Transcript: John Dean, "Broken Government", Sep 18 2007
John Dean was the White House legal counsel to president Nixon for a thousand days. He served as Chief Minority Counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, Associate Deputy Attorney General in the US Department of Justice, the author of three truly brilliant, brilliant books: "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush", "Conservatives Without Conscience", and "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches".
Thom Hartmann talks with John Dean, 18 September 2007
[Thom]: John Dean was the White House legal counsel to president Nixon for a thousand days. He served as Chief Minority Counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, Associate Deputy Attorney General in the US Department of Justice, the author of three truly brilliant, brilliant books: "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush", "Conservatives Without Conscience", in which he carried, on I should probably check with him and make sure that he would use this phrase, but carried on a mission given to him by Barry Goldwater, of all people. Would that be accurate, Mr. Dean?
[John Dean]: That would be accurate.
[Thom]: Yeah. And at least, that was what I took away from it, and Broken Government, your new book, "How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches". John Dean, it's an honor to have you with us, particularly for an extended conversation here. Thank you so much.
[John Dean]: Thanks Thom, pleasure to be there.
[Thom]: In your book, "Broken Government", your new book, "How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches", something occurred to me as I was reading through it, and that is that in the minds of the founders, or of the framers anyway, of the constitution, that there was to a certain extent a fourth branch of government. And I don't refer to the people, which I think you could probably strongly argue is the fourth branch of government, but there was one institution, one economic and business institution that the framers identified in the constitution in the first amendment and gave it special status. And it wasn't the military industrial complex, or the weapons industry, or, you know, the horses, or the pony express; it was the press.
[John Dean]: Exactly.
[Thom]: And it's sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. I want to get into you, how the Republicans have destroyed the executive, legislative and judicial branch, but I'm wondering what your thoughts are on how Republican rule has effected the fourth estate?
[John Dean]: Well, it's interesting. In the years before Watergate, Washington was given pretty much the benefit of all doubts. After Watergate, you had a 180 degree swing, where people in Washington, particularly the president, but members of Congress as well, were presumed to be doing the wrong thing until they proved otherwise. And that really was something of the norm; a lot of investigative reporting, a lot of probing, character analysis and what have you, up until and through the 2000 campaign, where that continued for Al Gore, but for some reason, they gave Bush a pass.
And I've asked an awful lot of members of the White House press corps and the Washington press corps why that happened. I said, was it corporate consolidation? Were the bosses saying now that you're owned by a big company we want you to go easy on these people, they are our kind of people? And seldom did I hear that as an explanation. I heard very frequently, however, because of corporate consolidation, that there was so much on, on particularly the print reporters' agenda, if not those in the other media, but they just had too much work to do to begin to really get into in depth anything really serious.
Another thing, it's been generational. There are people now in the Washington press corps, by and large, most of them, they don't have any active memory of even Iran Contra, not to mention Watergate. Those are all historical events, but really the hardest reason and the best explanation I was given, the Bush people were very good at stiffing the press, initially, and not until everything fell apart on them were they, you know, there were no weapons of mass destruction, Katrina, just one act of incompetence after another, and then they just couldn't stop reporting on it.
And now they've, also we've got now, with the change of power in Congress, we've got some oversight, so they're having a little bit more trouble keeping all that buried. But that explains why they seem to have just let Bush have a pass for 6 years and, but it's not working any more.
[Thom]: Yeah, well it may be systemic. I had a conversation with Dan Rather some time ago, and he suggested that his boss, Walter Kronkite, drew a salary that was basically an upper middle class salary.
[John Dean]: That's exactly right.
[Thom]: Back then in the news media, you weren't a star; you were an employee, and the news operation ran at a loss. They had news bureaux all over the world, they viewed themselves as fulfilling a public trust that was required for their radio and television stations to maintain their license, and now you've got guys who are, you know, the Washington press corps who are making 300, 500 thousand dollars a year, 700 thousand dollars a year, in some cases more than a million dollars a year, and they know that they will lose that salary if they lose their access to the president, and so they're sucking up.
[John Dean]: That's exactly right. And that's why, as I say, the Bush administration was very effective: if somebody wrote a negative story, or reported a negative story, they got stiffed, and they didn't have access, and they wouldn't return their calls. And this hit right at the pocket book. But as I say, after that collective judgement came out that something's seriously amiss here, it's now started to change.
[Thom]: Yeah, well let's hope so. In your chapter, in your first chapter "Process Matters", you talk about government, and I'd like to just, just a very, nine seconds here of Ronald Reagan that I think is emblematic, then I'd like your thoughts on some of the people that you're quoting.
I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'.
[Thom]: And Reagan really began a war on the idea of 'small d' democracy itself, did he not?
[John Dean]: He certainly did. He, for reasons that are not fully explained in any of his own writings that I've looked at, he saw government as the enemy and it's mystifying why a man like this would seek the presidency, for example, to come to Washington to announce at his inaugural that government isn't the solution, it's the problem. This whole thought of so many conservative Republicans that the best thing to do is to shrink the government so small you can drown it in a bathtub is just absurd; it's just not going to happen. The Federal government is too important and now that they also, conservatives, have changed their whole tune on the power of the presidency, and are demanding, you know, that be the most powerful branch, you obviously can't have small government and or even, the way they're proceeding, fiscal responsibility, things that Reagan called for, and still have the kind of presidency they want.
[John Dean]: It is the, it is the mantra, it is a canon of conservatism today that the government is bad, and it's a negative outlook on what government can do and should do and, you know, as I say, it makes no sense. It is not realistic, there are some roles only the federal government can play, otherwise we would have 50 different state laws that could be so diverse and so confusing; there are times when you do need federal courts to step in. There are times when only a, the resources of the federal government, which taxes all the states, can solve a problem, so it's a, it's an anomaly that they've taken all these inconsistent positions. And of course, in my last book, I explain this is very typical of the kind of personality that is now dominating the Republican Party, the authoritarian.
[Thom]: The authoritarian personality.
[John Dean]: Right.
[Thom]: And so what they do is they take an institution that they fundamentally don't believe in -- government -- and break it, and then say, "See? It's broken!"
[John Dean]: That's exactly right. That is exactly right. That's the, that is the subtext of the book I've written.
[Thom]: Yeah, and the question I've been rhetorically asking on this program for 5 years, is how can you govern if you don't believe in government? I mean, it just, it makes no sense to me.
In your chapter, "the second branch, broken and in need of repair", you quote...
[John Dean]: Let me just, before we go there, just make one point on the opening chapter on 'process'.
[Thom]: Sure, certainly.
[John Dean]: Process is kind of one of those fuzzy, funny kind of academic-sounding words, but it really, I think Bill Safire, who used to be my colleague at the Nixon White House and later was a New York Tines columnist, and now is still a word smith there, put it right. It really is and does, is a term of now explains the great machinery of government; both the way it works, and the policy it produces, it's all accomplished in the process. And anybody who ignores process is really ignoring the name of the game. You get good policy with good process, you get bad policy with bad process, and contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom within the beltway, that tells, is telling candidates 'ignore process', actually the American people are more interested in process in many instances than they are in policy.
[Thom]: Yeah. And, frankly, many Americans don't understand the distinction between the two.
[John Dean]: Well, there's a fine line. For example, you know, the fact that it's process matter
to say that the Republicans worked 2 days a week when they ran the Congress. They worked from Tuesday afternoon 'til Thursday morning. That became a policy, in effect.
[Thom]: Yeah, yeah, and not a particularly useful one, very often.
[John Dean]: No.
[Thom]: Voting on bills after they'd seen it for 15 minutes. We're talking with John Dean. His new book, "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches"
out now. It's 16 minutes past the hour. We'll be back with John Dean right after this.
It's the Thom Hartmann Program on Air America Radio.
[Thom]: Indeed my friends, we can take back this country. We can bring back the ideals of democracy, the extraordinary concepts and visions the founders and framers fought and died for, and generation after generation. 230 years Americans have fought and died for the ideals of freedom and democracy and for the constitution of the United States, now, so tragically under assault.
And we're talking with John Dean; his new book, "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches". John W Dean. John, is there a web site by the way that you'd like me to direct people to, or just to the book?
[John Dean]: Just the book. Just the book. You know, I do write a bi-weekly column for Findlaw, but that doesn't really deal with the book.
[Thom]: Yeah, and I've found many of them to be extraordinary. You're an extraordinarily insightful fellow. Your subtitle, "How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches". I have a lot of conservatives on this program. In fact, probably we have more Republican and conservative guests on than liberal or Democrats, typically for the purposes of a debate, although it's not the Crossfire screaming match kind of debate, it's more like, I guess, the way Jon Stewart has them on, you know; 'let's have a conversation and see if we can find some common ground, here'.
And you have said the GOP poses a threat to the wellbeing of our nation. And certainly the subtitle of your book implies that. And yet, I get a sense from your book that if we look back at the history of the GOP, with the Republican Party, which you've been a member of, were a member of for many, many years. But there is...
[John Dean]: And still today...
[John Dean]: And I still today consider myself a Goldwater conservative on countless issues.
[Thom]: OK, that there is tremendous good there. I mean, you know, whether you go to Lincoln or Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, or frankly, I think Dwight Eisenhower was one of our best presidents. How, how, how can we avoid just sliding into a 'he said, she said, I gotcha', partisan, by saying 'Republican rule'? There's really not another word, though, isn't it? It's almost like, you almost want to put in the caveat of the how the 'hijacked Republican Party's rule has', or something like that.
[John Dean]: Well, I certainly explain that in the book, and as you know, this is the third in an unplanned trilogy, where I've laid a lot of predicate for what I'm saying in this book and, you know, I find it somewhat surprising that I'm having to make this draw for this commentary on my former tribe. I always thought they would be pretty good at governing. But they've proven themselves in recent decades that that isn't the case. The reason that I use the word 'rule' is very intentional tool. I distinguish between rule and governing. Rule is just exercising power. That's what Republicans are best at. They're good at winning elections and they can exercise power.
What they're not very good at is governing, which takes an art and a craft and a little bit more nuance than they're willing to employ that's necessary to make things work. So, the word rule was intentioned. The fact that they have resulted and produced in disasters when they have been in power is explainable if you look at who's now running the Republican Party. Once the Republican Party was a big tent party, as was the Democratic Party. Now we have virtually all an increasingly hard right conservative running the Republican Party. With, as we were talking earlier, their anti-government attitude, it's little wonder that they have busted the whole thing up.
[Thom]: Yeah, indeed, and all 3 branches, frankly.
[John Dean]: All 3 branches.
[Thom]: Let's start with the legislative, the first branch mentioned in the constitution. And I think we have about 2 minutes here before we take a break at the bottom of the hour, then we'll have an opportunity for a little longer conversation.
What are your thoughts on how the legislative branch has been broken by Republican rule?
[John Dean]: Basically what they did is they eliminated, they just, after 2 years, 3 years in power, they just 'said the hell with the deliberative process'. They excluded Democrats, they twisted the rules, they deserted what's known in, particularly in the House, as regular order, it's known in the Senate but it's a real, it's the customs, traditions, even the constitutions and laws under which the House operates. They just abandoned them.
When there was a vote, they would, normally, a vote takes 15 minutes, they'd sometimes go 3 hours. They literally would bribe members to get that one vote victory. When conference committees, and they're different between the House and the Senate, they wouldn't even meet when they controlled the Congress, if the Democrats were going to show up.
These are the sort of things that really fundamentally distorted so people both on the right and the left were saying 'this isn't the way this body's supposed to run'.
[Thom]: And yet there are Democrats who are suggesting, and frankly, a number of my listeners who are suggesting, that if the Democrats, you know, 'that was strong, these guys have balls, they really, and the Democrats should be doing the same'.
It seems to me that that would be a horrible thing.
[John Dean]: Well, you know, when the Democrats did take control this year, a lot of Republicans thought they were going to be in for the same kind of retribution that they had given the Democrats. Didn't happen. Pelosi set a whole different tone, and she's had, she's tried to return civility to the process up there and she has. And they have changed the rules but the Republicans are playing a very hard ball game where they're playing this obstructionism and the American people think the Congress just is still not being functioning well.
[Thom]: Yeah, Republicans have holds on, I believe, 85 pieces of legislation right now in the Senate. It's so that they can claim that the Democrats are doing nothing. It's astounding.
[John Dean]: Exactly.
[Thom]: We're talking John Dean, the author of "Worse Than Watergate", "Conservatives Without Conscience" and now his new book, "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches". We'll continue our conversation right after the break. Stick around.
[Thom]: And I believe in the magic of democracy. Welcome back, my friends. 34 minutes past the hour. We're talking with John Dean. John W Dean the author of "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush", "Conservatives Without Conscience" his second book, his third and newest, "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches". John Dean was White House Legal Counsel to President Nixon for 1,000 days. He served as Chief Minority Counsel for the House Judiciary Committee and as Associate Deputy Attorney General in the US Department of Defense.
John Dean, moving to the second branch of government, the presidency.
[John Dean]: Yes.
[Thom]: In your book you go through a series of, I can only call them indictments, I'd say, of things that have been undertaken, particularly by the Bush administration, grabbing power as it were by this administration, you talk about torture, violating the law, surveillance, without any serious consequences. And first of all, just a very, very broad question, and then, you know, perhaps we can get into some of the specifics of it. Do you believe that impeachment is an appropriate remedy at this point in time for George W Bush and Dick Cheney?
[John Dean]: Well, actually, when I wrote "Worse Than Watergate", the first of this trilogy, I laid out the case that showed clearly that Bush and Cheney had committed high crimes and misdemeanors. I went to the actual resolution where they got authority from Congress to go into Iraq, and then they had requirements under that resolution. Few people read the resolution, few people knew that he actually had to make a formal finding -- a report to the Congress -- that there was no diplomatic remedy, and to provide evidence why he needed to go. Well, they provided false evidence; totally bogus information to the Congress in this formal finding. And this is a classic example of the founders, when they were debating the constitution, said would be a high crime and misdemeanor under the constitution.
So there's no question that there is certainly a prima facie case there for impeachment, I didn't call for it because it's a highly political proceeding. I think that the American people became so put out with what the Republicans did under, when they controlled the Congress, and they went after Clinton. It was a purely political proceeding, as it always is, but there was no justification for it in that instance. There might well be here, but it's now off the table, if the Democrats control the Congress, and probably for the better. This man's on the way out and what they have to do is figure out how to end this disaster he's created without letting him pin the blame on them for everything that might go wrong. And that's what he's clearly trying to do.
[Thom]: Oh yeah, and not just the disaster of Iraq.
[John Dean]: No.
[Thom]: There's a whole long series of them. So, the destruction of the Executive Branch. Let's speak to that.
[John Dean]: Well, you know, I got into this chapter,
I found an interesting way to open the discussion of what happened with the executive branch when I noticed that during the first term of this presidency, the Bush/Cheney administration, that historians, unlike any prior president I could find, were saying, "We might have the worse presidency ever". And it only has continued and accelerated during the second term. And I'm not talking the usual suspects. If you, this, the critique goes across the board from right to left, from William Buckley who's a long term president watcher and some of his top people from the National Review, saying "We've got the worst presidency ever". I never thought anybody would ever in history's vision top James Buchanan who took us into the Civil War. But historians are saying, "Look, you know, different time, different situation, and much grimmer situation than even Buchanan, got us into the Civil War by his inaction. This president has gotten us into the war in Iraq and, you know, exacerbated the problem of terrorism in doing so, and he gets the lowest marks that they can do and can find because of the problems he's created.
So I used that vehicle, and I looked behind it. "Who's behind this?" Well, it's very clear, it's Dick Cheney.
[Thom]: Now, you note in the book, you quote professor, is it Rudalevige?
[John Dean]: Yeah.
[Thom]: Am I pronouncing that right? And his quoting of Sundquist's "The Decline and Resurgence of Congress", his 1981 book, and you talk about how Ronald Reagan, Rudalevige regarded Ronald Reagan's aggressive use of executive tools as marking the beginning of the White House efforts to roll back the post Watergate reforms. This is something that's not unique to George W Bush.
[John Dean]: No, well what happened, the reason I went into all that and tried to use somebody else's data rather than my own, I had already reached these conclusions, but I decided to take a young political science professor and see what he said, if he agreed and looked at his evidence to see if it matched up with Cheney's claim that post Vietnam, post Watergate, the presidency has been deeply wounded and weakened. It is an absolute ruse and I use that, his material, to show that indeed starting with Reagan, they rolled past all the post Watergate reforms and indeed by the time you've got Clinton, is being called by many think tanks, an imperial president. Well now, as I say, we've got a presidency that is way beyond the imperial presidency.
[Thom]: James Madison had some very specific comments about perpetual war [see below], that no nation, no democracy could survive. I don't think he used the word democracy, but no nation in a democratic fashion, no republic could survive in a state of perpetual war. And he talked about how during times of wae the powers of the presidency are significantly enhanced; the ability to give out gifts, the, you know, and control power and, and yet, this is exactly, George Bush and many of his Republican enablers, and a few Democrats, frankly, are advocating what seems to be perpetual war. I mean, this is almost Orwellian, is it not?
[John Dean]: Well, it's true. Dick Cheney is certainly
a poster boy for the military industrial complex. The pathetic arguments, and legal arguments, they are using, arguments that if they ever were presented in a court room, a judge would probably hold the lawyer in contempt for doing so. They're relying on opinions from young assistants in the Department of Justice that are giving them designer answers, and I actually took the trouble and wrote an appendix to show exactly how, for example, John Yoo has done this and how fraudulent the counsel is that they are giving: to march into war, to undertake torture as an interrogation technique, to get out of our treaty obligations and the Geneva conventions I mean, it is Orwellian and it's hard to believe. And what troubles me most is not so much, you know, what they're doing, because they're on their way out, it's what they're leaving behind; not only in precedent, but they have violated the civil service laws in almost every department and agency and embedded people who are going to be there for a very long time.
[John Dean]: Yeah, I've done Bob;'s show a number of times.
[Thom]: Yeah, Bob's a decent guy. I mean, we disagree on a lot of things, but, you know, I've a lot of respect for him. And he debated Mr. Yoo in front of the, the entire, you know, it was like one of the main events, there was nothing else going on, everybody, 3,000 people in the room, and Yoo, in that debate, was making these clichéed arguments: fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here, get them before they get us, you know, give up a few liberties in order to have security, it's a good thing. I mean, you know, just spitting in the face, frankly, of Madison and Jefferson and Washington and yet the crowd, which was by and large conservative Republicans, was loving it.
[John Dean]: I know.
[Thom]: I mean, they were by the end, they were booing Bob Barr and they were gung ho for Yoo. How is it, and this guy's, you know, a professor at Berkeley, now how is it that the Republican Party and the conservative base has so lost touch with the founding principles of this country?
[John Dean]: Well, it's because they are authoritarian followers. This is very typical, where they submit to the world view of the people they are told are their leaders, they don't want to hear dissent, they are bullies, they are anti-democratic in their outlook and they're the ones who are calling the show.
The reason I...
[Thom]: This was the essence of your second book.
[John Dean]: Yeah. The reason I deconstructed Yoo's, many of Yoo's arguments, was to take a look at his intellectual honesty. There is none. And I literally just take several, you know, very telling examples just to show the kind of, you just can't trust what this man says. It's really quite remarkable.
[Thom]: Yeah. We're talking with John Dean. His new book out, and you really need to get all three. I mean, it's a trilogy, and it's worth reading in order, frankly. "Worse Than Watergate", "Conservatives Without Conscience", and "Broken Government". Brilliant, brilliant writing. "Broken Government" the new one, "How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches". Mr. Dean, we have less than a minute left. The judicial branch? Your thoughts?
[John Dean]: That is actually, it's probably the most startling and, to me, was the real eye opener. It's an issue that I'm going to stay out between now and the 2008 election, because if one more seat goes to what I describe as a judicial fundamentalist, the law of the land will change, and it will change slowly and incrementally and it'll be forever different. And this is, to me, the greatest threat that is posed.
[Thom]: Is this the Federalist Society as well, or is it just the general philosophy?
[John Dean]: Oh, well, it is the Federalist Society. They of course are the training stable for a lot of the young conservative judges and what have you> But the fundamentalist approach is, if you take Scalia, Thomas, they're the prototypicals.
[Thom]: Yeah, And
[John Dean]: And dangerous.
[Thom]: At that we'll have to leave it to people to buy the book, and hopefully that's a good enough tease that they will, because this is extraordinary. "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches". John Dean, thanks so much for being with us today.
[John Dean]: Keep up the good work, Thom.
[Thom]: You too, sir, thank you.
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Political Observations, James Madison, 1 April 20, 1795
You can hear an archive of the entire interview at KPOJ (second hour).