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Enemy Mind

Former Nixon Counsel John Dean probes the modern conservative psyche


Published October 3, 2006 at 8:25 p.m.

John Dean has a few choice words for the conservatives who set the tone and agenda of national politics today. None of those terms is flattering: "malicious," "mean-spirited," "hypocritical," "bigoted," "ruthless," "bullying," "amoral" and "Machiavellian." But the former White House attorney has spent enough time in the top echelon of power to recognize a certain personality type when he sees it - what social scientists now call "right-wing authoritarians."

Dean knows this sort well. As White House counsel from 1970 until Nixon fired him in 1973, he was a central figure in the Watergate break-in, providing hush money to keep the burglars quiet. When the scandal finally began to surface and it was clear that Dean might be made the scapegoat, he became the government's chief witness. His testimony before the Senate committee investigating Watergate played a major role in Nixon's decision to resign in August 1974.

Dean eventually served four months in prison for obstruction of justice, and left politics for a career as a writer, lecturer and investment banker. But in recent years he's waded back into the political fray, authoring several books about the Nixon presidency and that of George W. Bush. His 2004 bestseller, Worse Than Watergate, calls for the impeachment of both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. This week, Dean comes to Burlington, on behalf of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union, to give a talk called "Spying, Secrecy and Presidential Power."

Dean's latest book, Conservatives Without Conscience - the title is a nod to his political mentor Barry Goldwater and his 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative - is a slight departure from his earlier works. Relying largely on the research of social psychologist Robert Altemeyer, Dean explores the psychological underpinnings of right-wing authoritarians, who, he writes, are characterized by an extreme deference to authority, intolerance for ambiguity or dissent, an inclination to overreact to external threats and a propensity to dominate others.

Dean suggests that right-wing authoritarianism was "the principal force behind almost everything that went wrong with Nixon's presidency." He also contends that it explains much of the behavior of the Bush/Cheney White House, from its illegal domestic spying program to its character assassinations of decorated war veterans, to its legal hairsplitting over the definition of torture, to its blatant defiance of international law. Dean concludes that the self-destructive nature of right-wing authoritarians poses a dire threat not just to themselves but to the future of American democracy.

Seven Days interviewed Dean by phone recently from his home in Beverly Hills. Unlike his former boss, we asked Dean's permission before recording our conversation.

SEVEN DAYS: Your new book describes today's conservative leaders in very harsh terms. Isn't that just name-calling?

JOHN DEAN: No. These aren't labels that social scientists have hung on these people. Rather, they're the way these people describe themselves. In anonymous testing when they do these questionnaires, these are the responses that come from them. And not just on one or two occasions. We're talking repeatedly, time after time . . . These are straight-out confessions from these people about their own nature. And, of course, the higher they test as "authoritarian," the more conservative their politics. It's spooky stuff.

SD: You contend that many of Bush's aides are right-wing authoritarians. If so, is there a line beyond which even they won't cross?

JD: That's a good question. I don't know. I read, almost with my jaw dropped on my chest, the reports day after day. The front page of the Los Angeles Times had a story on how John McCain's position on torture and detainees may cost him the support of the Religious Right and hard-core conservatives. It's just mind-boggling! Here's a guy who was tortured in Vietnam and survived, partially on the realization that his country would never do something like that. So, as a matter of conscience, he can't buy into the stuff that these people are pushing. So they may say, "Well, you're not up to political snuff for us." It's stunning how far these people are willing to go.

SD: Both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were in the Nixon White House. What lessons did they learn there?

JD: None. Or, don't get caught. And have an answer if you do. Claim it's national security.

SD: Do you think these authoritarians believe their own rhetoric?

JD: It's hard to know. Obviously, actions speak pretty loudly and - excuse my French - but their "I-don't-give-a-shit" attitude certainly speaks volumes. I think they are unduly self-righteous. This is why discovering this body of science explains so much to me about how these people can do things the way they're doing them. In many ways, Nixon was the same way. He figured, "I'll get a fair shake in history if the right people write it."

SD: Nixon was obsessed with how historians would remember him.

JD: That's true. His was probably the most detailed, recorded presidency we've ever had. I became aware of it because of the filing system. Since the modern presidency, the White House has had a central filing system that's very sophisticated and very complete . . . [Nixon Chief of Staff Bob] Haldeman wanted to make sure that they had a good historical record of everything. So everything was recorded from meetings. But a lot of the working stuff wasn't getting into central files because they felt it was too sensitive to send down there to the professional bureaucrats who weren't presidential appointees. So, Haldeman had me set up a special filing system. That's where all the good stuff ended up.

SD: In light of what happened to Nixon, do you think the Bush administration is as meticulous about documenting its actions?

JD: When the independent-counsel law was in existence, a lot of White House people stopped making notes. I talked to people from the Clinton administration, and they'd go to meetings and no one would take a note. It's a shame, because you lose this stuff for history. Now, there's no independent-counsel law. I suspect, in this highly disciplined White House, either the papers are all going to disappear or there are no notes. One of the first things Bush did when he came in was write an executive order that, in essence, nullifies the 1978 Presidential Records Act. He did the same thing as governor of Texas. He made his papers disappear.

SD: Do you think Bush and his advisors worry about how Americans and historians will remember them?

JD: No, they don't. I think authoritarianism explains that, in part. They are so self-righteous in their actions and so convinced of the wisdom of their own judgment that they have no hesitation of proceeding full-bore, even if public opinion rejects their position. And it works politically for them because they're constantly playing to their base . . . They don't want 60-percent approval ratings. All they need is 51 percent to win a vote. They've mastered the art of the one-vote victory.

SD: Is this country headed for a constitutional crisis similar to that of Watergate?

JD: It's a slow crisis, if it is. What worries me is if there's another terrorist attack before the election. And then, of course, there's the '08 election. Who knows what's going to happen in '06? It's a lot closer than a lot of the pundits are claiming.

SD: How do you think this administration would respond to another 9/11-style attack?

JD: God forbid.

SD: Would we be under marshal law?

JD: We really could be. If one were to happen, say, before the '08 election, who knows if we'd even get the election? They did say in the [Project for the New American Century] report I cited in Worse Than Watergate that none of this will ever happen unless we have another Pearl Harbor. Well, we had another Pearl Harbor, and they've gotten all their policies.

SD: At the end of Conservatives Without Conscience you pose the question, "Are we on the road to fascism?" You conclude that we're not. But based on all the revelations about secret prisons, torture, domestic spying and so forth, how are we not on that road?

JD: Well, maybe using a "road" is the wrong analogy . . . We certainly know where that road is, and that's an intersection we'll reach at some point, and we'll either go on the road to fascism or we'll stay on the straight and narrow. Who knows? . . . I've had a number of people who've now read the book who I've talked to about fascism beforehand, and they've said, "John, you might push the F-word further than you have" . . .

When it happens here - if it happens here - it'll be fascism with a smile on its face. People will willingly be giving up their rights and liberties because the terrorists will have won. They will have scared the hell out of everybody and they'll say, "Fine, take the Bill of Rights and make me feel safe." That's when we're in trouble.

SD: Could Bush be impeached?

JD: Impeachment is a purely political process. If you look at a legitimate impeachment where you could ever get a removal, impeachment is easy. If you've got a majority of the House, as the Republicans proved with Clinton, you could impeach anybody for anything. When messing around with an intern and then lying about it results in somebody being impeached and being threatened to be removed from office, there really is no definition for "high crimes and misdemeanors."

SD: What similarities do you see between the Nixon and Bush administrations?

JD: The arguments that Nixon had are the same arguments that Bush and Cheney today are claiming are the basis for their authority.

SD: How so?

JD: The national security issue. Nixon's warrantless wiretaps, which were part of the bill of impeachment, he certainly believed to be part of national security. Nixon, even in his memoir, writes that he believed . . . in essence, "My intent was national security, though my mouth was speaking politics."

SD: Are you surprised by how the mainstream media have treated Bush compared to the way they treated Nixon?

JD: It's pretty remarkable. What's happened is, you don't have real investigative reporters anymore. [Bob] Woodward's got a book coming out in October . . . I'm hopeful that Bob has finally seen the light . . . I was surprised at Bob's two books on the Bush administration, where he's just a stenographer for them. He's got great sources, but he never challenges them, never makes a critical word about what he's being told, and just leaves it out there for the reader.

SD: Obviously, journalism is different today than during Nixon's presidency.

JD: Yes, the journalism has changed. A lot of the critical analysis today has moved over to books. One of the explanations for this is that reporters don't have the time to do investigative reporting working for the mainstream papers the way they used to. They've got so many damn assignments on their desk that they can't do what Woodward and Bernstein did during Watergate, and that's to stay on one story month after month. No editor will give you that kind of run today, because it's all about the bottom line.

SD: Has Robert Altemeyer done similar studies to looking for authoritarian liberals?

JD: Yes, he's looked for them, but he finds that there is not a statistically significant number of them . . . That may explain why Repub- licans are so good at winning elections, because they can keep everybody in line. And Democrats are like herding cats. Democrats actually see things like nuance, which Republicans refer to as "flip-flopping." Authoritarianism is really good for winning elections. It's just not very healthy for democracy.

SD: Is the Goldwater style of conservatism dead?

JD: I think conservatism is running its course. Conservatism could become as uncomfortable a label for people today as liberalism is for many who . . . now call themselves progressives. But I think the extreme element of conservatism is giving it such a bad name that it may well not pass the smell test at some point.

SD: Will the change eventually come from the Left or the Right?

JD: I think all changes come from the center, when the great sleeping center rises up and stretches and says, "Enough!" Because basically, we're a centrist nation. But the debate is being set by the extremes. We're a bell curve and they're way out on the lips of that bell. I'm hopeful we'll either start to see it in 2006 or no later than 2008.