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Is Dubya's Presidency Even Poorer Than Tricky Dick's?

A Review of John Dean's Worse Than Watergate


Friday, Apr. 09, 2004

As someone who came of age during the Senate Watergate hearings, I brought considerable skepticism to Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush -- the new book by John Dean, former counsel to President Richard Nixon (and my fellow Findlaw columnist).

And in the end, my skepticism won out: Dean's lively indictment of the Bush presidency failed to persuade me that our current leadership is indeed more dangerous than Nixon's presidency, as the book's title suggests. However, Dean's work did succeed in its larger and more important purpose: namely, to instill in all its readers a deep concern about the direction of our national leadership and the vitality of our democracy.

Worse than Watergate is at its best when making the case that the Bush White House shares with the Nixon White House two traits - an obsession with secrecy, and a penchant for dishonesty - that are fundamentally corrosive of democracy. Dean paints a picture of a government that manufactures dishonest justifications for its policies, at the same time that it closes off public access to government decisionmaking.

As Dean makes clear, that is a formula for rendering a government that is nominally accountable, unaccountable to its citizens. And that lack of accountability is, in turn, something no true democracy can long survive.

Impressively Specific, Savvy Evidence and Analysis

In fashioning his critique, Dean naturally draws on his time in the Nixon White House. His mode of analysis calls to mind the former professional athletes - a Phil Simms or Glenn Reynolds -- who provide down-and-dirty insight into the world of sports based on years of real-world experience.

Just as a former quarterback can enhance a NFL broadcast with knowledge of exactly how to pick apart a zone defense, so too Dean uses his been-there-done-that understanding of political hardball to enliven his narrative.

For instance, Dean compiles an impressive bill of particulars to support one of his claims, especially: the contention that President Bush and Vice-President Cheney share an overwhelming and regrettable obsession with secrecy.

Some of Dean's examples are pretty well-known. One is the Administration's refusal to identify the Guantanamo detainees, or to provide them access to lawyers. Another is Cheney's desperate effort to keep secret the workings of his energy policy task force. And yet another is Bush's withholding of information (including, it now turns out, lots of Clinton-era documents) from the Commission investigating the causes of 9/11.

Sketching A History of Secrecy That Long Predated Bush and Cheney's Accession

But Dean also covers less familiar terrain. In fact, one of his main contributions is to show the pervasiveness of the Bush/Cheney commitment to secrecy, and how it actually long pre-dated their capturing the White House.

For example, as Dean traces in depressing detail, Bush has successfully thwarted probing investigation of his pre-presidential record. The public still does not know the full story behind the sweetheart business deals that made Bush independently wealthy. And we know far less than we should about Bush's tenure as Texas governor.

Why? As Dean shows, it is largely due to the way Bush, with the help of some down home political cronies, has managed to evade Texas' open government laws, and sequester the papers associated with his governorship.

There can be little doubt that the cloak of secrecy drawn over Bush's past helped gain Bush the presidency. And, as Dean recounts, the same tactic is at work in Bush's push for re-election.

Bush has been stunningly effective at control the flow of information from the White House. By surrounding himself with zealous anti-leakers, and by holding the press at bay, Bush and his team have proven masters at presidential myth-making.

Granted, with respect to at least some of Bush's secrecy initiatives, one could imagine a more charitable spin than the one Dean gives. All candidates try to limit the quantity of potentially damaging available to opponents. (Howard Dean prevented access to his gubernatorial papers too).

And Bush is certainly not the first president to try to limit leaks and gull the White House press corps. Indeed, one might ask which is more to be faulted: A president exercising control over information, or a press corps that has shown itself to be remarkably docile in pursuing such information?

There is no explaining away, however, the Bush/Cheney record of flat out lying to the American people - and Dean is effective at pursuing this theme as well.

Secrets And Lies: Dean's Second Major Charge Is of Bush Administration Dishonesty

What is most striking about Dean's account of Bush Administration deceptions is the sheer breadth and pure brazenness of the Administration's willingness to mislead.

The subject matter Dean covers ranges from Cheney's denial of ties between Halliburton (the company he used to run) and Iraq, to the deceptive cost figures that Bush advanced for his Medicare reform proposals, to the false justifications for any number of initiatives cutting back on environmental protection.

It isn't just that the Administration tells so many whoppers; the really amazing thing is the way they never back down even when caught. Instead, as Joe Wilson and Richard Clarke and so many others are finding out, the Administration's M.O. is to destroy the reputations of those few critics who have the courage to stand up and be counted.

With a nudge from Dean, the Nixonian analogies jump off the page. But this is not the same, in the end, as showing the Bush is worse than Nixon -- and thus, Dean's book, while an eminently worthwhile read, does not quite live up to its title.

A Very Poor Record -- But Not Actually Worse Than Watergate, In My View

Consider the range of illegal and unconstitutional activity that has been subsumed under the umbrella of "Watergate" - the domestic spying, the secret war in Cambodia, the enemies lists, slush funds, and other "dirty tricks." Taken together, all this still, in my mind, significantly outweigh the even the grave misdeeds of the current Administration.

To conclude otherwise, as Dean has, requires an acceptance of two additional concepts -- and in the end, I can accept neither.

First, Dean postulates the existence of an extra-democratic "shadow" government in the Bush Administration. He argues that, when it come to foreign policy, the Administration has marshaled a cabal of neo-conservative intellectuals who dominate foreign policy.

Perhaps I am biased; some of these intellectuals are close friends. But it is hardly a secret that the Bush/Cheney foreign policy gets its intellectual firepower from the neo-conservative movement.

And, so what? While I share some of Dean's objections to the Administration's foreign policy, I cannot find anything objectionable with having important players, such as Cheney, drawing on the thinking of like-minded intellectuals. Indeed, this seems like a potential advantage.

Second, Dean suggests that Bush deliberately lied about Iraq's possession of WMD to trick the nation into going to war. That may be true, but it is as yet unproven. If proved, however, it would certainly, as Dean suggests, warrant the comparison with Nixon, and justify a similar fate: impeachment.

Dean does a masterful job of showing how perversely stubborn Bush has been on this topic - basically repeating falsehoods, instead of admitting mistakes. But I am not yet so cynical as to believe that Bush knew in advance that his claims were false, and that he knowingly lied the nation into war.

More likely, I think, Bush was so hell bent on invading Iraq that he convinced himself of a truth based on faulty evidence. That is a terrible sin. But not the same as deliberately misleading the country into the disaster that Iraq has become.

At the end of the day, however, what is most important about Dean's new book is not whether one agrees with all its charges. Rather, it is the book's other, considerable merits: Its savvy, experienced analysis, and its collection and synthesis of so many damning facts about this Administration.

Bush/Cheney may not be worse than Watergate, but the Administration is plenty bad enough to cause heartache for anyone who cares about how our government is run. And fortunately, since Bush isn't running against Nixon, we will never have to make the unhappy comparison as to which of these terrible presidents is actually the worse.

Edward Lazarus, a FindLaw columnist, writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books - most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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