For liberal eyes only

The man who brought down Richard Nixon says Bush and "co-president" Cheney are an even greater threat to the country.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By David Talbot

March 31, 2004 | As Richard Nixon's White House counsel during the Watergate scandal, John Dean famously warned his boss that there was "a cancer on the presidency" that would bring down the administration unless Nixon came clean. In his new book, "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush," Dean warns the country that the Bush administration is even more secretive and authoritarian than Nixon's -- in fact, he writes, it's "the most secretive presidency of my lifetime."

"To say that the [Bush-Cheney] secret presidency is undemocratic is an understatement," he adds. "I'm anything but skittish about government, but I must say this administration is truly scary and, given the times we live in, frighteningly dangerous."

Dean's new book is being published, appropriately, as the country is being treated to another spectacle of Nixonian smearing and stonewalling by the Bush White House. Rather than come clean about its pre-9/11 security policies, the administration has engaged in a frenzied counterattack on its whistle-blowing former terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, while refusing to let National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice testify before the bipartisan panel investigating the terror attack until the political pressure became overwhelming.

Dean conversed with Salon by e-mail from his Los Angeles home.

How is the Bush-Cheney administration more secretive than Nixon's?

A few examples make the point. Nixon became a secretive president, as his presidency proceeded, while Bush and Cheney were secretive from the outset. Nixon actually tried to reduce the excessive national security classification of documents (through a panel headed by the man who is now chief justice of the United States), while Bush and Cheney have tried to increase classification (and 9/11 does not hold up as the reason for much of it). Nixon only abused executive privilege (the power of a president to withhold information from his constitutional co-equals) after Watergate, while Bush and Cheney have sought to abuse the privilege from the outset. Nixon was never taken to court by the General Accounting Office for refusing to provide information about executive activities, while Bush and Cheney forced GAO to go to court (where GAO lost under a recently appointed Bush judge). Nixon believed presidential papers should be available for historians, but Bush has undermined the laws to make such records available to the public.

While Nixon's presidency gave currency to the term "stonewalling," Bush and Cheney have made stonewalling their standard procedure, far in excess of Nixon. In short, in every area one looks, Bush and Cheney are more secretive than Nixon ever imagined being. I have mentioned but a few.

Why have Congress and the press allowed **** Cheney to get away with his stonewalling tactics on the energy task force, Halliburton, duck hunting with Justice Scalia, and other questionable aspects of his vice presidency?

I would add to the list Cheney's outrageous stonewalling about his health, which we know is bad, notwithstanding his effort to keep the details secret. The Congress lets Cheney do anything he wants because Republicans control it, and Cheney is their heavy in the White House for getting things done. Cheney, so long as Republicans control, will not have to answer, but should we return to divided government in 2004 or 2006 and Cheney is still in the White House, that will end.

There has never been a vice president -- ever (and even including Spiro Agnew who was Nixon's) -- who needed to be investigated more than Cheney. Nor has there ever been such a secretive vice president. **** Cheney is the power behind the Bush throne. Frankly, I am baffled why the mainstream news media has given Cheney (not to mention Bush) a free ride. I don't know if it is generational, or corporate ownership, or political bias, but it is clear that Cheney has been given a pass by the major news organizations.

Do you feel the vice president has, after more than three years of secretive governing from an undisclosed location, become a political liability to the president? How likely is it that Bush will drop him from the ticket this year?

**** Cheney is a political disaster awaiting recognition. In the book, I set forth a relatively long list of inchoate scandals, not to mention problems worse than scandals. They all involve Cheney in varying degrees. Bush can't dump Cheney, for it is Cheney, not Rove, who is Bush's backroom brain. He is actually a co-president. Bush doesn't enjoy studying and devising policy. Cheney does. While Cheney has tutored Bush for almost four years, and Bush is better prepared today than when he entered the job, Cheney is quietly guiding this administration. Cheney knows how to play Bush so that Cheney is absolutely no threat to him, makes him feel he is president, but Bush can't function without a script, or without Cheney. Bush is head of state; Cheney is head of government.

If, say, the Securities and Exchange Commission's current investigation of Halliburton's accounting also discovers that Cheney engaged in insider trading when he left Halliburton (which the facts suggest is highly likely), and this matter erupts before the Republican convention, then Cheney might be forced to step aside. Cheney always has his bad-health excuse anytime he wants to take it -- because it is a fact. He has a certain immunity as vice president, but if he were to be dropped from the ticket (or he and Bush lose), I believe Cheney would have serious problems which he would no longer be able to deflect. Thus, he will stay and fight like hell to win.

I quote Cheney from his time in the Ford White House when he said, "Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn't do any good if you lose." I think this statement sums up Cheney's thinking nicely.

You write that Bush and Cheney have not leveled with America about their true agenda. What is it?

Because of their secrecy, it takes a lot of work to connect the dots. I've not connected them all, but enough of them to know that the only agenda they had during the first term was to get a second term -- which meant secretly taking care of their major contributors. Should they get a second term, we know their secret agenda, for they have quietly stated it: They intend to make sure the Republicans control the federal government (all three branches) indefinitely, if possible. In short, the Bush-Cheney agenda is about perpetuating Republican rule by taking particularly good care of major contributors who share their views of the world.

Karl Rove also plays a unique role in the Bush administration. One close observer says in your book that he's "Haldeman and Ehrlichman all in one." Explain.

Rove's unique role is that he is a political guy making policy decisions for political reasons. Decisions in the Bush White House are made not based on what is best for the public interest, rather what will get the president the most mileage with his base, and best political advantage. Not since Nixon's so-called responsiveness program -- which was uncovered during the Watergate investigation -- have we had such overt political decision-making.

The reference to Haldeman and Ehrlichman as explaining Rove was a quip from a friend of mine from the Nixon White House who has had dealings with Rove. Since Rove is a revengeful fellow, my friend will remain nameless. But my friend was telegraphing a lot of information about Rove with this bit of shorthand -- for anyone who has any knowledge of the Nixon White House and Watergate, they know Haldeman and Ehrlichman were the heavies. First, it is a compliment in that both Haldeman and Ehrlichman were very smart, and highly efficient. But what it tells us is that Rove is ruthless, for both Haldeman and Ehrlichman were that too.

Both Haldeman and Ehrlichman saw the world through a political lens, and what was most likely to help Richard Nixon get reelected. So does Rove. Haldeman was involved with procedure (broadly speaking, I mean who was doing what at the White House, arranging the presidential travel and appearances for maximum political benefit, and constantly mindful of the president's image and making him look good), and Ehrlichman was the substance guy (who developed domestic policies, but accounting for the political impact). Rove controls both.

Had Haldeman and Ehrlichman not received the longest sentences of any of those involved in Watergate, Rove would probably be pleased by the comparison.

(continued)