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Blaming John Dean for His Poor Counsel

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Forty years having passed since Richard Nixon's resignation certainly allows for some revisionist history - some extremely valid and favorable to him. He did, after all is said and done, accomplish a lot as president, in both domestic and foreign policy, notwithstanding his apparent prejudices.

Nonetheless, trying to shift the blame for Nixon's role in the Watergate cover up squarely onto his counsel, John Dean, is ridiculous in the extreme. Still, this is precisely what Nixon's son-in-law, Edward Cox, did on MSNBC this past Sunday morning, when, among other things, he referred to Watergate as a "small incident."

When asked if Nixon ever discussed Watergate - if he ever said, "why did I do that?" - Cox evaded the question and astonishingly blamed Nixon's role in the cover up on Nixon not having received "good counsel." To quote Cox:

Clearly mistakes were made. But you know if there is any moral that comes out of this, make sure that you have next to you good counsel, a wise counsel, not as you had on that first discussion on the tape [played earlier in the segment]. His counsel [John Dean] wasn't helping him there. His counsel should have said "Mr. President, you can't do this" and to make that opinion stick, and that's what he didn't have. If he had that good counsel next to him, it would have been a different outcome.

Now, probably, John Dean could have told Nixon "Mr. President, you simply can't do this. You've got to fire these people who had anything to with the break in or its cover up - they have metastasized the problem in your Administration" earlier than his now-famous, there is a "cancer on the presidency" warning. It's tough, I imagine, to tell someone the likes of Richard Nixon while sitting in his Oval Office what he needs to hear!

But blaming Dean, basically saying "Dean didn't serve the president well and, if he had, Nixon's participation wouldn't have happened at all" is silly, if not out-and-out absurd. John Dean was a 36 year old staffer with a big title. Nixon was an incumbent, reelected, president, a former two term vice president, a former U.S. senator and a former U. S. congressman who catapulted his political career by mercilessly going after Alger Hiss for what itself was an obstruction crime. Nixon was probably the most sophisticated and experienced public figure of his day. And yet, if you listen to Cox, Nixon didn't know that buying silence by paying hush money to the burglars was a crime, and he needed John Dean to warn him. Nixon didn't himself know that getting the CIA to scuttle an FBI investigation was obstruction of justice? Bunk! Or, perhaps, more to the point: Ridiculous.

Now, John Dean was no beauty, and this piece is not intended to throw a bouquet at him. He cooperated with the Senate Judiciary Committee and Watergate prosecutors for a selfish reason - to obtain leniency for himself, nothing more. And he has used his role in Watergate to make a successful career of writing books and making speeches. What's more, he's publishing now his latest book about Watergate ("The Nixon Defense"). Make no mistake. Dean was part of a gross conspiracy with John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman, (Attorney General) John Mitchell - and with Nixon himself. Any of those three - each as knowledgeable as Dean, and probably more - could have helped (or tried to) put the brakes on Nixon, had they chosen to do so. But singling out Dean as the "bad guy" is transparent. It attempts to put the blame on the one individual among them who "gave up" the President (and has made a living having done so).

True, a president - like any client - deserves conscientious advice from his lawyer, even if, as most, he doesn't want (or refuses) to hear it at the time. The client, moreover, warrants a forthright admonition from his counsel that "you shouldn't" - maybe even, "you can't" - do what you propose to do. The client may even deserve to hear his attorney's direct and unmistakable threat to resign if the conduct occurs or persists, lest the client not fully appreciate the severity of counsel's warning, and the gravity of the conduct at issue.

True, where a client seeks the honest advice of his lawyer in good faith, and frankly does not know whether the planned conduct is legal, he has a valid legal defense of "reliance on advice of counsel" - even if the advice given may be wrong. And that may save the day for the client. But Nixon? Could Nixon have possibly argued a "reliance on counsel" defense had he been indicted for the Watergate cover up? Could Nixon, given who he was and what he had done or accomplished in his career, have maintained - either as a legal or court of public opinion defense - that counsel's inadequate advice is the reason he acted as he did? Only through the post-mortem revisionism of an apparently loving son-in-law could one argue that it was Dean, and not Nixon, that caused Nixon's personal debacle.

Again, any client needs and deserves a lawyer willing to try to stop his client in midstream, especially if the client is venturing too deep in the water, or verges on drowning. But Richard Nixon was hardly any client. He certainly merited counselors or advisors equipped and willing to say "no" or "don't do that." But by placing the blame on John Dean and none of the other members of the Nixon cabal, the argument loses credibility.

Actually, in Nixon's case, given his chief position in what may be called the "Nixon mafia" and his unusual depth of knowledge and sophistication, the blame claim can't be credible, even if Cox or other Nixon sympathizers had blamed the whole bunch of them. Whatever good he may have done on some issues, at day's end, Nixon's role in Watergate was Nixon's responsibility and no one else's.