The beginning of the end for Richard Nixon?  John Dean's Watergate testimony 60 years later
The beginning of the end for Richard Nixon? John Dean’s Watergate testimony 60 years later
President Richard Nixon. National Archives.

Except Richard Nixon Two-handed-victory-finger-waving goodbye on the steps of Marine One as he prepares to leave the South Lawn of the White House in his last hours as president, John Dean hearing before Select Committee on Pre-Election Presidential Activities provided the Watergate scandal with his most iconic images. Dean’s testimony immediately took its place among other defining congressional hearings in American history: the 1922 kettle scandal trials, the 1948 Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. year, and that’s just the name. A little. Other significant hearings will follow, including Oliver North’s testimony in favor of Iran-Contra in 1987, Anita Hill’s testimony at the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, and Hillary Clinton’s testimony at the Benghazi hearing in 2013.

The US Constitution nowhere explicitly gives Congress the power to initiate investigations or compel testimony as part of its legislative function, but such activity was an established feature of the British Parliament and the various assemblies of the American colonies by the time the Constitution was written. Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 makes the Senate responsible for “advice and consent” regarding the approval of treaties, as well as for the appointment of a number of public figures. In carrying out these duties, a wide range of research and investigative functions have been developed that (theoretically) allow Congress to understand and fulfill its broader constitutional duties. Such hearings and investigations have become one of the most visible platforms for public discussion, accountability and, of course, theater.

It was June 25, 1973, when recently fired White House Counsel John Dean first appeared before a select committee to explain his knowledge of and involvement in the growing Watergate scandal, as well as the president’s involvement. Formed in February last year by a unanimous vote in the Senate, a committee began its work to investigate alleged links between Nixon White House and the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in June 1972. actions FBI Handbook, L. Patrick Gray, testified before another Senate committee – the Judiciary – to confirm him as J. Edgar Hoover’s first permanent successor (note: he was never confirmed). Gray reported that the Nixon White House took a particular interest in the FBI investigation into Watergate and that the FBI provided daily updates to Nixon officials. Gray also suggested that Dean “probably lied” to FBI investigators.

Photo from the Watergate hearings in the US Senate. From left to right: Minority Counsel Fred Thompson, Senior Member Howard Baker, and Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam Erwin. Sam Erwin Library.

Gray’s testimony set in motion a chain of events that not only placed Dean on Senate Watergate Committee in June, but may have led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

John Dean joined the Nixon White House in 1970. A staunch supporter of Nixon, he soon assumed an important position in the president’s inner circle. He became aware of the connection between the White House break-in and the Watergate (there were two) almost immediately after they happened, and shortly thereafter participated in the interception and destruction of evidence. Nixon also pushed Dean to play a leading role in the cover-up, especially by engaging in risky business in an attempt to buy the silence of the unpredictable Watergate robbers. It was only after Gray exposed him at the FBI confirmation hearing that Dean began to realize that Nixon and others—especially John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman—were likely to make him the scapegoat for all this confusion. He secretly hired a lawyer and began working with a Senate committee on April 16, 1973.

John Dean. Ollie Atkins (1969–1974) National Archives.

Nixon very quickly discovered Dean’s “betrayal” and began pressuring Justice Department officials not to grant immunity to any government officials testifying before a Senate committee. On April 30, the same day that Nixon was forced to demand the resignation of fellow Watergate insiders, John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman, he fired Dean. The die was cast. A Senate committee granted Dean immunity on May 16, making his public testimony all but inevitable.

The seriousness of Watergate in the public mind grew slowly but steadily, especially after Nixon’s second inauguration. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Washington Mail wrote about the controversy from the beginning, uncovering shocking revelations using anonymous sources. But real public concern arose only after the conviction and sentencing of the “White House plumbers” on January 30, 1973. Public interest in the scandal grew steadily. By the time Dean appeared before the committee in June, the Americans were already on the line.

Together with his main interlocutor, Senator Sam Ervin Jr. Dean put on a powerful, if understated, show. As her Nixon biographer John A. Farrell put it, “For five days the whole country was chained to itself, while (Dean), dressed and coiffed like a straight junior partner, with his blond wife sitting stiffly behind him, recounted the horrors in dispassionate detail. White House and try to hide them.” He detailed his own and Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up and revealed the administration’s longstanding penchant for “dirty tricks” of all kinds. When he testified about document destruction, money laundering and bribery, he detailed the infamous and growing “cancer of the presidency.”

SEN. SAM ERWIN Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights Data banks, computers, and Bill of Rights hearings. Marion Tricosko (1971) Library of Congress.

While Dean’s testimony helped mobilize public opinion, from a legal standpoint it had no real impact. It was Dean’s word against Nixon. That was until Nixon discovered Nixon’s recording system against the backdrop of Senate committee testimony. Alexander Butterfield— and after a lengthy legal effort to force the release of the taped conversations in the Oval Office — “hard evidence” emerged to support Dean’s claims. By that time, public confidence in Nixon had almost completely eroded, and his days as president were numbered.

(Insert headline “Nixon Resigns”) There is little doubt that Dean’s appearance before the Senate Watergate Committee fifty years ago marked something like the beginning of the end of Nixon’s presidency. This is a watershed moment in this scandal, if not in the wider history of presidential malfeasance. It also illustrates the strange and uncertain state of congressional public hearings in both American jurisprudence and the courts of public opinion.