John Dean is 76 today. He was White House Counsel under President Nixon and the star witness against the administration at the Watergate hearings. I am a big believer in loyalty, so you might think that I’d be against what Dean did. But I’m not. Dean was just smart. He understood that he was the odd man out and that Nixon’s inner circle — very much including Nixon himself — was trying to make Dean the fall guy. I don’t doubt that he would have stayed loyal had he not been pushed in that direction. But it is also possible that he was the George Stephanopoulos of the Nixon administration — idealistic and shocked by what he found. Certainly, that is the way that Dean portrays it now.
Dean is an interesting character. I link him very much with Barry Goldwater, and it turns out the two of them were close friends. But here’s the thing. Goldwater was as crazy a right-winger as anyone in the 1960s. The John Birch Society loved Goldwater and he loved it back as much as was politically viable. But in the 1980s, Goldwater became one of the most insightful critics of the right in this country. He seemed to be forever criticizing Reagan. And these criticisms were not that Reagan was making nice with the Soviet Union and other things the far right hated. Goldwater went after the authoritarian aspects of the Reagan administration. What happened? Because Goldwater of 1964 was, if anything, worse.
Now, this isn’t the case with Dean. I don’t really know what his politics were early on. But he was and is a great admirer of Goldwater. But now he is an even better critic of the right than Goldwater ever was. His book, Conservatives without Conscience, is very good. It discusses authoritarian personalities and how the conservative movement has been taken over by authoritarians. He’s right. And maybe that wasn’t so much true in the period between Goldwater’s defeat and Watergate. But it was probably even more true in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
So I don’t really understand John Dean. I’m always interested in listening to what he has to say, however. But he seems pretty confused about the past. And I think if he looked seriously at his own conservatism (I suspect he is pretty much a libertarian), he would see that it too is based on authoritarianism. As Corey Robin wrote in The Reactionary Mind, all that conservatism has ever been is the reaction to liberation movements. It has always been about suppressing the rights of the weak. On the other hand, I can’t imagine Dean voted for Bush the Younger. So maybe he’s a Democrat now. (Not that it would mean he wasn’t conservative!) It is hard to say because he really doesn’t talk about things that touch on policy — just what idiotic stuff the Republicans are doing now. And that’s always fun!
Happy birthday John Dean!