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An Open Letter To Bush Advisor Karl Rove


Friday, May. 10, 2002


May 8, 2002

Senior Advisor to the President
Office of Political Affairs,
Office of Public Liaison, and
Office of Strategic Initiatives
The White House
Washington, DC 20016

Dear Karl:

Based on news accounts, I understand that you are a presidential history buff. According to The New York Times, not only have you been giving your boss history books to read (Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex), but you also called in a group of presidential historians for pretzels and conversation.

Like you, my former boss Richard Nixon was a history buff. Over the years he'd closely studied many of the men who preceded him to The White House. He was particularly interested in the presidencies of those who were widely considered by presidential scholars to be "great" or "near great." These, of course, include Lincoln, FDR, Washington, Jefferson, TR, Wilson, Jackson and one president whose presence on the list always annoyed Nixon: Truman. But Nixon read about other presidents as well.

For instance, the last book I know that Nixon read was John F. Kennedy's Thirteen Great Mistakes in the White House by Malcolm E. Smith. It came up in a conversation. The President was explaining why he had no problem with his chief of staff turning the FBI loose on newsman Dan Schorr, trying to shake up Schorr a bit: Schorr was writing tough stories about Nixon.

When the unshakable Schorr learned that he was being investigated, and wanted to know why, he was simply lied to - a dirty deed done by your boss's pal Fred Malek, who told Schorr he was being considered for a job in the Nixon Administration.

Nixon compared this skullduggery with the conduct towards reporters of the Kennedy White House. "In the Kennedy case, they got three reporters the hell out of bed and said we want to know where, what is the source of your, ah, what is the source of your [information], uh, (brief pause) it is --," he said, but didn't finish the thought. "You can get it in a little book called Kennedy's Thirteen Mistakes by Malcolm Smith, Jr. and, there's a chapter on this on this policy. It's a fascinating little story, don't you forget it," he instructed.

When he first mentioned the Malcolm book, I thought he was going to say that using the FBI to harass newsmen was a mistake. My immediate reaction was that it was a really good idea that he was reading about what went wrong for other presidents. We had lots of things going wrong, and they were getting worse. Schorr's learning he was being investigated by the FBI was the least of those problems. But I quickly realized that Nixon was using Kennedy's mistakes as a justification for his own.

All Americans should be gratified that you appear to be scanning presidential history for mistakes not to justify activities, but rather looking for signposts to avoid problems. It is difficult to imagine a better use of history.

Given the problems facing President Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, it's been reported that you are exploring Andrew Johnson's failure to meet the crisis of reconciliation and reconstruction following the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination, Herbert Hoover's failure to rally the nation to deal with economic depression, Woodrow Wilson's delay in committing the country to World War I, along with his mistakes at Versailles, and Warren Harding's difficulties with post-WWI America.

No president has abused his powers as Richard Nixon did, often acting under the color of "national security." The business of national security has always been a bit hazy, but clearly what was legitimately national security, and what was not, got a bit confused during the Nixon presidency. September 11th has created a new set of national security problems. It's long been said that studying history prevents repeating it. While trite, it is surely true.

It's unimaginable that the Bush Administration would want to risk repeating the mistakes of the Nixon presidency, yet the continuing insistence on secrecy by your White House is startlingly Nixonian. I'm talking about everything from stiffing Congressional requests from information and witnesses, to employing an executive order to demolish the 1978 law providing public access to presidential papers, to forcing the Government Accounting Office to go to Court to obtain information about how the White House is spending tax money when creating a pro-energy industry Vice Presidential task force. The Bush Administration apparently seeks to reverse the post-Watergate trend of open government.

As you are the President's top political adviser, let me draw to your attention the political wisdom of a man who served in the cabinet or sub-cabinet of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, and then eighteen years as the U.S. senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He's not only an able politician but a student of government secrecy, most recently serving as chairman of a bipartisan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. You might want to take a look at his recent book, entitled Secrecy. Senator Moynihan sums it up nicely: "secrecy is for losers."

Best wishes, and I hope that you will reconsider ignoring the mistakes of the Nixon presidency.


John Dean

John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former Counsel to the President of the United States.

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