Blind Ambition

The Book of the Week is “Blind Ambition, The White House Years” by John Dean, published in 1976.

Investigations of politicians accused of wrongdoing at the highest level of the U.S. government, are complicated, because officials must at least make a pretense of complying with due process.

There is document gathering and analysis, subpoenas that compel witnesses to testify, endless debates on various interpretations of various sources of laws pertaining to the federal government, etc.; not to mention the most important aspect of the whole kit and caboodle: public relations! Plus, nowadays, the media and social media keep the constant barrage of inane comments coming.

In fact, there ought to be a board game, “Survival Roulette” that tests players’ ability to weasel out of legal trouble through shaping public opinion using claques, flacks, sycophants and attorneys.

Of course, Survival Roulette could be tailored to the Nixon White House; it could be the Politician Edition. The game could be structured like Monopoly, with players rolling dice and moving pieces onto spaces that describe financial crimes, illegal-surveillance crimes and damage-control speeches. The most famous space could be “Go To Jail” and there could also be “Cash In Political Favors.” The ultimate winner could be Rich Little.

In the Tabloid Celebrity Edition, the object of the game is to become the ultimate winner, Marc Rich. Other players (the losers) end up as other notorious figures who face different punishment scenarios: Jimmy Hoffa, Jeffrey Epstein, O.J., Bernie Madoff, Bill Cosby and Martha Stewart. The board spaces could describe financial crimes, sex crimes, violent crimes, and social media postings.

The Teenage Edition could feature more recent celebrities– simply spreading vicious rumors about them, rather than confirmed offenses– like in the case of Dakota Fanning.

In Survival Roulette: Politician Edition, John Dean could be one of the worse losers. He was one of various attorneys and consultants who: a) aided and abetted President Richard Nixon’s nefarious attempts to wreak vengeance on his political enemies (whom Nixon believed were revolutionaries and anarchists who used dirty tricks on him in the 1968 presidential election) and b) help Nixon keep his job as president (which Nixon believed was to play God).

In the summer of 1970, Dean’s career took a leap from the Justice Department up to the President’s side, as one of his legal advisors. He thought of his new department as a law firm, so he solicited legal work in all practice areas to make it grow; it did, to five people.

Dean quickly began to feel uneasy about his new position, even though it carried luxurious perks. The White House was fraught with politically incorrect goings-on. There was friction with various federal agencies, such as the FBI.

The FBI was dominated by J. Edgar Hoover, whom it was thought, possessed the means to blackmail the administration. He supposedly had evidence that the president had ordered the secret wiretapping of both the media and leakers on his staff.

As became well known, such wiretapping turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Nixon recorded himself— every conversation he ever had in the White House! He had listening devices planted to spy on protestors against the Vietnam War, and his other political enemies, which appeared to be almost infinite in number.

Nowadays, the equivalent would be a “loose cannon” with hubris syndrome, addicted to: Tweeting / posting on Facebook but keeping a private profile / texting and emailing, who didn’t destroy his electronic devices.

In July 1971, Dean encountered his first major ethical conflict. He felt obligated to appeal to presidential aide John Ehrlichman to restrain Special Counsel Chuck Colson from orchestrating a break-in to steal Pentagon-Papers documents at the offices of the Brookings Institution. Nonetheless, Dean did sic the IRS on Brookings, and suggested that its contracts with the Nixon administration be cancelled.

Dean got so caught up in the excitement of helping the president get reelected in 1972 that he proposed expanding the collection of intelligence, which was already sizable. Yet he was also disturbed by reelection-committee director G. Gordon Liddy’s crazy plots to steal the 1972 election via burglary, spying, kidnapping, etc.

Dean attempted to remain willfully ignorant of Liddy’s actions thereafter so that he would have the defense of plausible denial in the future. However, after the Watergate break-in June 1972, he rationalized that he was protected by the attorney-client relationship and executive privilege.

One meta-illegality of the coverup of the administration’s various, serious crimes involved the distribution of hush money to hundreds of people who knew too much. By the late summer of 1972, seven individuals were found to have committed the Watergate break-in. Nixon basically said in his communications to the world that those perpetrators were the only ones responsible for that incident, which he claimed was an isolated one. Of course it wasn’t.

The president’s men held their breaths and crossed their fingers counting down to re-election day, as the White House was still the target of inquiries, and a party to legal skirmishes with the FBI, Department of Justice, Congress, the General Accounting Office and journalists. Immediately after election day, Nixon ordered a Stalin-style purge (merely job termination, actually) of all sub-Cabinet officers he had previously appointed.

As the palace intrigue continued into late 1972, Dean, through his own research, learned that he himself could be criminally liable for obstruction of justice. He would inevitably be forced to choose between betraying his colleagues (who hadn’t been all that friendly to him) or perjuring himself to save others insofar as it helped save his own hide.

A true “prisoner’s dilemma” existed among the several indicted bad actors. No one would receive immunity for tattling on the others, but no one knew of any deals made with prosecutors except their own.

Dean wrote of early spring of 1973: “He [Nixon] is posturing himself, I thought– always placing his own role in an innocuous perspective and seeking my agreement… The White House was taking advantage of its power, and betting that millions of people did not wish to believe a man who called the president a liar.”

Read the book to learn the details.