Transcript: John W. Dean, Jul 14 2006
John Dean, the former council to Richard Nixon, is author of "Conservatives without Conscience".
Thom Hartmann interview with John W. Dean on Friday 14 2006
[Thom Hartmann] John W. Dean is with us. He has a new book out, Conservatives without Conscience. He's the author of the national bestseller Worse than Watergate, in fact when that book came out, it was the last time we spoke. John Dean glad to have you back on the program.
[John Dean] Thanks Thom, pleasure to be back with you again.
[Thom Hartmann] This is an extraordinary piece of work. I almost probably don't have to say it. John Dean, the former council to Richard Nixon, Watergate figure, not sure how you most prefer to be described in that context but the book that you've written exploring the roots of not just the modern conservative movement but how it has taken this authoritarian bent. First of all, let me just... in 1964, you talk about Barry Goldwater in the book, in 1964 I was 13 years old and I went door to door for Barry Goldwater.
[John Dean] Did you.
[Thom Hartmann] My father was the chairman of the Republican Party in the county that we lived in Michigan and, you know, I was very into it. I'd read John Stormer's "None Dare Call It Treason". I'd read J. Edgar Hoover's book that you reference, you know, "The Masters of Deceit". You know, I was just gung ho. And within three years, you know, I was on a college campus and looking at the Vietnam war and it completely transformed my vision of politics and I went from being a conservative to being whatever; I call myself a progressive today.
[John Dean] You know, I'm kind of curious; if Goldwater would have won, it might have been a lot better for the country than Johnson pursuing and escalating that war.
[Thom Hartmann] I don't disagree with you, and in fact, two years ago I went back and I reread "No Apologies", Goldwater's second autobiography and it was clear to me that he was blinded by his fear of communism to the point that it didn't allow him to see the horrible mistake he was making, for example, in opposing the civil rights movement cause he thought King had been infiltrated by the communists. But beyond that he was a good man with a, you know, with a reasonable vision for America. And, you know, you portray in your book the classic kind of Goldwater conservatives. In fact, you dedicate the book to Barry Goldwater, as I recall.
[John Dean] I do.
[Thom Hartmann] And I'm curious, how would you portray liberalism, because you, and I want to get in to the whole thing about authoritarianism and everything else that's in the book but this is something that I didn't get out of the book in reading through. Maybe I just missed it, but it seems to me that the liberal world view is really the one that came out of the enlightenment. That, you know, George Washington said that he was a liberal. He hoped that America would ever become more liberal. How is that different from the type of conservatism that you applaud in the book?
[John Dean] Well, I think if you track what I did and show how I try to show in the roots of conservatism, when the intellectual movement started, they really corrupted the basic documents of the founding of the country and called them conservative documents when they were truly classic liberal documents. And Barry Goldwater, for one, has often said that when people look back on his era and his thoughts and his philosophy, they would call him a liberal, which is kind of curious.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah.
[John Dean] You know, I, liberalism runs throughout the book. I actually put a footnote in at one point to note, really probably the greatest distinction between contemporary liberalism and conservatism resides in equality. The liberal still is very much for equality. Conservatives really don't give a hoot about equality. And that's, the interesting thing, I had some conservation with the founder about that also. He said, "Well, yes, those are the guys, you know. The conservatives who don't care about equality are the ones who don't get elected. That was once true. I'm not so sure it's true any more.
[Thom Hartmann] Well, in the book, you quote Russell Kirk. And I've read "The Conservative Mind" and, and Kirk, of course, bases that book, the whole entire first chapter is about Sir Edmund Burke and Kirk talks about how conservatives in classic conservatism if you have classes and orders rather than equality. Burke said, you know, "It does me no harm if a man is allowed to engage in a servile profession as a hairdresser or tallowmaker" - candlemaker - "but it does society considerable violence if such a man is allowed to participate in governance; in other words, to vote".
[John Dean] Fairly elitist view, I'd say.
[Thom Hartmann] It is, but William F. Buckley read, you know, "The Conservative Mind" and said, "Yeah, that's me". Even Barry Goldwater did.
[John Dean] Well, actually, you know, he didn't. Goldwater, I'll tell you the greatest influence on Goldwater was probably Herbert Hoover. He was a collector of all of Hoover's works. He got to know him after he got in the Senate. And ? he had an intellectual mentor, that was it. Because the Senator had not been much of a student until he really got to Washington. He spent the first 10 years in the Senate really steeping himself in this stuff. And I don't ever, I never thought him as a Burkian by any stretch of the imagination.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah. And in fact, in the book you talk about a conversation that you had with Barry Goldwater in his last days, mind sharing that with us? That was, I thought, a great, a great moment there where you're talking to him about, you said, "I called Senator Goldwater, I'd only recently learned more about Chuck Colson's involvement with Silent Coup"?
[John Dean] Oh yeah, when we're talking about Liddy.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, and just the whole Christian conservative, you know, takeover.
[John Dean] Yes, well you know, the, I'm not sure exactly which conversation you're referring to. I actually footnote several of them in there. But the Senator and I really, he was miffed and mystified. I was mystified as to what had happened to conservatism. And that's when, in 1994, this is where this book really started. And originally we were going to co-author it, because he said, "Let's go out and find the answers". He said, "I've got contacts, you've got contacts, I've got papers, you've got papers. Let's put it all together and see if we can figure this riddle out". I said, "Fine. I'm for it". Unfortunately, his health wasn't very good and I could see that the book was going to be a burden on him so I said, "Let's put this on the shelf until you're feeling better". He said, "Fine' we'll do that, but let's not drop it". And unfortunately he never did get healthier and when he passed away I said, "I'm just not going to drop this project and indeed did find the answers.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, well this is the conversation where he said, "I'm concerned that the Republican Party is selling out its soul".
[John Dean] Ah, selling the soul to the religious right he was very deeply concerned about that. He thought the religious right was highly divisive. He said, "John, I've dealt with these people for years, they're difficult and while I respect their thinking and their beliefs, they just can't fit and understand the way government works. They are unyielding; they believe that they have the imprimatur of God in implementing their policies and they will not compromise on those policies and beliefs. And he said it just makes an impossible situation cause government is a process of, and politics is a process of, compromise. This troubled him deeply that they were, you know, slowly gaining increasing control of the Republican Party.
[Thom Hartmann] You talk in the book about Stanley Milgram's work, and in the book, when you say, "Milgram invited me to speak at his conference", I thought he was dead.
[John Dean] Not then. He was very much alive when I met him.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah.
[John Dean] This was back in 1976, though.
[Thom Hartmann] In '76.
[John Dean] He did die prematurely. And Bob Altemeyer, who I also mention in the book, says, "You know, without question, Milgram was probably one of the greatest social scientists this country's ever seen". Underappreciated. You know, ground-breaking stuff he did.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, these were the famous experiments where he ordered people, where he had people in white coats ordering people to give electric shocks to other people all the way up to the point where they thought they might be at risk of killing the other person and 65% of ordinary people were willing to do that.
[John Dean] They were people solicited off the streets of New Haven and they came in and they were in this lab setting which had sort of the aura of science about it. And an authority figure was giving them directions. Of course the learner who they were shocking, who was given a little jolt every time they failed to remember word pairs was actually an actor who was in on this experiment and the person who was being tested was the person who was giving the jolts of electricity to see how far the authority figure could push them and they pushed them to the 450 volts on a regular basis.
[Thom Hartmann] Right.
[John Dean] And with the other person, the acting learner, screaming often. Yet these people, and Milgram makes a very interesting, I looked at this because I was trying to understand, how do people who work at the CIA and know that they're part of a system that is torturing people in the eastern European secret prisons and they're supporting that system, they're providing information or bringing it out of it. How they do that every day? How do the people who work at NSA who were turning that huge electronic apparatus of surveillance on their neighbors and their friends, where's their conscience? And then I realized that this is a perfect example the Milgram experiment at work. They're under authority figures. What they are doing is, they're haven't lost their conscience they have given their conscience to another agent and so they feel very comfortable in doing it.
[Thom Hartmann] We're talking with John W. Dean author of, first of all, "Worse than Watergate", a brilliant book. His new one, "Conservatives Without Conscience". Sir, you can stick around over the break? We can talk a little bit more?
[John Dean] Sure can.
[Thom Hartmann] Great, because I'd like to follow through on this whole authoritarian personality thing. It's an absolutely brilliant book. You've got to read this book, "Conservatives Without Conscience".
[Song] "Gotta Serve Somebody".
[Thom Hartmann] We're talking with John Dean, White House legal counsel to President Nixon for a thousand days, also served as chief minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, associate deputy attorney general in the U.S. department of Justice, the author of "Worse than Watergate", "Blind Ambition", "Lost Honor", "The Rehnquist Choice", "Warren G. Harding", and his new book "Conservatives Without Conscience". John Dean, the little bumper music there from Bob Dylan's brief flirtation with fundamentalist Christianity, "You're going to have to Serve Somebody", really kind of encapsulates the personality that you're talking about in these "Conservatives Without Conscience". Not to put the point on Bob Dylan, but the idea of dominance and submission.
[John Dean] Absolutely. When the religious right became increasingly active in conservative politics, that's when I really see the growth of authoritarianism within the movement. Authoritarianism breaks down into two segments. You have leaders, of course, but the bulk are for followers. Most of the scientific work over the years, about the last 50 years, has been done on the followers and only in the last ten years on the leaders. But we have this amazing body of empirical evidence developed by, largely through anonymous testing of people, to get their reactions and explanations of their behavior. The religious right constantly scores very on authoritarian scales.
[Thom Hartmann] Now one of the things that you suggest in the book is that submissive authoritarian behavior, those people who were the good Germans, shall we say, back in the thirties. That can be evoked from people who might not otherwise normally display that if they find themselves in an environment with a powerful authoritarian leader and particularly if that's in combination with an environment where they experience fear and anxiety.
[John Dean] Absolutely. In fact, there was data on that before 9/11. There's new data post 9/11 that shows large numbers of people, because of fear, became active in the Republican Party and became active in the conservative movement because they found comfort and security and a feeling of safety under authoritarian leadership. So it's been demonstrated lately, and of course what the Bush people discovered, they either found this from their own polling or social scientists tipped them off, it became a very effective political tool. They have been fear mongering ever since 9/11, trying to keep the base in line and then grow the ranks. And it's worked.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, the Republican Party has been playing this like a fiddle and in a way they're actually increasing the number of authoritarian followers in the United States by bringing this out in people.
[John Dean] Absolutely true. One of the reasons I did this book is, there's about, that the hardcore right now is about 23% that would follow an authority anywhere that authority took them. There are obviously more than that because it takes more than that to win control of the White House, for example. But you still you have that hard core and, but that number is constantly increasing and the fear mongering is one of the contributing factors.
[Thom Hartmann] So, what we do about that?
[John Dean] I think the answer is to be aware of it. A lot of people, for example in the area of what frightens them, they really don't think about how this is really playing right in the hands of terrorists. And they don't look at the statistical realities of terrorism. They just react to it viscerally and don't look at the fact that there are more drownings in the United States every year than there are likely to be anybody killed from a terrorist.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, or drunk drivers.
[John Dean] Or industrial accidents, drunk drivers. I mean, there's a whole host of things that are much more threatening to our lives than terrorism. The Cold War and nuclear annihilation were certainly much more threatening than the worst of the terrorists.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah.
[John Dean] You know, even let's say a worst case where someone got one or two WMDs. It's not the same as the Soviet Union getting ready to wipe us off the face of the planet.
[Thom Hartmann] And yet we have, and we only have about a minute and a half left here. I'm sorry, but we have a media event is completely driven by getting eyeballs, by ratings and, you know, if it bleeds, it leads. What do we do in a media environment like this, where we get infotainment instead of news, how do we change that?
[John Dean] Well, I think somewhat the Internet is changing that; people are able to get out and get more information independently, obviously readers and books are a help. But the great middle of America, and the centerist [sic] part of our nation, if they're sleeping, the danger is that this extremism on the right is going to keep creeping and that's proto-fascist conduct and we're not on that road yet but we're so dangerously close to it that we have to be very careful.
[Thom Hartmann] Do you think, and I mean there's...
[John Dean] And I'm no alarmist, believe me.
[Thom Hartmann] I understand. These folks, the ends justify the means, stealing elections. I mean, is this a very real risk?
[John Dean] Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, vigilance is the only way that we're all protected and there's a wonderful, you know, there's a wonderful ying yang in our system and hopefully the pendulum will swing.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, hopefully. John W. Dean, the book "Conservatives without Conscience", sir, thank you for being with us today.
[John Dean] My pleasure, Thom.
[Thom Hartmann] And for writing this brilliant book.
[John Dean] Thank you.