On June 30, 1971, President Nixon quizzed his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, about people who could be trusted to run covert political operations. Only weeks earlier Nixon had felt the sting of seeing portions of classified documents regarding the Vietnam War published in the New York Times. “…Dean can and his group,” Haldeman replied. “Well, do they understand how we want to play the game or can you tell them,” Nixon asked. “Uh-huh,” Haldeman answered. “Do they know how tough it has to be played?” Nixon drove home a key point. “Yes,” said Haldeman. “Dean, you say…,” a brooding president pondered the name.
Dean came to the White House as a presidential aide and eventually became Nixon’s legal counsel. In between, Dean was deeply involved in Watergate. Prior to the 1972 election he had discussed with John Mitchell the need to gather political intelligence. As Watergate broke, Haldeman and John Ehrlichman trusted their bright attorney to control the political fall out after the burglars were arrested, part of which involved him paying them large sums of money. The president lauded his efforts. “…Dean is a pretty good gem,” Nixon confided to Haldeman on March 2, 1973. “He’s a real cool cookie, isn’t he,” Haldeman agreed. “I don’t know about cool,” the president added, “but he is awfully smart.” That same month, however, things were to unravel quickly. And soon Nixon’s enthusiasm toward his “smart gem” cooled measurably.
To help him grasp the events surrounding Watergate, Nixon repeatedly asked Dean to write an account, eventually sending him to Camp David in early April to get it done. Dean, however, was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable. James McCord’s March 19, letter to Judge Sirica, asserting that “political pressure” had squeezed guilty pleas and silence from the Watergate defendants, unnerved him. As recently as March 21, Dean met with the president to warn him of the metastasizing problem of the cover-up, telling Nixon of “a cancer … close to the presidency” and of the increasing demands by the burglars for money. Additionally, Nixon’s nominee to head the FBI, L. Patrick Gray, told a Senate committee he had given FBI files on Watergate to Dean.
In the face of this heat, Dean’s resolve wilted. Instead of handing the president a written account of Watergate, he hired a personal attorney. Fearing the White House was making him the fall guy, Dean began cooperating with federal investigators. Accordingly, Nixon fired Dean on April 30. Under cover of limited immunity, Dean testified before the Senate Watergate committee in late June, claiming the president was involved in the cover-up, that Nixon knew about hush money paid to the burglars, and that Ehrlichman ordered evidence be destroyed. Further, Dean claimed, Nixon had known about the break-in as early as September 15, 1972, six months earlier than the president had previously admitted.
Eventually, investigators learned of Nixon’s secret tapes. Their recordings sufficiently corroborated the testimony of Dean and others (while refuting assertions offered by administration witnesses), and Nixon was forced to resign. As for Dean, he was charged with obstruction of justice and spent four months in prison.