In his Wednesday lecture at the Nixon Presidential Library, disgraced and former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean devoted a portion of his time to address his lawsuit against the authors of Silent Coup: The Removal of a President. Interestingly enough, Fox News correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate James Rosen wrote in a 1997 column for National Review that during a deposition in connection with the case, Dean — cornered by defense counsel — disavowed his own memoirs:
But every twenty pages or so — and Dean’s deposition runs to roughly two thousand — defense counsel corner Dean into an admission of some value for historians.
Chief among them is Dean’s disavowal of his 1976 memoir, Blind Ambition, upon which Watergate scholars have relied for a generation, and which Dean now admits he never read “cover to cover.” Whenever Dean’s testimony in one of several forums might differ from his book (e.g., Blind Ambition never even mentions the momentous discussion Dean and Mitchell allegedly had about the CIA’s blocking the FBI), Dean attributed the fault to his acknowledged ghost-writer, Taylor Branch. “Absolutely make it up out of whole cloth,” Dean testified about the eventual Pulitzer-winner in one key instance.
Q: As I recall your testimony, Mr. Dean, when asked about particular passages in Blind Ambition, you have explained them in various ways, as either “pure Taylor Branch,” “out of whole cloth,” “conjecture,” “speculation,” “writer’s language,” “reconstruction for the purpose of speculation,” “brush strokes beyond testimony.”
A: Right. . . . I thought this was a good popular and commercial explanation of the events, a good portrait and dramatization of it, but . . . it’s not absolutely accurate . . . for researchers, I’ve always referred them to my testimony.
According to Rosen, Dean also admitted that his testimony wasn’t wholly accurate either, frequently filled with “misstatements,” “overstatement,” “self-serving” statements, and “verbal slips:”
But as the deposition unfolded, Dean grudgingly acknowledged that at times his testimony before the Senate, House of Representatives, and various criminal proceedings included “misstatements,” “overstatement,” “self-serving” state- ments, “verbal slips,” at least two instances of “total forgetfulness,” one case where he was “maybe imposing hindsight on events,” and another, during cross-examination in the Mitchell trial, where he “wasn’t listening careful [sic] . . . and [went] along with a leading question, and I’m not sure why.” One of his written interrogatory responses in the present proceeding Dean defended as “virtually correct.” He did “not particularly prepar[e] for” his testimony before the House impeachment inquiry, and expresses “surprise” that “there aren’t more minor inconsistencies” in his Senate testimony.
While Mr. Dean’s felonies and betrayals are important ethical debates for another post, his self-admitted distortion of the historical record and lapse of memory should raise some fundamental questions to scholars of intellectually honest stock: how credible is John Dean? And how much weight should we give his words?