John Dean

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Democracy is perhaps the greatest idea anyone’s ever had, but it’s only as good as the people participating in it at any moment. Tradition means something, but liberty, which doesn’t end at the ballot box, can be upended by bad impulses and poor judgments. As Dostoyevsky wrote: “Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break something from time to time.” Once something’s broken, however, it’s difficult piecing it back together.

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Comedian Lewis Black quipped during the wetter moments of the waterboarding Bush Administration that he was rooting for a military coup, the generals being far preferable to the politicians. Ah, the good old days, when Dick Cheney was blasting the world in the face with birdshot. Even the Watergate era is preferable to our moment.

In an In These Times Q&A conducted by Yana Kunichoff, Kremlimologist Masha Gessen is of the same mind as Black, though she knows there’s a steep price attached to such extraordinary measures. In Laura M. Holson’s NYT profile of John Dean, the former Nixon White House Counsel is only consoled right now by the ineptitude of the Trump Administration, though he’s fairly certain that plumes will mean flames in regards to Russiagate.

Two excerpts follow.


From In These Times:

Question:

You’ve discussed mass murder and nuclear holocaust as real possibilities in the United States. How does American exceptionalism jibe with this threat?

Masha Gessen:

American exceptionalism suggests that the basic structure of the country—the system of checks and balances and the foundation of American democracy—is solid and safe forever. And that’s a dangerous concept because democracy is not the sort of thing that you build and then live in. Democracy is a work in progress. There’s never been a system of governing that responds to the needs, desires and political aspirations of all people. It needs to be constantly reinvented. If you decide that a country has built democracy once and for all, then chances are it’s becoming less democratic. …

Question:

The presidential election has sparked a conversation about the role of the CIA and FBI, and some liberals in the United States have taken a political position that even a CIA coup against Trump would be welcome. How should the Left approach the interference by organizations like these?

Masha Gessen:

If suddenly, tomorrow, there’s a military coup, that may not be a horrible thing. I sort of agree with some people who say, “Anything is better than him.” In a static imagination, where we go directly from here to there, anything is better. The problem is, how much of American democracy do we actually destroy in the process? If we have destroyed trust in the media, if we have destroyed the understanding of government being separate from the intelligence agencies, of media being separate from the intelligence agencies, if we’ve destroyed all that, then the chances of recovery are that much more difficult.•


From the New York Times:

Mr. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974; the scope of presidential authority became more limited.

That changed again after Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Dean said, when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney reclaimed many of those powers in the wake of terrorist attacks. Mr. Dean, who is not registered with any political party, was not a fan of the Bush presidency, as he made clear in a 2006 book, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama continued the strengthening of the executive branch that occurred under Mr. Bush and took the fight to government leakers more frequently than any previous president during his two terms.

“Presidents don’t give up powers once they get in there,” Mr. Dean said.

That is what troubles him about Mr. Trump and his political advisers, among them his chief political strategist, the media executive Stephen K. Bannon. “I’m not sure Trump, or Bannon, or whoever is guiding that place, has figured out all their powers,” he said. “The incompetence is the only thing giving me comfort at the moment.” …

Of the Trump administration’s alleged ties to Russia, Mr. Dean said: “It is clear that something serious is going on. They are just throwing out every signal. If this was nothing but the witch hunt that Trump claims, you could make it go away in a week.”•

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It’s understandable that news outlets must pay mind to the President-Elect’s every tweet and one-liner, but maybe his surprising comments, like yesterday’s “insurance for everybody” boast, shouldn’t be taken so seriously. These off-the-cuff remarks seem to me the impetuous, empty promises of a rich clown.

The manic changes in position are, however, a warning sign: Someone who’s behaved in such a seriously unwell manner will now control the full arsenal of the Oval Office, a peerless amount of power, even if a feckless, opportunistic Congress pushes back on certain items. No one in the world can do more damage.

Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, no choir boy himself when it comes to ethics, fears Trump’s capacity for unleashing ill on the world may go unmitigated by his shame-free personality and traditional checks and balances. He might seem like the last person who should talk, except that he’s probably right. From a Dean interview by McKay Coppins of the Atlantic:

“I used to have one-on-one conversations with [Nixon] where I’d see him checking his more authoritarian tendencies,” Dean recalled. “He’d say, ‘This is something I can’t say out loud…’ or, ‘That is something the president can’t do.’” To Dean, these moments suggested a functioning sense of shame in Nixon, something he was forced to wrestle with in his quest for power. Trump, by contrast, appears to Dean unmolested by any such struggle.

Unchecked, Dean worries, these neo-Nixonian instincts will only grow stronger once Trump enters the Oval Office—a place where every occupant since Nixon has found new ways to expand his authority and further his reach. “Barack Obama, like most presidents, did not dispose of any of the executive powers he inherited,” Dean said. “Hang on when Trump and his crew fully appreciate the extraordinary powers they will have—it is not only going to be thrilling, but dangerous.” (Dean, who now considers himself an independent, was also strongly critical of George W. Bush’s presidency.)

Those hoping Trump’s presidency will end in a Watergate-style meltdown point to the litany of scandals-in-waiting that will follow him into office—from his alleged ties to Russia, to the potential conflicts of interest lurking in his vast business network. Dean agrees that “he’s carrying loads of potential problems into the White House with him,” and goes even further in his assessment: “I don’t think Richard Nixon even comes to close to the level of corruption we already know about Trump.”

Yet, he’s profoundly pessimistic about the prospect of Trump facing any true accountability while in office. In the four decades since Nixon resigned, Dean says, the institutions that are meant to keep a president’s power in check—the press, Congress, even the courts—have been rendered increasingly weak and ineffectual by a sort of creeping partisan paralysis.•

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Watergate felon John Dean queried by Bill Boggs about the personal ramifications of his wrongdoing.

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