03/22/2011 04:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

History Reexamined : Watergate and John Dean -- What Did Nixon Know and When Did He Know It?

Yesterday was the 38th anniversary of the historic Watergate meeting where White House Counsel John Dean told President Richard Nixon that there was a "cancer on the presidency." With the passage of time, the story of Watergate has congealed: Nixon authorized the "cover-up" but was ignorant of the original break-in.

This needs to be reexamined. Jeb Magruder has disclosed a telephone conversation during which he overhead President Richard Nixon authorizing the break-in. Magruder's account is disputed, but perhaps John Dean is rethinking his conversation with Nixon as well. Hopefully, this will serve as a helpful memory jogger.

March 21, 1973, The Oval Office

PRESIDENT NIXON: John, come in, come in.

JOHN DEAN: Mr. President...

NIXON: I know you won't mind Bob Haldeman sitting in with us. I find his personality just brightens up these meetings. He'll also be taking notes on your end of the conversation.

DEAN: Well, all right.

NIXON: John, can I get you anything. Coffee, tea?

DEAN: No, thank you.

NIXON: Cash? It's just as liquid and even more refreshing. (He laughs.) Sorry, John. Just that delightful sense of humor that I'm known for. Can't help myself. Anyway, there are stacks of hundreds on the table over there. Grab one.

DEAN: Uh..No, thank you, Mr. President.

NIXON: Oh, go on. I'm a giver. It's why the people love me.

DEAN: No, but thanks anyway.

NIXON: Well, OK, but remember, John, public service isn't charity work. Now what can I do for you?

DEAN: Mr. President. I've thought long and hard about this, but I feel that I must tell you: there is a cancer growing on the Presidency.

NIXON: Oh, we're way past cancer. I guess you never went to med school, hey, John?

DEAN: Mr. President, I'm serious. If the cancer is not removed, your Presidency will be killed by it.

NIXON: Tell me something I don't know! You don't think I'm aware of what's going on in my own Presidency? OK, I appreciate your clever cancer analogy. I'll stop "smoking" (makes air quotes). Anything else?

DEAN: But, Mr. President, do you understand the scope of all of this? I've attended two meetings with Gordon Liddy, John Mitchell and Jeb Magruder at which wiretapping plans were discussed. Not only did I report them to Mr. Warmth over there, but he also received the wiretap information.

Your personal lawyer paid silence money to the defendants on instructions relayed by me from John Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and Mitchell. Howard Hunt wanted $72,000 for living expenses and $50,000 for attorney's fees, and if he did not get the money quickly he would have a lot of seamy things to say about what he had done for Ehrlichman while he was at the White House.

NIXON: Now, as I just said a moment ago...

DEAN: Yes, I know. Public service isn't charity work. But, sir, I helped prepare Magruder for perjury. It is going to take continued perjury and support of these individuals to perpetuate the cover-up and I don't believe that it's possible to keep it going. Rather, all those involved must account for themselves and you must get out in front.

And there is no money to pay these individuals to meet their demands anyway.

NIXON: John, you know I'm not a detail person. I'm focused on macro, global strategy, not details like, say....your last name. Now how much are we talking here, in macro terms?

DEAN: Probably a million dollars--which is hard to raise.

NIXON: John, John, John. You disappoint me. I'm the President. I thought we were talking real money. Why, just on the table over there we must have....Detail! Never mind! Still, there's no problem in raising a million dollars. We can do that, but it would be wrong.

DEAN: Why are you talking into your Rolodex?

NIXON: John, I know you mean well. I hope you don't mind my being tough on you here. It's a technique known as "smoking you out". You know, I've been using it effectively since the Alger Hiss hearings. (Nostalgically) Have I ever mentioned the Hiss hearings to you, John?

(Dean and Haldeman roll their eyes.)

NIXON (not finding a responsive audience): OK. For reasons I can't go into right now, I'd prefer your recommendations in writing. I've already asked you for the definitive report on Watergate. Why don't you spend the next, say, three and a half years, putting that together? Give me all the details.

DEAN: Mr. President, this whole thing has taught me one thing that you should consider: In Washington, it's not the crime--it's the cover-up--that can get you in real trouble.

NIXON: An interesting point that we should explore. Arguendo, doesn't it depend upon the nature of the crime? Let's say that Defendant A orders Defendant B to commit a crime--a real crime. If we're talking, say, breaking and entering, theft, or wiretapping, isn't it one thing? If we're talking about, oh, I don't know, getting back at those worthless CIA ninnies who never cooperate with a President who needs them, isn't it something else?

Now, let us assume that Defendant B proceeds to carry out said felony. Should Defendant B admit it? Ipso facto, should Defendant A?

Who cares? It's a little late for that now, Socrates.

DEAN: I'm sorry, Mr. President.

NIXON: Still, John, I hope this meeting establishes that I am out in front of Watergate. Way out in front. Any further in front and I'd be handing out the hush money myself. So just forget about it.

I'm being serious here. Forget about this meeting! The Staff of the President has so many meetings with the boss that whether I'm telling you to punish my political enemies, break into the shrink's office of some insubordinate, or raise bribe money--how could you be expected to remember?

Now, if you were on the Staff of the Vice President, that would be different. (He laughs.)

That's a joke, John. Just my delightful sense of humor again. Oh, forget about it!

DEAN (as he's opens the office door to leave): I've forgotten already.

NIXON: Sure you don't want some cash?

DEAN: That's OK.

NIXON (As the door closes) : Bob, who do you think Sammy likes more: Me or Frank?