Worse Than Watergate

The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush


By John W. Dean

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Former White House counsel and bestselling author John Dean reveals how the Bush White House has set America back decades — employing a worldview and tactics of deception that he claims will do more damage to the nation than Nixon at his worst.


Also by John W. Dean

Warren G. Harding

Unmasking Deep Throat — History's Most Elusive News Source

The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court

Lost Honor

Blind Ambition: The White House Years


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

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First eBook Edition: March 2010

ISBN: 978-0-7595-1038-8

Chapter One

Surprisingly Nixonian

This [Bush-Cheney] administration is the most secretive of our lifetime, even more secretive than the Nixon administration. They don't believe the American people or Congress have any right to information.

— Larry Klayman, chairman, Judicial Watch

Nothing about George W. Bush struck me as secretive, dangerous, or the slightest bit Nixonian when he first ambled onto the national political scene. On the contrary, I saw an easygoing, back-slapping son of a former president, a hail-fellow-well-met politician whose family name and pleasing manner had landed him in the Texas governor's mansion, where he employed his considerable people skills as a onetime prep-school cheerleader and college fraternity president. He presented himself in the early 2000 presidential primaries as a nice guy, not deep, not too bright, and not terribly serious. We've not had a lot of presidential candidates playing doofus, as he did regularly for the press. 1 Bush appeared anything but driven in seeking the nation's highest office, seeming actually rather uninterested in power. I had the impression he was running for the hell of it or because so many others thought he could be elected.

My first impression was altered slightly during South Carolina's presidential primary in February 2000, when the Bush folks went after Arizona senator John McCain. Molly Ivins, the Texas columnist who has followed Bush for years, later called it Karl Rove's "East Texas special," a barrage of false rumors that chased McCain like storm troopers around the state. 2 First it was rumored that McCain was gay, then that he was a tomcat who cheated on his first wife. (Inconsistency is not a problem for political gossipmongers and mudslingers.) Next came a pamphlet claiming that McCain's wife, Cindy, was "a drug addict." When cruelly exploiting Cindy's brief addiction to prescription painkillers didn't work, they said McCain was crazy — too long at the Hanoi Hilton as a POW. But that was a tough sell, so finally they played the race card. Since some South Carolinians still salute the Stars and Bars, a picture of McCain's adopted daughter, a beautiful dark-skinned girl born in Bangladesh, was circulated to sons and daughters of the Confederacy in rural areas. Rove's "East Texas special" worked and Bush knocked off his only real Republican rival.

The South Carolina contest made clear that Bush wanted the Republican nomination much more than his casual manner suggested. Dirty political tactics, even when done in a way that provides deniability for the candidate, in fact always have the blessing of that candidate; anyone who thinks otherwise is not merely naive but uninformed. Thus, it was clear after South Carolina that Bush played hardball, that he played dirty, and that he was playing for keeps.

Suffice it to say that all this piqued my interest. I knew a little bit about Karl Rove, for I'd first learned about him decades earlier when I was working with the Watergate Special Prosecutor's Office. Even back then they were asking questions about him. I had never heard of Rove, but assistant Watergate special prosecutor Richard Davis — who was investigating political dirty tricks such as leaking stolen campaign information, infiltrating an opponent's campaign operations during the presidential primaries, and using unidentified negative campaign advertisements — had Rove on his radar. The questions Davis and his assistants asked me suggested that Rove was a political operator who played at the edge of the rules, if not beyond them. 3

More political shenanigans surfaced after the November 2000 deadlock, when Bush's operatives were openly trying to disrupt the recount in Florida's Dade County; young people were flown in from Washington, D.C., to chant and stomp in the hallways of the building where the recounting was being conducted, to bang threateningly on doors, and to agitate mobs in the Miami streets with bullhorns — all to intimidate the Florida election officials. Watching these political high jinks made me think of my former Nixon White House colleagues, for they too believed in such down and dirty, if not corrupt, electioneering. Anyone familiar with the operations of a presidential campaign must appreciate that this well-financed and covertly directed activity had been blessed by the top of the Bush campaign. Had George Bush wanted to stop it, such activity would have been stopped. *

By pure chance, at the outset of the new Bush administration I happened to read a column by William McKenzie, a Dallas Morning News editorial writer, who noted that Bush's presidential campaign was highly reminiscent of Nixon's 1968 campaign. 4 McKenzie, alluding to Nixon's theme of bringing the country together, concluded that "Bush probably won't like thinking of himself as Richard Nixon's potential heir. But the unifying, constructive [perhaps he meant compassionate] conservatism he favors seems similar to the government Nixon envisioned." McKenzie's piece struck a chord for me. From what I had seen of Bush's campaign and the vote recount, I wondered if there were more similarities between Nixon and Bush than McKenzie, or anyone else, realized.

Nixon Vis-à-Vis Bush

During the early months of Bush's presidency, I read his campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep, which was ghosted by Karen Hughes (his longtime press aide), a work described by the Texas Observer as "a political memoir so bad that reviewers have been calling around looking for ghost readers to review it." Indeed, this selective history is almost useless. But I had accumulated material about Bush during the 2000 campaign, which I went through — newspaper and magazine profiles and reports, plus Shrub by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. 5 Additionally, I spoke with friends who knew the Bush family, or Junior, but was surprised to discover widespread concern, if not genuine fear, of speaking openly about Bush or his family. Repeatedly I was told that Bush is known for taking revenge against those who fail to hold the family's confidences.

Others, I discovered, were noticing Bush's Nixonian traits, too. On August 9, 2001, Bush announced his controversial decision to limit federal support of stem-cell research (which effectively meant ending it). After much purported moral anguish and agonizing, he claimed there would be "more than sixty" cell lines available for this life-saving federally funded research, but no more. A New York Times Op-Ed piece on Bush's decision appeared the next day by Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor of the National Review. In examining the new president's decision making, Brookhiser concluded that "George W. Bush's strategies seem most like those of Richard Nixon, who knew the conservative temperament and was willing to summon it." Brookhiser added: "For pro-lifers and other conservatives, George W. Bush may be Richard Nixon, without the restless intelligence or the paranoia." 6 Later, of course, a bit of what might be considered good ol' Nixonian duplicity became evident in Bush's decision, since there are, in fact, only ten cell lines, not sixty. 7

Time and additional information have reinforced my initial reaction of Bush vis-à-vis Nixon. Several journalists who cover the White House, those old enough or astute enough to be familiar with Nixon, have also recognized the pronounced patterns of similarity of these men. 8 Without seeking to make more of this fact than it deserved but finding it impossible to ignore, I began comparing the two men seriously.

With today's presidents, what you see is not what you actually have; rather, it is what they want you to see. Both Nixon and Bush invested greatly in projecting carefully crafted public images. In fact, Bush picked up where Nixon left off in attention to presidential imagery, far exceeding even the image-crafted presidency of Ronald Reagan. Nixon's image, for example, was that of a hardworking, brainy world leader who was constantly upgrading to "new Nixon" editions. Bush, on the other hand, has stayed with basically one image, which he latched onto as governor of Texas but has refined as president. He projects the plain-talking CEO of American, Inc., just a regular and likable guy from Midland, Texas. While there is some truth to these Nixon and Bush images, they are also deceptions — for neither man is really his crafted picture, just as no actor is the character he or she portrays onstage or before the camera.

Take Nixon. Though highly intelligent, he did not have the raw brain power, for example, of his chief of staff Bob Haldeman (with a Mensa-level IQ) or the intellectual prowess of his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. Yet it was important to Nixon to be seen as something of a closet intellectual. Indeed, he was bookish and intellectually curious, but more important, he was highly disciplined, if not driven. Nixon was a grinder — as a student, as a member of Congress, as a vice president, as a lawyer appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, and as a president. He pored through mountains of papers, studied issues deeply, and worked hard to understand matters before publicly addressing them or making decisions. Because of his years of hard work, his long experience with government, and his focus and interest, Nixon as president was able to assimilate large amounts of raw data and synthesize it quickly and accurately. He appeared the master of extemporaneous speaking, when in fact such talks were the product of great diligence, for he had all but memorized his material. Through sheer determination, he made himself "smart." Yet his countless hours of privately taped conversations reveal that without preparation, he was not a particularly fast study of unfamiliar subjects, nor naturally articulate. Most damning, of course, his tapes show him to be highly manipulative, dishonest, distrusting, and always able to say something nasty about everyone with whom he dealt.

Bush, on the other hand, is not as intellectually handicapped and inarticulate as many "misunderestimate" him to be. No question he is mentally shallow, intellectually lazy, and incurious. 9 He reads little more than his speeches, since his staff briefs him orally on the news, and he demands very short memos and as little homework as possible. Yet he has an abundance of natural intelligence, which he is willing to employ when interested in a subject. He was the only pledge at his Yale fraternity who could flawlessly recite the names of all fifty of his pledge brothers. He has a vast knowledge of baseball. Behind closed doors, when talking with those with whom he is comfortable, his malaprops are rare and he is surprisingly articulate. 10 When he has been interested or deeply concerned about a matter, he is a very fast study. If so inclined, he can also quickly rehearse a speech, and when he concentrates he can deliver his written speeches with eloquence. But seldom does he want to dig or focus or work hard. He has succeeded in life without doing much mental heavy lifting, and only on rare occasions has he done so as president. All the CEOs I know — and I know a number who have run Forbes 500 organizations — work much harder than our CEO-in-chief — plus they know far more about their business and its operations and policies than does Bush.

Like Nixon, Bush is also a bit of a loner. This is not to say these men don't have many and good friends, for they do. But their friends are all pretested, for these are men who don't want strangers around and feel safe only with people who are known to keep their mouths shut. While Bush has far more natural people skills than Nixon, he is actually more antisocial than Nixon. "He doesn't socialize a whole lot," noted Jeanne Cummings of the Wall Street Journal. 11 This has caused the Washington social scene to come to a screeching halt during his administration. "It's part of the pathological secrecy they have," Diana McClellan, a veteran social observer and former Washington society-page columnist, said, adding, "They don't want to go out and blab things about. He's [referring to Bush] like Greta Garbo — 'to talk about me is to betray me.'" 12

Also like Nixon, Bush holds a rather formal view of the presidency. For example, Nixon refused to wear anything other than a white shirt, believing to do otherwise would be unpresidential. "The president doesn't wear a blue shirt," he once roared at a media adviser. Bush demands that he and his staff always wear a coat and tie in the working areas of the White House. Bush, like Nixon, is a decidedly punctual and highly scheduled president (with both giving themselves private time each day: Nixon to nap, Bush to exercise). Both men developed their view of the presidency from watching up close presidents they greatly respected: Nixon as Eisenhower's vice president, Bush as the son of a president. Nevertheless, there is a certain hypocrisy about the straitlaced formality of both the Nixon and Bush presidencies, for both men are known to be privately profane and to enjoy locker-room language to show that they are also one of the guys (with Bush even using the f-word in front of female staff, something Nixon did not do). 13

Although Bush is capable of far more empathy for others than was Nixon, and his emotions are closer to the surface than Nixon's, he is not really the hail-fellow-well-met guy he pretends to be (but he has felt he must play this game in public much of his life). White House correspondents traveling with Bush have noticed his aloofness. "He's very lofty. He views the presidency as lofty, and he uses the power of the presidency and the position itself to enhance his goals," Jeanne Cummings said in a statement that could just as easily have been made about Nixon. Cummings, who has traveled abroad with Bush (as well as with Clinton, who enjoyed meeting the ordinary people when in foreign countries), has further reported that Bush has "no interaction with the everyday people in the [foreign] countries"; rather, he meets only with kings, queens, prime ministers, and ambassadors — those he apparently feels befitting his visiting potentate status. 14

Both Nixon and Bush learned their presidential politics from the inside. Nixon from in the arena. Bush apprenticed as an aide on his father's many campaigns: the unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate (1964 and 1970), his successful run for the House of Representatives (1969), and his runs for the presidency or vice presidency (1980, 1984 and 1988, and 1992). In addition, Bush worked as a political consultant on several U.S. Senate campaigns in Florida and Alabama. He ran his own campaigns, for Congress unsuccessfully (1978) and twice successfully for governor of Texas (1994 and 1998).

Along the way, Bush was tutored in the world of mud politics by a master: Lee Atwater. When Atwater, who directed George H. W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign (said to be the dirtiest in American history to that date), died at age forty with a brain tumor, the press was as gentle as possible under the circumstances in describing his campaigning style: "He relished operating on the edges of propriety and to members of his party he was a genius in defining and exploiting the weaknesses of his opponents. To his critics, however, he was a symbol of the dark side of American politics." 15 His legacy is being perpetuated by Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove, a longtime friend and associate of Atwater's. Indeed, in using Rove, Bush may have stepped up a notch over Nixon. When I asked one of my former colleagues who has had dealings with Rove what he was like, I was given a shorthand answer: "He's Haldeman and Ehrlichman, all in one." *

No doubt because much of my focus on the Bush II presidency has been on what is going on behind the scenes, I have taken notice of Cheney's powerful role. In fact, this presidency cannot be understood without taking into account Cheney's influence on Bush, for in many ways it is a co-presidency. Cheney, however, prefers the shadows. As a dozen Time magazine reporters focusing on Cheney discovered, "he loathes… [the] retail kind of politics, the gripping-and-grinning, baby-kissing, self-aggrandizing, self-abnegating politics. Cheney loves and flourishes in a different political arena. It is the one that few outsiders see, the one in which, particularly in this Administration, all decisions are made. It is the politics of governance at the highest level, in the White House, where the art of guiding the decision-making process is practiced by some of the most skilled inside-the-room players in Washington. And it is the politics at which Cheney is unrivaled." 16

It was pure curiosity about the Nixon parallels that started my inquiry, but it was the troubling Nixonian secrecy that kept it going, because I did not want to believe where the Bush II presidency was headed. By the time former Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson, a seasoned Washington correspondent, reported that "no president since Richard Nixon has been as secretive or as combative about leaks as George W. Bush," I had become sufficiently concerned about Bush and Cheney to have written several columns and a New York Times Op-Ed piece about it, as well as an open letter to Karl Rove. 17 After Rove told the New York Times there was nothing to be learned from the Nixon presidency, I wrote him that I couldn't imagine the Bush administration wanted to risk repeating the mistakes of the Nixon presidency. I pointed out that "the continuing insistence on secrecy by your White House is startlingly Nixonian. I'm talking about everything from stiffing Congressional requests for information and witnesses, to employing an executive order to demolish the 1978 law providing public access to presidential papers, to forcing the Government Accounting Office to go to Court to obtain information about how the White House is spending tax money when creating a pro-energy industry Vice Presidential task force. The Bush Administration apparently seeks to reverse the post-Watergate trend of open government." 18 Not surprisingly, there was no response.

Worse than Nixon's Secrecy

There has been little study of presidential secrecy and even less study of its consequences. Presidential secrecy is typically examined by looking at the uses (or abuses) of "executive privilege" in withholding information from Congress, the uses (and abuses) of the national security classification system, or how the First Amendment's press freedom has fared under given presidents. All these are certainly manifestations of presidential secrecy, but they are anything but its full measure.

No president can govern without some secrecy (better described as confidentiality or privacy). Confidentiality is essential to developing and implementing both domestic and foreign policy. * Without privacy a president could not gather necessary information, explore options and alternatives, obtain unfettered advice, or undertake such deliberations as needed to make proper decisions. No one seriously doubts a president's need for appropriate operating space for himself and his staff. Nor is there real dispute that the government is justified in many situations in withholding information if its distribution or publication will harm the national security, improperly invade personal privacy, unjustly publicize trade or commercial secrets, or negatively jeopardize the government's law enforcement responsibilities. These are all justifiable uses of secrecy, although they can be (and often are) abused. But in a democratic society, all use of secrecy must be questioned, and if it cannot be justified, it is antithetical to a self-governing society. As James Madison famously put it, "a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." 19

Presidential secrecy has been closely associated with the role of commander in chief. Early presidents limited their secrecy mostly to matters of war, treaty negotiations, and covert military operations (which I have largely excluded from coverage, although Bush and Cheney have made the most aggressive use of the CIA and intelligence community of any presidency). Presidential secrecy expanded with Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, because of war. Ironically, before becoming president, both men had been outspoken critics of such secrecy. As a young Illinois congressman, Lincoln took President James Polk to task for his secrecy during the Mexican War. As president, Lincoln employed extraordinary and extraconstitutional powers to preserve the Union. Woodrow Wilson, writing as a young scholar, declared, "Light is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere." As a candidate for president in 1912 he made secrecy a campaign issue, contending that "government ought to be all outside and no inside. I, for my part, believe there ought to be no place where anything can be done [by government] that everybody does not know about." As president, however, Wilson was highly secretive. He was less than forthright when campaigning for reelection in 1916, promising to keep the United States out of the European war, yet in 1917 he asked Congress for a declaration of war, along with some of the most repressive secrecy laws ever written, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. After suffering a debilitating stroke in 1919, Wilson used secrecy (with the help of his wife and a few aides) to maintain his presidency, hiding his almost total incapacity to govern effectively.

Presidential secrecy was further expanded during World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt used secrecy for personal, political, and governmental purposes. His love affair with Lucy Mercer was kept a secret, and he concealed his various government actions for purely political and personal reasons. He was the first of several presidents to be seduced by the queen of Washington secrecy, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. For Hoover, secrets were coinage of the realm, and he offered, and FDR accepted, secret information from the FBI's files. FDR used the Bureau to secretly investigate everyone from his potential political opponents to his wife. 20

Following World War II, the Cold War years became the dark ages of government secrecy. Of all the Cold War presidents, none was more secretive than Nixon, who admitted, after leaving office, that as his presidency progressed, he became "paranoiac, or almost a basket case with regard to secrecy." 21


On Sale
Apr 6, 2004
Page Count
272 pages