Thursday, June 23, 2005

Watergate: The Dean Story and the Standard Account

In the spring and summer of 1973, Watergate reporters knew that the big stories were going to come from John Dean. Liddy was reveling in his Spartan silence. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, and Mitchell were hanging tough with their modified limited hangout. McCord, Sloan, and Magruder were not high-ranking enough to shed much light on what had happened inside the Oval Office. Dean's story was the only game in town for those who wanted the next front page headline.

Even before Dean went on the record before the Ervin committee, he and his lawyers were using reporters to get their spin on the story. They were in a strong bargaining position. They could pick and choose among reporters. Those they liked got just enough facts to break a story. Obviously, they had no incentive to select journalists who asked too many hard questions about Dean's role or who tried to verify his account by going to 'hostile' sources.

In his book The Powers that Be, David Halberstam details how this worked. This incident is typical:
[Dean] was very good with the Washington Post. He cut out the New York Times for quite a while because the Times seemed to him to be reflecting the Chuck Colson anti-Dean line. Finally there was a breakfast between Scotty Reston and Bob McCandless [Dean's lawyer]. Reston wanted to know how the Times could get back in on the John Dean industry and it was decided that if the Times did not actually call for immunity for dean, it would nonetheless say that people should start listening to him. Shortly after that, Seymour Hersh was assigned Dean by the Times and soon after that, the Times's coverage was right up there with that of the Post.

Maybe I am naïve, but this sounds like the Times willingly, eagerly participated in discussions with John Dean that were part of John Dean's personal cover-up. In their pursuit of a "big story" the Times agreed to vouch for a Watergate conspirator before they could check his story.

The Times was not alone in this. As Halberstam makes clear, all the big dogs on the Watergate beat played this game. The Watergate narrative that took shape was compromised by their reliance on John Dean. The reporters and their editors had been co-opted. The outlines of the Standard Account of Watergate had to follow John Dean's story.

The co-option, in some cases, was severe and persisted long after the Summer of '73. In the acknowledgments for All the President's Men, Woodward and Bernstein include Taylor Branch among those who "contributed their time, energy and counsel to the preparation of this book". Branch was also the co-author of Dean's first Watergate book, Blind Ambition. Hays Gorey, who was a key reporter for Time magazine on Watergate was the ghostwriter for Maureen Dean's memoirs. The Dean camp not only manipulated the first draft of history in 1973, they managed to shape the second draft as well.

In 1973-74, the pace of events made it impossible to revise the evolving narrative. The reporters who were the "Watergate experts" were locked into the Dean version of the crime and the coverup. No untainted outsider had time to master the details and independently verify them. Moreover, some of the most crucial facts were unavailable. Dean did not admit that he destroyed the Hunt notebooks until after the Ervin hearings were finished. Liddy did not tell his story until 1980.

By the time new evidence became available, Watergate was old news. Even worse, it had acquired the mythic properties. The David and Goliath story of Nixon versus Woodward and Bernstein (better yet, Redford and Hoffman) was more than mere history. It was too powerful to be analyzed and too well known to be investigated anew. There was also the undeniable fact that Nixon had committed crimes and deserved to be impeached. What did the why's and how's matter?

Of course, the same case could be made for teaching the fables of Parson Weems to our junior high students. After all, George Washington was a great man, so what does it matter if he never said "I cannot tell a lie" after chopping down a cherry tree? The pundits of the MSM would pour scorn on any school board that made such a ridiculous argument. So why are they so happy to repeat the Watergate fables?


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