A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by John Dean
Part 2 of 3. Click here for Part 1
An excerpt of the introduction to "Conservatives Without Conscience." Get your copy of "Conservatives Without Conscience" from BuzzFlash.
My former colleague Chuck Colson's appearance on national tele-vision to endorse Silent Coup truly surprised me and stunned Mo, who was deeply hurt by his gratuitous attack. Chuck and I had crossed swords at the Nixon White House only once, and even then we had not communicated directly. I had had virtually nothing to do with his office, or its nefarious activities, except for the time Chuck had wanted to firebomb and burglarize the Brookings Institution, convinced that this Washington think tank had copies of documents the president wanted. When I learned of his insane plan I flew to California (where the president and senior staff were staying at the Western White House) to plead my case to John Ehrlichman, a titular superior to both Chuck and myself. By pointing out, with some outrage, that if anyone died it would involve a capital crime that might be traced back to the White House, I was able to shut down Colson's scheme. As a result, over the next several months I was told nothing about Colson's shenanigans, such as his financing the infamous burglary by Liddy and Hunt of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office after Ellsberg released the so-called Pentagon Papers, which was a precursor to the later Watergate break-ins.
After I eventually broke rank with the Nixon White House, Colson had set about trying to destroy me for telling the truth, though he backed off after purportedly finding God. He also became rather busy with his own problems. On March 1, 1974, Colson was indicted for his role in the Watergate cover-up, and six days later he was indicted for his involvement in the conspiracy to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Chuck, no doubt, sensed even more problems to come, because the Watergate Special Prosecution Force was considering charging him with both perjury and subornation of perjury.3 He was facing a lot of jail time. However, the prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to a single-and given what he was facing, innocuous-charge in exchange for his cooperation, although in the end he proved to be utterly useless as a government witness, since the prosecutors could not vouch for his honesty.
Chuck and I had agreed to let bygones be bygones during the Watergate cover-up trial when we found ourselves only down the hall from each other, under the federal Witness Protection Program, at the Fort Holabird safe house in Maryland, just outside Washington. Until Colson started promoting Silent Coup I had taken him as a man of his word, and we had even continued to visit from time to time after Watergate was behind us. When I saw Colson promote Silent Coup on Crossfire, I was still unaware of his earlier prepublication discussions with Colodny about this invented history. (Colodny had illegally tape-recorded all of his telephone conversations.) Why, of all people, would Chuck Colson promote Silent Coup's conspicuously phony account of Watergate? Where was his conscience? How could he call himself a Christian? I promised myself I would find answers to these questions, because I did not understand what was compelling his behavior.
The promotion campaign to sell the book to conservatives worked, thanks to Liddy's nationwide tour, in which he appeared on countless right-wing talk-radio shows. By July 7, 1991, Silent Coup had peaked at number three on the New York Times best-seller list. On July 12, 1991, our answering machine handled a very early call. When Mo checked the message I heard her shriek, and ran to find her standing beside the answering machine sobbing and shaking. "What is it?" I asked but she could not speak, as tears poured from her eyes. As I held her I could feel every bone in her body trembling. "What is it?" I asked again.
"Liddy. He's called our house." Before Mo could explain, the phone began ringing and I answered.
"Is this John Dean?" an unfamiliar voice asked.
"Yes, it is. Who's this?"
"Wow, that's cool. This is really John Dean?"
"Yes. Who is this, please?"
"Oh, I'm nobody. I was just listening to the radio and Gordon Liddy was on, and he gave out your telephone number, so I thought I'd try it. Talk to you later. Bye."
Immediately the phone rang again, this time it was a collect call, which I refused. To prevent further nuisance calls I used a technique that makes all our phone lines busy. This diverted Mo's attention and calmed her, and she now asked me to listen to Liddy's message, so I played it.
A smug-sounding voice said, "This is G. Gordon Liddy, calling you from the Merle Pollis Show. John, you have..." "W-E-R-E Cleveland, let's get our call letters in," the host interrupted. Liddy then continued, "...you have promised that you will sue me and Len Colodny and Bob Gettlin. Let's get this suit started, John. We want to get you on the stand, under oath, yet again....Come on, John. I'm publicly challenging you to make good on your promise to sue." The host added, "John, this is Merle Pollis, the host of the program. Would you say hello to Maureen, for me? I said she was the prettiest of the Watergate people, next to G. Gordon Liddy. I hope she's still just as pretty. I, ah, this, this new book, however, reveals some things about Maureen that irk me. I didn't want to think of her in that way, and it makes me very sad, and it also makes me feel, well, never mind. Thanks, John."
Liddy would get his lawsuit, but on our terms, not his. Rather than give him the publicity he desperately wanted, we spent the next eight months collecting evidence and preparing the case. For eight years our lawsuit made its way through the federal courts, and St. Martin's tried every possible ploy to prevent its going to trial. Had we taken the case to trial, Phillip Mackin Bailley, the key source for the story about the purported call-girl ring, might rank as the worst possible source of information in the annals of defamation law. Bailley had been in and out of mental institutions throughout his adult life. When we deposed him, Bailley's attorney arranged for a psychiatrist to testify under oath that his client's mental condition made him unable to distinguish fact from fiction. While St. Martin's and the other defendants were spending over $14 million of insurance company money trying to make us go away, it eventually became clear to them that we were prepared to go whatever distance necessary to make fools of them all, and that we had the evidence to do it.4 By the fall of 1998 we had also accomplished our underlying goal of gathering the information necessary to show that Silent Coup was bogus history. Ultimately, it seems, they had hoped to win the lawsuit by simply outspending us, but when that strategy failed, they sought a settlement. Neither Colodny nor Liddy wanted to settle, however. Colodny had somehow used a rider on his homeowner's policy to get the insurance company to pay for his defense in the litigation, though ultimately his insurer forced him to settle. Liddy, on the other hand, had nothing at risk, since all of his assets were in his wife's name and St. Martin's was paying for his attorney. After we settled with St. Martin's and Colodny, U.S. District Court Judge Emmett Sullivan put an end to the litigation.5 While the final settlement agreement prohibits me from discussing its terms, I can say the Deans were satisfied.
Despite most of the news media's fitting dismissal of Silent Coup's baseless claims, the protracted litigation provided time for the book to gather a following, including an almost cultlike collection of high-profile right-wingers. Among them, for example, is Monica Crowley, a former aide to Richard Nixon after his presidency, and now a conservative personality on MSNBC, cohosting Connected: Coast to Coast with Ron Reagan. Other prominent media-based conservatives who have joined the glee club are James Rosen and Brit Hume of Fox News. How these seemingly intelligent people embraced this false account mystified me, and I wanted to know.
Throughout the prolonged Silent Coup controversy it had gradually become clear to me that St. Martin's, Colodny, and Gettlin were in it for the money. Had Phillip Bailley, or some other such source, claimed that Pat Nixon had ordered the break-in, they no doubt would have turned history upside down to try to sell that story as well. When we contested the bogus account, they all fought to save face. In addition, Colodny, who called himself a Democrat, had never been given much attention until he was embraced by the right wing, where he has found new friends. Liddy wanted revenge, even though Silent Coup showed him as a greater fool than history already had; promoting it did, however, provide an outlet for his aggression-not to mention that it also landed him his own talk-radio show, which has thrived. As for Colson, his reason for promoting Silent Coup remained a complete mystery for me, as did the motives of people like Monica Crowley, James Rosen, Brit Hume, and all the other hard-core conservatives who embraced this spurious history and made it a best seller. The only thing I could see that these people had in common was their conservatism.
As much as anything, the lawsuit made me realize that during the years I had been focused on business the Republican Party and conservatism had undergone drastic changes. The Republican Party had shifted to the extreme right, resulting in longtime hard-right conservatives like Liddy and Colson, who had once been at the fringe, finding themselves in vogue. That philosophical shift and its implications became even clearer to me when I returned to Washington for an extended period of time during the Clinton impeachment proceedings and experienced for myself the new conservative climate that has enveloped the nation's capital. Most of these conservatives had arrived after Nixon's fall, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
They were not good losers. So when they lost the White House in 1992 they began what would be an unrelenting and extended series of attacks on the Clinton presidency, which reached their peak when Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed in early 1998. At that time I began receiving an increasing number of requests for television interviews, and Silent Coup was all but forgotten publicly (and we were in settlement discussions). While I had no idea then whether the president was telling the truth about his relationship with Lewinsky, it was clear to me that the First Lady was correct in her contention that there was a vast right-wing conspiracy attempting to destroy the Clintons, for I still had a number of knowledgeable conservative contacts. Because each of the various scandals of the Clinton White House-the travel office firings, Whitewater, Vince Foster's suicide, the Paula Jones lawsuit, and the Lewinsky affair-was predictably declared by Republicans to be "worse than Watergate," I felt someone needed to set the record straight.6 In reality, these scandals, even collectively, did not come close to Watergate in their seriousness. So I began to speak out. I did not speak as a partisan, but rather as someone who understood the difference between the Clinton and Nixon scandals, as well as the gravity of impeachment. (I was well versed in this topic because I had once studied the impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson, and, of course, had firsthand knowledge of the Nixon proceedings.)
During the time the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, was building his case against Clinton for impeachment, I agreed to work exclusively for MSNBC in Washington as an on-camera consultant, or "anchor buddy," beginning my assignment soon after Starr made a formal referral to the House Judiciary Committee on September 9, 1998, and sent the thirty-six boxes of damning evidence to the House of Representatives. Over the next several months, during Clinton's impeachment and trial, I spent more time in Washington than I had, cumulatively, in the preceding twenty-five years, and it could not have been a more eventful time to be there. One did not need to be a knowledgeable Washington veteran, though, to perceive that conservatives in Congress were hell-bent on overturning the 1996 election and removing Clinton from office.
MSNBC's studios in Washington are on Capitol Hill, not far from the Senate side of the Capitol building. A core group of on-air consultants were placed on various shows throughout the day, but during the impeachment hearings and the trial, a few of us were requested to stay on the set with the anchors as long as official proceedings continued. During the many hours I was in the studio or the green room, I probably spent more time talking with legal analyst Barbara Olson than anyone else. Barbara, who was tragically killed on the 9/11 flight that crashed into the Pentagon, was smart, savvy, engaging, and never shy, least of all in her opinion of the president and his wife. "I really hate the Clintons, and I want to run them out of town," she told me. Barbara, who frequently made calls on her cell phone during breaks, made it impossible not to overhear her conversations, and she explained to me that she was receiving talking points from her network of conservative Republicans, who were observing all of the media's coverage of the impeachment proceeding. "Do you really believe you can remove a popular president?" I asked her during the hearings. "Absolutely. It's a done deal," she said. "How about the Senate?" I asked. "We're working on it," she replied with a conspiratorial smile and a wink. I had little doubt, from the time I spent with Barbara, that votes had already been counted in the House of Representatives, and nothing was going to stop them from voting for impeachment. There were simply too many Democrats in the Senate, however, for the Republicans to muster the requisite two thirds for a guilty verdict and removal. The entire undertaking was designed to tarnish Clinton, and the Democrats.
During this period I was able to visit with members of the House and Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, who streamed through the MSNBC green room or the studios, often with key members of their staff. I had many fascinating, and informative, conversations that were invaluable to the education I received during this period. I learned, for instance, that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) were both exerting enormous control over the GOP. Some Republicans told me that Gingrich was betting his Speaker's seat on the impeachment drive's adding additional Republican members to the House. DeLay, it was clear, had influence because the rank-and-file House Republicans feared his wrath, and he was determined to impeach Clinton. Several Republicans told me that this was payback to the Democrats for what had been done to Nixon, and when I pointed out that Republicans had been part of that undertaking, a typical response was, "Yeah, but they weren't conservative." In fact, there were conservatives involved in the effort, but I was not looking for debates about Watergate.
Notwithstanding Clinton's soaring popularity, conservatives had become myopic; they were fixated on getting rid of him. Five days after the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to begin an impeachment inquiry (with all Republicans, who controlled the committee, voting for it, and all Democrats voting against), a Washington Post public opinion poll showed that 62 percent of Republicans dis-approved of impeaching the president. Knowledgeable Republicans passing through the MSNBC green room privately explained that House Republicans would pursue the impeachment anyway, on behalf of the 31 percent who wanted Clinton removed. (Seven percent of the Post poll of the GOP had no opinion.) The motive of the GOP leaders was simply to please the party's "base"; the wishes of the base were their command. That base was composed primarily of Christian conservatives, in particular evangelicals. Republicans with whom I spoke before the November 1998 midterm elections were convinced the party would be vindicated at the polls for its treatment of Clinton. As it turned out, however, they had misread the mood of the country, and they lost the great "impeachment election" when Americans refused to make the election a referendum on Bill Clinton's behavior. Republicans, who controlled the House and the Senate, not only gained no seats in either body, but lost five seats in the House; Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned after his plan was defeated. What was even more stunning was that the election results did not stop these hard-core conservative Republicans from continuing to push for Clinton's impeachment and, at the same time, issue increasingly stern demands for party loyalty. As someone who had previously spent over twenty years in Washington observing Congress up close, I found this new level of party discipline remarkable. I understood that DeLay scared them, but so badly that they would vote against their consciences? I was relieved that a few of the conservatives with whom I spoke believed the GOP leadership was going too far.
End of Part 2. Click here for Part 3.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Get your copy of "Conservatives Without Conscience" from BuzzFlash.