We who are suffering through the various scandals and malfeasances of our executive branch have a great deal to learn from the events traditionally referred to as Watergate. It is so named because what began to bring those events to the national attention was an incredibly amateur and thoroughly bungled attempt to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee during the campaign to reelect Richard Nixon in 1972. That little affair led, first by dribs and drabs and ultimately in a raging torrent, to the revelation of criminal misconduct throughout the presidential staff. It concluded with several prominent figures among that staff being sent off to prison, many lives being irreparably damaged and the president resigning in shame. The colossally decent Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon, and he began his tenure by giving a talk to the nation. That talk began with an unforgettable line: “Our long national nightmare is finally over.”
As we now know, that particular nightmare was over, but the door for others to appear remained, as it likely must, open. We are, after all, a democracy, meaning that we honor and protect the freedom of all people to speak and act with only modest albeit critical restraint. That policy carries with it the inherent danger of allowing freedom even to those who do not care about, or oppose or even plot to destroy that very democracy. One may reasonably wonder into which category we should place the miscreants in the present administration.
It behooves us all to study the Watergate affair to better appreciate what is happening today. There are any number of books on the subject. Among them is Blind Ambition, the first of several recountings by John Dean. Then, as now, questions abounded. Who knew what? Who did what? Was the president involved? What did he know and when did he know it? One question, however, is not much asked, and, for me, it fairly begs an answer: what the hell were they thinking? Specifically, why would a person like John Dean willingly commit serious crimes, crimes that would inevitably be revealed and for which he would inevitably throw away a good life and career?
Dean was, by title, counsel to the president. Raised in the Midwest, he graduated from the prestigious Georgetown Law School, a part of the Jesuit university renowned for it school of law and of international affairs. He spent a short time in private practice, and joined the White House staff at a very young age. He was apparently intelligent, and was also apparently principled. Yet he willingly involved himself in conduct that a first-year law student would know deserved disbarment. Why?
Dean does not, at least in this first book on Watergate, either explain or, somewhat to his credit, condone or justify his conduct. He was knee deep in the cover-up of the grossly illegal conduct of the Nixon White house, and it was only after it became blatantly obvious to all that the axe would fall that he decided to come clean. Even then he withheld information from his own lawyer until its revelation was unavoidable.
Why? Why would not the counsel to the president, the one individual whose single assignment was to advise the president as to the legality of his actions, why would that one person not just say the obvious, the blatantly obvious, that paying hush money to criminals is illegal, a crime, not to mention morally deplorable? Why would a person with a fair share of talent and a huge opportunity to do some serious good throw it away on such cheap and obvious thuggery?
I will ignore the possibility of the kind of condescending response so laughingly typical of East coasters, particularly the adopted ones. I submit that the real answer is that Mr. Dean, and his co-conspirators, lacked, were fairly devoid of, the moral orientation that defines what it means to be a human being. Blame his parents, blame his educators, but most of all blame John Dean. For whatever reason, John Dean succumbed to that greatest and most invidious of temptations. He put himself first. He defined good as what served his self-interest.
This is the linchpin of all misconduct, all criminal action, and it is also its fatal flaw. It is what brought down the Nixon regime, and it is what is bringing down the Trump regime. Sooner or later, thanks to the efforts of Robert Mueller and his crew but also thanks to the deeper good in each of us, the crimes of the self-absorbed will be revealed and rejected. Somewhere in such conspiracies there is always a John Dean, some person who realizes, at the very least, that his or her self-interest is actually best served by rejecting the crimes, by confessing involvement, by taking the punishment. It is up to the John Dean of the moment to say whether he or she had any truly human motivation. The simple point here is that any human venture — or misadventure — conceived and driven by self-interest is intrinsically and fatally flawed and will collapse. It might cause great pain and great damage, but it will fail.
Good will out. Slowly perhaps. Painfully certainly. Good, the fundamental commitment to others that is the real meaning of the American ideal, will out.