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Fmr. White House Counsel John Dean on Conservatives Without Conscience

StoryAugust 15, 2006
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We speak with former Nixon White House counsel John Dean about his new book, "Conservatives Without Conscience." In it, he warns that many of today’s Republican and conservative leaders are: "conservatives without conscience who are capable of plunging this nation into disasters the likes of which we have never known." [includes rush transcript]

As we discuss the radical Christian movement and its role in US policy in the Middle East, we’re going to step back and get a broader perspective from a former Republican political insider — Nixon White House counsel John Dean.

Dean served as Nixon’s White House lawyer for the last 1,000 days of his presidency and was among the White House staffers implicated in covering up the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Headquarters inside the Watergate Hotel.

Dean agreed to testify to Congress that Nixon was guilty of covering up Watergate, even though he was certain to condemn himself. Dean was eventually charged with obstruction of justice and would eventually be sentenced to 127 days in detention for taking part in the cover-up. Today Dean has become a vocal critic of the Bush administration. He’s written a new book. It’s called "Conservatives Without Conscience." Dean writes of what he calls: "conservative authoritarianism." He warns that many of today’s Republican and conservative leaders are: "conservatives without conscience who are capable of plunging this nation into disasters the likes of which we have never known."

  • John Dean, served as counsel to President Nixon. Author of several books, his latest is "Conservatives Without Conscience."

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to John Dean, author of Conservatives Without Conscience. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JOHN DEAN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you — well, you come from a very different place.

JOHN DEAN: But it’s a great setup you just went through.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about, from your vantage point, from the man who spent the last thousand days of Nixon’s — last hundred days of Nixon’s White House with him, where did you go from there to here, to analyzing the conservatives?

JOHN DEAN: Well, actually, this started about 1994, so it was many years after I left the White House. I did realize after I left the White House and started doing the research for this book that it told me a lot about the White House I worked in. The genesis of this book was, curiously, a longtime friend of mine, Senator Barry Goldwater, and we were talking after the 1994 election, where he was actually both mystified and miffed at what had happened to conservatives. He said, "John, I don’t understand this incivility. I don’t understand why the religious right is dominating the Republican Party." He said, "I’d like to find some answers." And we thought we’d do this book together. And that’s where it started.

Unfortunately, his health didn’t hold up, but later I decided, well, this is a project I just can’t drop, because I think conservatism is a mystery to me, too, notwithstanding the fact that I had been — considered myself a longtime conservative, and it was just a different movement than I had any knowledge of.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your research, going back in time, what social science you drew from.

JOHN DEAN: Right. What happened in looking for answers, I first went down a lot of bad alleys, where nothing was there. Then I ran into this body of research that really commenced after World War II, where social scientists were trying to figure out if we could ever have in the United States what had happened in Italy and Germany under Hitler and Mussolini. And the short answer was, they found, yes, we could have that. There is clearly an authoritarian personality.

The initial research was very Freudian-based. Other researchers quickly, who debated that and didn’t think that was the most solid, began asking empirical questions, asking surveys of people, and developing scales to determine, you know, which personalities were more likely to become followers and those that are leaders.

So they did develop — now we have 40 years of this material, and it has been replicated time and time again, and we know an awful lot about this type of personality. There are people who submit very easily to an authority figure. They do it because they’re frightened. 9/11 drove an awful lot of people into submitting to authoritarianism, and they’re very aggressive once they submit. This explains a lot of the incivility, the nastiness, the mean-spiritedness. They’re not self-critical, and they become true advocates, not unlike the clips you saw earlier in the show, of whatever position they’re advocating and pushing.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the quotes you begin with is Jonathan Schell. "The administration of George W. Bush is not a dictatorship, but it does manifest the characteristics of one in embryonic form," he writes.

JOHN DEAN: Yes, well taken. I must say that as somebody who was in a White House where it was dubbed an imperial presidency, which had its own authoritarian nature, we now have a presidency that is the imperial presidency on steroids. They have really bulked it up. It is unchecked by the Congress.

I found when I started looking and applying this research, Amy, that it really starts in the Congress, and it blossoms there in the congressional leadership, setting up a very almost dictatorial system within the House. And then, when Bush and Cheney come in in 2000, they give all this a new legitimacy. 9/11, they exploit that further and give it more legitimacy. And it’s a very troublesome thing, because it is proto-fascist behavior.

Now, are we on the road to fascism? No. The problem is we’re not very far from it. And I’m told by the experts in that area that if it comes here, it will come with a smile on its face, and we’ll give up things that we’ll wish we’d never given up.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the cover of your book, Conservatives Without Conscience. You’ve got a black-and-white photograph of seven different Republican activists: you’ve got Scooter Libby; Tom DeLay; Jack Abramoff; Dick Cheney in the middle; you’ve got Karl Rove; Dr. Frist, head of the Senate; and you’ve got Pat Robertson.


AMY GOODMAN: Why this group of men?

JOHN DEAN: Well, the art department selected those out of the narrative, and I think they were pretty good. They ran it by me, and I said those are excellent selections, because they’re all textbook examples of authoritarian personalities that are employing authoritarian tactics in government. And we don’t think it in democracies in terms of authoritarianism. It is very real. It has a real presence in government today. It is the controlling group within the conservative ranks. And for that reason, it needs to be watched. The other thing is these people, Amy, don’t change their behavior. Once they get into this mold, very few of them can be influenced or told to do anything other than what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: As you go around the country with your book, you’re invited on a lot of conservative talk shows.


AMY GOODMAN: What is the response of listeners and viewers?

JOHN DEAN: Well, that surprised me more than anything, because, you know, I understood that a lot of moderates, progressive liberals would say, "Ah, this is fascinating. This is what we always suspected," and conservatives would reject it. To the contrary. Those who I would call thinking conservatives, conservatives with a conscience, are very aware of this problem. They’re very troubled by it. There is no question they recognize it.

In fact, in doing some of the call-in shows, the hosts have expected me to be barraged by hostile callers. Exactly the opposite have happened, where callers have called and said, "John, we realize this is a part of our movement, and we know we’re nasty. We know we’re mean-spirited, and we do this for whatever reason." So it hasn’t been a rejection of it, and maybe it’s spread some understanding of it. Another reason, of course, you do a book like this is, if we ever have another 9/11, God forbid, it will probably — it could be worse, and it could drive more people into these ranks.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Bush administration officials should be tried for war crimes?

JOHN DEAN: You know, that’s a question — I’ve been looking and talking to people like John Conyers about the whole question of whether impeachment should be pursued if they gather control. I don’t think there’s any question in my mind they’re going to. Now, whether that will go to the next stage or not, into war crimes or not, you know, I don’t think that’s realistically going to happen in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that the latest news of the Bush administration attempting to quietly rewrite the War Crimes Act.

JOHN DEAN: Unbelievable. You know, I’ve thought about this. I thought, you know, Richard Nixon in his darkest day, in his worst mood, I can’t imagine endorsing or recommending torture. He was in World War II. I watched him handle My Lai and how he felt about that and how he was horrified by it. And yet we have a presidency today that is indeed embracing and still pushing for torture as the norm for how we treat detainees. And it is to me just a classic example of a conservative without conscience. It’s the authoritarian at his worst.

AMY GOODMAN: John Dean, you served as Nixon’s White House lawyer for the last thousand days of his presidency, among the White House staffers implicated in the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Headquarters inside the Watergate Hotel.

JOHN DEAN: I wasn’t the break-in. I blew the whistle on it.

AMY GOODMAN: You agreed to testify to Congress that Nixon was guilty of covering up. Now, how would you compare Nixon to Bush right now?

JOHN DEAN: Well, you know, what I find very interesting about these two men, as somebody who’s looked at both presidents pretty closely — I don’t know Bush as well; I know his father — what’s very interesting about the men, they’re two men who refer to the presidency in the third person. It’s very unique in our presidents. Most of them, most presidents — say, Reagan or Clinton — they all talk about themselves as president. These people use the third person, and I began looking at it.

Nixon learned about the presidency from Dwight Eisenhower, a man he greatly respected. Bush learned about the presidency from his father, a man he greatly respects. I don’t think that either Nixon or Bush quite feel they fill the shoes of the job like the men they learned about it from. They’re two men who get out of that office as frequently as possible. Nixon used to go down to San Clemente or Key Biscayne, or he was up at Camp David. Bush is in Crawford, he’s traveling all the time. They don’t seem terribly comfortable with the office. And that may well effect the way they have run their presidencies.

AMY GOODMAN: You also have a quote at the beginning of your book by Professor Bob Altemeyer: "If you think the United States could never elect an Adolf Hitler to power, note that David Duke would have become governor of Louisiana if it had just been up to the white voters in that state." A lot of people criticize any references to the Holocaust or Adolf Hitler, when talking about what’s going on in this country.

JOHN DEAN: Well, Altemeyer is one of the finest and most leading authorities in this question of authoritarianism. He was most gracious to me to take me where I spent almost a year in this body of science as an outsider. The inexplicable thing to me, and actually to him, is that this science has never been explained outside the academic community. And it’s information Americans need. It’s something that should be in the public square and for discussion.

Altemeyer makes that point, because it’s very real. And he actually, ironically, started writing some of his peer journal material in peer-level books during Watergate, when he was struck at how long so many Americans clung to the Nixon presidency, never willing to say that this man had done anything wrong, down to — it gets to about 23% to this day thinks he did no wrong. He said, "John, that’s a very typical pattern in the demographics in the United States of the hardcore authoritarian followers, that their leaders can do — or their authority figures can do no wrong. They won’t question them. They will hang with them forever. They’re like lemmings."

Unfortunately, those numbers have grown substantially since 9/11. The Republicans, the Bush administration realizes this, not necessarily from this science, but just from their own polling, that fear-mongering works, and they’re doing it in spades again. It’s going to be the norm for the mid-term election.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the Republican Party embracing not the Republican candidate in Connecticut, but Joseph Lieberman?

JOHN DEAN: Typical. I think it’s highly expedient. You know, any dissent they can create and cause by wedging, making Lieberman into a wedge issue, when it’s clearly, you know, not only a statement by the Democratic Party of their position, it’s also a very anti-incumbent statement. So I’m sure that they’re concerned about the implications of the Lieberman race in the broader text nationally. You know, it’s clearly this is a man who’s embraced the President, so they’re thrusting themselves right into Connecticut politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see the country becoming more authoritarian, the government becoming more?

JOHN DEAN: One of the reasons you write a book like this is you hope that you will catch thinking people before they thoughtlessly become authoritarian followers and just say, "Well, I want the security. I don’t care if I’m being wiretapped or my emails are being reviewed by the National Security Agency, because I’m too frightened." That really is not keeping terrorism in perspective, and that’s exactly what the Bush people want to happen, where we keep it out of perspective.

AMY GOODMAN: John Dean, I want to thank you for being with us. His book is Conservatives Without Conscience.

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