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John Dean Says Nixon's Enemies List Was Never Used to "Screw" Anyone

Chion Wolf
John Dean, left, and Kevin Rennie.
"The federal machinery was never used to screw them. It got tremendous press play, but it got overplayed."<br><em>John Dean</em>

John Dean was one of the monumental figures of the Watergate era. The former White House counsel has been widely praised for helping to uncover the misdeeds of the Nixon administration, but was also called the "master manipulator of the cover-up" by the FBI. Dean served prison time after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and was disbarred.

While in Hartford for a Hartford County Bar Association conference, he appeared on WNPR's Where We Live to talk about the legacy of Watergate, and what it can teach us about corruption and abuse of power in government today. 

At 75, John Dean has outlived most of the key figures in the scandal, and through his books and lectures has carefully crafted a story that takes us inside Nixon's inner circle, while making sure we know that his influence over the political machinery at work was limited.

One important piece of history to which Dean will forever be linked is a memo, dated August 16, 1971 with the subject "Dealing with our political enemies." This enemies list grew to include a wide range of figures inside and outside of politics, including obvious targets (powerful Democrats Ted Kennedy and George McGovern) those less obvious (Broadway Joe Namath and Broadway star Barbara Streisand) and a number of the most prominent newspapers and journalists of the time. 

Hartford Courant columnist and political blogger Kevin Rennie wanted to know more about Dean's role in crafting the "enemies list" and even in taking the names to the IRS with the intent of "screwing" them. The public didn't know about the existence of the list until Dean's 1973 testimony at the Watergate hearings.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
From left, John Dankosky, John Dean, and Kevin Rennie during a live broadcast of Where We Live.

Rennie told Where We Live that the "bungled burglary" at the heart of Watergate really led us to a deeper understanding of the paranoia in the Nixon White House, embodied in the enemies program. Here's an exchange between Rennie and Dean about the 1971 memo:

Kevin Rennie: Mr. Dean wrote in a memo that the White House enemies list was, "how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies, including grant availability,  federal contracts, litigation, prosecution." Prosecution really means criminal prosecution. When you wrote that, two questions. The first one is: what threats did Carol Channing, Bill Cosby, and every black member of the house of representative pose to what you call “our administration?”

John Dean: I love the media because you take all these different things and able to cast them and recast them into a picture that ..

Kevin Rennie: This is the memo (shows Dean).

John Dean: I understand that. But understand what happened. There are lots of threads that go to make that. First of all, I almost got fired for writing that memo. I had refused to do it. And...

Kevin Rennie: But you buckled.

John Dean: No I didn’t buckle. I wrote a memo that I thought was so obnoxious that they would reject it.  The second part of the memo had an approve, disapprove, what have you, at the end of it. I was flabbergasted when I write this outrageous memo, giving them what they wanted. And if you notice also my office is excluded from that operation. This is something I don’t want any part of, I think it’s absurd.

Kevin Rennie: But then you took this memo and the first list to the IRS.

John Dean: No, no, no. Never went, never went outside my file drawer. Let’s get into the enemies project because it was a very calculated move on my part to put Watergate in its much larger context. Having listened to all the tapes on what they expected from my testimony, it was not what they expected. They thought I would go up and make charges about the president. I decided to do it very differently. I thought people needed to understand how this White House operated, how something like this could happen, where all this came from. And one of the projects was the enemies project. It was a surprisingly small part of the project. It was run out of Chuck Colson's office. He had a fella by the name of George Bell, who was a dollar a year consultant – extremely comfortable financial person. He would collect the names of the people who were the so-called enemies.  There were, I guess, half a dozen lists that I finally turned over. The person who this was set up with was the Senator from Connecticut Lowell Weicker, who happened to have been my neighbor. In fact, I sold Lowell my house when I left town. Took a note from him, I trusted him.

Anyway, the enemies project, I knew would have the impact it did. As Nixon writes in his memoir it’s the sort of thing they never recovered from. But it helped to explain in very lucid terms the mentality, which there was…

Kevin Rennie: But at the time that it was created. You’re talking about later, but at the time it was created…

John Dean: Nothing happened…

Kevin Rennie: People didn’t know about it, though...

John Dean: Nothing happened at the time..

Kevin Rennie: But clearly they had an intent. They had an intent to punish people who just disagreed politically…

John Dean:  They insisted I write the memo. There are other memos in the file where (H.R.) Haldeman’s aides are  talking about “Dean won't cooperate, won't write these things, won't prepare them, lets the program fall down. Nobody’s implementing it.” You cannot name anybody based on that program who was ever the subject of any attack, any contract was ever... in other words the federal machinery was never used to screw them. It got tremendous press play, but it got overplayed. 

Despite Dean's assertion that the "enemies list" was never a true threat to anyone listed, at least one prominent journalist said it had a profound impact on him - when he read the list live on-air, including his own name. Longtime CBS correspondent and NPR commentator, the late Daniel Schorr recounts breaking into "a big sweat" when learning he was part of the story he was covering. 

Catie Talarski is Senior Director of Storytelling and Radio Programming at Connecticut Public.

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