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The Dean of House Conservatives
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The Dean of House Conservatives

John Dean was not a whistleblower, but liberals love it when he says any scandal is “worse than Watergate.”


So, I’ve got to have it out with Hayes about the lack of blogging opportunities at The Dispatch. It’s one of our biggest disagreements, second perhaps only to the question of restoring the Bulgarian monarchy. (Steve is a huge fan of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha-Koháry for some reason.) I spent two decades building up the blogging center of my brain, and I constantly see things that are worth maybe a few hundred words, but may not be worth a whole column or “news”letter.

For instance, this morning Joe Scarborough made an offhand analogy that clanged off my forehead like a spoon bouncing off a dartboard. Talking about the January 6 hearings yesterday, he said the testimony from Rusty Bowers, Brad Raffensperger, and Gabriel Sterling was a little like having a panel of John Deans testify.

For you youngins, John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, was a key witness in the Watergate hearings. He’s often described as a whistleblower who heroically helped expose Nixon’s crimes. More on that in a second.

But first, I should say that Scarborough’s intended point was fine. The hearings were compelling, like the Watergate hearings, and one reason they were compelling was that the first round of witnesses were all conservative Republicans telling inconvenient truths about their own side.

But here’s the problem. Comparing Bowers, Raffensperger, and Sterling to John Dean is a heinous insult to them.

Fun fact: John Dean was one of the bad guys in Watergate. He was in on it. Indeed, he was so complicit, he went to jail even though he cut a deal with prosecutors. In other words, even though his testimony was an essential part of the prosecutors’ case against Nixon, he was still so guilty that he had to do time.

Now, there are many people who still think Dean got off easy. They argue he wasn’t just a participant, but a ringleader who may have actually ordered the break-in in the first place. I highly recommend James Rosen’s breakdown of all this for Commentary, published in 2014 (this Andrew McCarthy piece is also worth reading). Here’s a key excerpt from Rosen (emphasis mine):

Ever since then, Dean’s true role in Watergate has attracted vigorous debate. By 2009, the New York Times was acknowledging the existence of “rival visions” of Dean: He was either “a flawed but ultimately courageous man reluctantly sucked into the scandal” or “a primary architect of the cover-up who saved himself by deflecting guilt.” In fact, numerous scholars, myself included, have argued that the great mass of evidence that emerged after 1974 shows that Dean was motivated to assume his central role in the Watergate cover-up not because he suffered from “blind ambition” (the title of his 1976 memoir) but because he wanted to conceal his role in authorizing the ill-fated break-in and wiretapping operation at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Dean was no bystander, no Brutus seduced by power, but a Cassius, a lead actor in the crime. Indeed, the original Watergate prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert, concluded that Dean stood “at the center of the criminality.” Dean vehemently denies having ordered the Watergate operation and has spent much of the last two decades litigating or threatening to litigate, without success, against historians and others who have so argued.

I’m on Rosen’s side of the argument, but even if you go by Dean’s own account, he went along with the plot when he thought it would succeed. It was only when things started to come apart that he turned on his former conspirators, told Nixon that Watergate was a “cancer on the presidency,” and cut a deal for himself. If the Trump White House had John Deans instead of Pat Cippollones and Bill Barrs, it’s not obvious to me that Trump wouldn’t have gotten away with it.

Bowers & Co. didn’t do what Dean did. They said no to a president’s sinister scheme when it mattered most, not after the fact, or just when the scheme started to go off the rails.

Dean has benefited enormously from the deaths of his former conspirators, the fading memories of others, and the general ignorance of TV bookers and opinion editors who buy his press releases, to the point where his name has become synonymous with “whistleblower.”

(I could leave it there, but since I’m not blogging, let’s go on a bit further.)

Don’t take my word for it. I did a quick LexisNexis search for “John Dean” and “whistleblower,” and got more than 1,200 hits (though given the limited utility of LexisNexis for stuff from the ‘70s and ‘80s, I’m sure that’s a low number). He headlines “whistleblower” conferences and writes op-eds with titles like, “When I was a whistleblower, the Justice Department protected me.”

One of the main reasons Dean is so useful to liberal editors and bookers is that he’s always willing to say that, whatever the current Republican scandal is, it’s “worse than Watergate.” In 1987, he told Newsweek (and anyone else who would listen) that the Iran-Contra scandal was “worse than Watergate.” In 2003, when asked about allegations that Bush cooked the intelligence on the Iraq war, he claimed such an act would be “worse than Watergate.” When that allegation started to fizzle out, Dean changed the argument to say that the Bush administration’s “secrecy” was “worse than Watergate.” He wrote that, by the way, in his book, Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.

And of course, the Trump years were like manna from Heaven for Dean. Here’s a typical headline from Salon:

Watergate whistleblower John Dean: “There is enough evidence” to impeach President Trump

However, he acknowledged that another whistleblower like himself could be needed for such a move to transpire

I particularly like the “acknowledgement” that “another whistleblower like himself” might be needed. It always takes so much courage to say the present crisis needs more people like me.

Now, reasonable people can argue about whether this or that scandal—real or alleged—was, in fact, “worse than Watergate.” But I don’t think I’ve heard or seen an interviewer point out that Dean has an interest in saying the crime he was complicit in wasn’t as bad as the alleged crime of the moment.

Nor have I seen anyone point out that he’s not a “whistleblower” like Ellsberg or Vindman, because he blew the whistle only after he participated in—or perhaps orchestrated—the crime.

One can also believe his contrition and cooperation were genuine, even though they were integrally linked with a plea deal. Furthermore, many credible authorities claim he didn’t fully admit to his role in the break-in or cover-up. But Dean has spent his career acting like he’s the conscience of conservatism, saying exactly what worked-up liberals want to hear, while never using his platform to actually advocate for anything conservative as far as I can tell.  

Of course, I may have missed some examples of this happening—it’s not like I’ve ever said the words “Shhhh! John Dean is talking on TV!”

Okay, let’s go back to blog style.

Federalism for the win.

There’s an interesting piece in Politico today about a new report from OpenSecrets that lobbyists are shifting to state-based strategies because gridlock is preventing them from getting anything done in Washington. As one lobbyist told Politico: “The more that there’s gridlock in Washington, the more the states become the place where people feel they can make progress on issues no matter what the issue is and what side of it they’re on.”

Now, there may be downsides to this, depending on the policy being debated. But generally, I think this is a good development. The only general problem I can think of has to do with transparency and accountability. Local journalism has atrophied terribly in the last few decades and it’s possible that bad actors can get away with stuff at the state level that would get caught by reporters at the national level. Then again, lobbyists get away with murder at the national level all the time without the press giving it the coverage it deserves. And when that happens, you get bad policy imposed on the whole country, not just a state.

If this trend continues, it might be a boon for local journalism because readers will realize that local politics matter more than national politics.

More broadly, this is how it’s supposed to work. I’ll spare you yet another diatribe on federalism, but political decisions should be made as close to ground level as possible. So much of national policymaking is driven by coalitions determined to make other people thousands of miles away live the “right” way. I suppose it would be better if D.C.’s dysfunction wasn’t the driver of this recalibration to a more constitutional order. But if D.C. wasn’t so dysfunctional, it probably wouldn’t be happening.

How elections work.

Speaking of federalism, one of my takeaways from the January 6 hearings yesterday was, “thank God for the Electoral College.” What I mean is, imagine if there had been a single federal agency or commission or bureaucrat in charge of counting all the votes in a nationalized election. Instead of dispatching Jenna Ellis and gin-soaked Rudy Giuliani to badger countless state legislators and officials to steal the election, Trump could just call in his election czar and put the screws to him or her. Heck, maybe the election czar would be a Trump appointee and he wouldn’t even have to work very hard. He could just say something like what he told Mike Pence: “If you don’t count the votes in my favor, I won’t be your friend anymore.” Double heck, what if he’d appointed Ellis or Giuliani to the job in the first place? They’d volunteer for duty without having to be asked.

One of the advantages of dispersing responsibility for elections to local jurisdictions is that the threat of corruption is both dispersed and contained. Similarly, non-corrupt screw-ups, miscounts, etc. are localized. The Florida recount was a special case. But in a nationalized election it would be harder to spot these things and correct them. The whole country could have a Florida recount.

One of the reasons why so many of the fraudulent ballot conspiracy theories are so incredibly stupid is how hard it would be to forge large numbers of ballots and inject them into the count. The ballots in your precinct, town, or county usually look different than the ballots just down the road because you’re voting for different officials. If you really think China, North Korea, or the ghost of Hugo Chavez can forge all of those different ballots—with the right candidates for local dog catcher and school board president spelled correctly—and sneak them into each precinct without getting any mixed up, you really don’t have a grasp of how an election—or life—works. But a uniform national ballot just for the president—the only candidate (not counting the vice presidential appendage) who is elected by all Americans—would be a lot easier to forge and distribute.

One of the reasons we know the election wasn’t rigged in Georgia is that the votes for president are counted on the same ballot as the votes for Congress, county commissioner, etc. Brad Raffensberger noted this yesterday.


Those other races are like an anti-counterfeiting trick for election integrity. Notice that none of the craven elected Republicans crediting Trump’s stolen election bunk have questions about the authenticity of their victories in 2020. We’re supposed to believe that some anti-Trump cabal stole the election for Biden but not for down-ballot Democrats?

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.