Meet John Dean

“If there's anything that really is the bottom line, it's taking the nation to war in a time - when they might not have had to go to war and people dying. That is worse than Watergate. No one died for Nixon's so-called Watergate abuses.”

-John Dean

This past Saturday, I drove my visiting parents through the maddening Hollywood side street traffic on a mission for them to experience the LA Times Festival of Books. As I remarked to my mom upon arrival, it is a hopeful day for humanity when there are more people at the Festival of Books than at the Century City Westlake Mall. Knowing full well that my dad appreciates his personal space (translation: does not travel happy in crowded crowds), I lead us over to a grassy patch and tried to find a speaker or panel that did not require reserved tickets. One event caught my eye: John Dean, lecture and Q & A session on the secret presidency of President Bush. For this family of raving liberals, it was a match meant to be.

My point of reference for John Dean lies in a network-bankrolled miniseries script one of my former (TV agent) boss' clients wrote about the “lost” Watergate tapes, which were released a couple years ago to hushed fanfare. The title of the miniseries, predictably, was Watergate: Declassified, and although the sketchy dialogue shed little light on Deep Throat’s identity, it did bring me down with the demise of a sick, delusional man who also happened to be President of the United States. Intriguing, captivating, mind-blowing, I still can’t wait to see it. What happened to that script, casting configurations, and the brilliant writer’s overall deal with Warner Bros? Perhaps the miniseries’ controversial timeliness got lost in the FCC Janet Jackson crackdown and 60 Minutes mishap. But regardless of the fate of Watergate: Declassified, we were fortunate enough to see the real thing live on Saturday.

When he was just 31 years old, John Dean became special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon. His whistle blowing played a vital role in nixing Nixon, and since then he has authored influential and thought-provoking political nonfiction. His latest is titled, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, which makes a case that our current administration has committed an impeachable offense. On page 155, it's there, staring back at me with simple brilliance:

"The evidence is overwhelming that George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have engaged in deceit and deception over going to war in Iraq. This is an impeachable offense."

It sure was a nice day for an open, public indictment of a sitting President. As we took our seats, I couldn’t help but join the desperate spirit of the overwhelmingly liberal audience, as my cynical eyes looked onstage for hope as Dean took the stage. My dad nudged me, pointing out an Elliot Gould look-alike man walking down the aisle, clutching a Ronald Reagan tote bag, muttering, “Yeah, I voted for Reagan. And I voted for Bush!” We’d seen him earlier, upon arrival, soapboxing in front of the roasted almond stand, blurting out comments like some sick case of intentional tourette's. I remember feeling remotely sorry for him, even though I heard my dad’s whispers in my other ear wondering about his going rate as the “annoying New York guy” for hire. If we had known then he was going to crash this party, we would have arrived early enough for front row seats.

If there was ever a perfect audience for John Dean, this was it. Mostly older and middle aged liberals, all well read and very angry, prone to head nodding, clapping, and the occasional “Hallelujah!” throughout Dean’s short spiel. He played to the hometown crowd, telling us exactly what we wanted to hear: the truth. He opened with a story about his uneasiness with performing in front of an audience by himself. When he was a kid, he used to be a magician making a rabbit disappear. Fast forward to the Senate Watergate hearing, he made a President disappear. As he waited for the laughter to subside, several “Do it again!” encouragements rang out around me. Dean smiled a reassuring smile, and responded, “I’ve been trying!” before launching into the pitfalls and potential consequences of the secretive presidency.

Fascinating and informative, Dean touched upon the Bush-Cheney-Rove dynamic, the spinelessness of the press, saving the filibuster, the Joseph Wilson-Valerie Plume scandal, declassification of government documents, and other subjects, highlighting above all else his case for Bush’s impeachment. He stressed the need for critical thinking, praising international press and bloggers for fulfilling this need at a time when journalists take many issues detrimentally at face value. When the forum opened for questioning, it only got more interesting. At one point, Dean listened patiently to a roundabout question about blind faith Americans, only to respond with a weighted sigh, “I don’t understand how lemmings think, so I can’t answer your question!”

When the moderator announced the final question, we looked for the lucky winner, only to find the Reagan tote bag annoying New York guy leaning over the mic, determined to say something guaranteed to shake this Bush-bashing love fest. As I rolled my eyes and prepared to be annoyed, my dad reminded me about free speech. Here is a memory-dependant non-verbatim transcript of what this exchange:

New York Guy: “Well, I went to Brandeis and Cornell, and later on I ended up supporting Reagan, and I voted for George W. Bush.”

Audience: (uncomfortable silence, maybe two quiet boos - if that)

NYG (obviously used to more boos when performing this bit on the NY stand-up circuit): “Oh go ahead! Boo all you want. I’m used to it.”

Audience: (laughs, thinking, ‘who is THIS guy?’)

NYG: “What I want to know is, you were one of Nixon’s henchmen. (raves like a lunatic some more) How can anyone believe YOU?”

John Dean: “I get asked that question a lot. And I’ll tell you my answer. One day, George Bush was riding his bike around Crawford, because he’s taken up bike riding since he stopped jogging. Anyway, so George Bush is riding his bike, and he sees this little boy on the side of the road with a box of puppies. He stops and asks the boy, ‘Now, what are these puppies?’ The boy answers, ‘They’re all Republicans.’ So Bush says, ‘Atta boy!’ and rides back to The Ranch. The next day, George and Laura are riding their bikes, and again, they come across the boy with his box of puppies. And Bush stops to show Laura, and again, he asks the boy, ‘Now, tell Laura, what are these puppies?’ This time, the boy says, ‘They’re all Democrats.’ And Bush says, ‘Now, how can that be? Yesterday they were Republicans.’ And the little boy says, ‘Mr. President, they opened their eyes.’”

Audience: (applause, perhaps some whooping and yelling)

Immediately after bringing the house down on his way out, Dean was kind enough step over to the book signing area, where my dad picked up a copy of Worse Than Watergate and took the opportunity to ask the man a few questions, the last of which I heard, loud and clear.

Dad: “Do you have any hope for the resilience of the American people…to move beyond this?”

Dean: “Yes, yes I do think the American people are resilient. I do.”

Dad: “Thank you. That means a lot, coming from you.”

I couldn’t help but silently echo his sentiments. Thanks to John Dean, I left the Festival of Books that day with not only a heightened appreciation for the written word, but also with a raised political conscience bolstered by hope in resilience. When he signed my dad's book, Dean wrote "IT IS..." next to the Worse Than Watergate on the title page before signing his name below. Dean opened my eyes wider. It really is worse than Watergate.


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