. Professor Arthur Galstone, the biologist that discovered the chemical compound that formed Agent Orange was on the program talking about how unhappy he was that it was used in Vietnam defoliant because there was no telling how dangerous it could be.

GALSTON: By the time the Vietnam War really heated up, which was in the early '60s, I was, at this time, in Pasadena at the California Institute of Technology. I got angry enough at finding that there was military use of this compound that I came to an annual meeting of my society and got some people to sign a petition, which we fired off to President Lyndon Johnson and told him that we thought this was not a good thing to do because these chemicals hadn't been adequately tested. We were spraying huge quantities of this all over the countryside. It drifted down not only over trees but over crops and over people, and we didn't know what it was going to do to people.

And several years later, after a campaign, it was found out that 245T, one of the components in Agent Orange, is contaminated with a substance called dioxin. And we now know that there's a family of compounds called dioxins, many of which are among the most toxic substances known to man.

CURWOOD: How were you able to convince the government to stop using Agent Orange?

GALSTON: Well, this came about through accident, I think, but it was a happy accident for us. I had been at the California Institute of Technology and then I moved to Yale. And by the time this situation matured I was in the East. Some friends and I had been needling the Department of Defense to carry out toxicological studies, and they eventually did this. And what came out was that 245T, the compound I mentioned, produced malformed embryos when administered to pregnant rodents. And the concentrations at which these effects were produced were not very great.

So, armed with this information, we tried to contact the government. And, happily, President Nixon's science advisor was a distinguished physicist by the name of Lee DuBridge, who had been president of the California Institute of Technology when I was out there. And also one of my colleagues in this endeavor was Professor Matthew Meselson of Harvard. So, the two of us contacted DuBridge and told him that we had this information and he convened a meeting in the old executive office building. And when the data were rolled out and he got a look at them, he contacted Secretary of Defense Mel Laird, who in turn contacted President Nixon. And in 1970, five years before the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon ordered the spraying stopped.

When I listened to that program, a chill ran down my spine, because I knew that if it had been George W Bush hearing from his science advisor that there was something truly bad about a chemical used in war, he would have never stopped using it. Having watched the actions and decisions of his administration after that moment, I am even more convinced that Bush and Cheney truly have no conscience and would allow evil to continue long after being told about the problems.

Posted by Mary at July 30, 2006 12:02 AM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |

Depleated uranium

Posted by: Thomas Ware at July 30, 2006 07:22 AM

Nixon was always a tormented guy who knew both what was honorable and how well he could play with both power and with being an unvarnished SOB.

He could have torn this country apart in 1960 after losing the presidential race to Kennedy - he didn't. He dispised the Soviet Union, but I believe he spent some time in the country with minimal supervision, trying to get a fix on its people. There are other examples.

But make no mistake. Bush the elder, Cheney and Rumsfeld are Nixon's children. (Bush the younger, by comparison, is a sad, sad mix of his mother's lack of sympathy, loutishness and a severe need to show he can better than you - at any price.) And they have no scruples where getting what they want done are concerned.

Posted by: palamedes at July 30, 2006 10:09 AM

Dern it, I was on the yacht harbor beach today 0900--1300. Sheesh.

Posted by: paradox at July 30, 2006 07:37 PM

I remember that Spiro T. Agnew had to resign well before Nixon did, and that Nixon was able to select Gerald Ford to be the man to succeed him. Ford, of course, pardoned Nixon. After that, anyone the Democrats ran against Ford would win.

We have fallen a long way when we look back on Nixon as a paragon of respect for the law.

Posted by: Chris Vail at August 1, 2006 07:02 PM

"We have fallen a long way when we look back on Nixon as a paragon of respect for the law."


Posted by: Male Enhancement at August 6, 2006 06:25 PM