John Dean

John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Before becoming White House counsel at age thirty-one, he was the chief minority counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives, and an associate deputy attorney general at the US Department of Justice. His undergraduate studies were at Colgate University and the College of Wooster, with majors in English Literature and Political Science; then a graduate fellowship at American University to study government and the presidency before entering Georgetown University Law Center, where he received his JD with honors in 1965.

John recounted his days at the Nixon White House and Watergate in two books: Blind Ambition (1976) and Lost Honor (1982). After retiring from a business career as a private investment banker doing middle-market mergers and acquisitions, he returned to full-time writing and lecturing, including as a columnist for FindLaw's Writ (from 2000 to 2010) and Justia’s Verdict (since 2010). Donald Trump’s election and presidency have created renewed interest in (and sales of) John’s earlier New York Times best-sellers: Conservatives Without Conscience (2006), which explains the authoritarian direction of the conservative movement that resulted in Trump’s election a decade before it happened, and Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches (2008), which addresses the consequences of GOP control of government. His most recent bestseller, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (2014), is currently being developed by Entertainment One and ABC Television into an eight or ten-hour miniseries entitled “Watergate.”

John held the Barry M. Goldwater Chair of American Institutions at Arizona State University (academic years 2015-16), and for the past decade and a half he has been a visiting scholar and lecturer at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications. Currently, Dean is working on his twelfth book about Donald Trump’s presidency, while providing commentary and analysis on the Trump presidency as a CNN News contributor and analyst, and teaching continuing legal education (CLE) programs that examine the impact of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct on select historic events from Watergate (and the Trump presidency) with surprising results – see www.WatergateCLE.com

Columns by John Dean

The Politics of Polarization and Obstructionism

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean takes strong issue with Republican polarization and obstructionism. Moreover, Dean explains why and how these strategies have worked for Republicans over the years, tracing them back to Newt Gingrich and his supporters, who innovated a three-day work week for Representatives, with their families living in their home districts—the result of which, Dean points out, was that Representatives did not get to know one another well, and there was little chance of collegiality. Now, too, Dean observes, Republicans are also employing obstructionist and divisive tactics. Dean urges that, in light of these developments, it's urgent that journalists and other s chronicle and expose these strategies. Dean is confident, though, that in President Obama, the obstructionists have met their match.

George McGovern: R.I.P. (1922–2012)

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the life and times of former Senator George McGovern, who recently passed away. In addition to chronicling the key events of McGovern's life, McGovern’s passionate campaign to eradicate hunger, and his own friendship with McGovern, Dean also comments on the perhaps unlikely friendship between McGovern, a Democrat, and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater—the kind of cross-party bond, forged to serve the good of the nation, that Dean notes that we are, unfortunately, unlikely to see today.

How Mitt Romney Forgot His Legal Thinking at the Hofstra Debate

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean notes that Mitt Romney attended both law school and business school, and contends that Romney forgot to think like a lawyer at the recent Hofstra debate. Before commenting specifically on Romney, Dean addresses the controversy about whether lawyers think differently than other people. One position is that thinking like a lawyer is simply thinking clearly and critically; the other position is that thinking like a lawyer is a unique skill that only those who have learned that skill in law school possess, in part because lawyers are taught to follow past precedent, even if they think it is wrongly decided—which is not the case in other professions. Dean notes that lawyers must also meet the requirements of the bar, and follow the jurisdiction’s Rules of Professional Conduct. While Romney is an attorney, Dean argues, he is much more of a businessman, and Dean notes that GOP businessmen have, over history, fared poorly in the Oval Office, and cites both Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush as examples.

The First 2012 Presidential Debate: How the Incumbent Got Trapped

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean argues that Mitt Romney’s win in the first presidential debate will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, which will also help the Democrats. Dean discusses presidential debates from their very beginning, with Kennedy versus Nixon in 1960, up to the present. In commenting on the first Obama/Romney debate, Dean describes the “incumbent’s trap,” which he defines as the ability of the challenger to force the incumbent to defend his record—for even a strong record can be criticized, and as Americans, we can be unrealistic about what we expect our presidents to accomplish while in office. Meanwhile, the challenger can promise voters the moon. Numerous incumbents, Dean notes, have fallen into this very trap, though in Clinton/Dole, Clinton managed to avoid it by dominating the debate. Dean then analyzes the Obama/Romney debate—arguing that it needed much more moderation and fewer open-ended topics. Ultimately, though, Dean contends that Obama’s loss there will have a silver lining: Post-debate, the Obama team can now correct the many instances where Romney stretched or outright ignored the truth, and Democratic voters will be reminded that an Obama win is far from a foregone conclusion.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: The Sources of Washington’s Current Problems

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the current, unfortunate state of American government—paralyzed by inaction, even in the midst of a troubled economy. In his analysis of the situation, Dean draws upon Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein’s work It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Dean deems the book to be a very important one to read, especially for Republicans, for part of the current problem, according to Dean, and to Mann and Ornstein, is the intransigence and the growing extremism of the Republican Party. Another part of the problem, they argue, is the sorry state of contemporary American journalism. Dean distills some of Mann and Ornstein’s suggestions for addressing the problems that they isolate—and notes that just five changes in the way American journalism is done now could make a profound difference.

The Republicans’ Shameless War on Voting

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on current and past efforts by the Republican Party to suppress non-white Americans from voting in Southern states. Dean reports that these kinds of efforts have been escalating since 2010, and that they now encompass some Northern states as well. Dean covers specific, highly credible reports of such tactics being used; notes how voting laws can play into that underhanded effort; charges some Republican judges with being unwilling to enforce the amended Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA); and explains why these dirty tactics are a stain on the history of the Republican Party. Dean also notes his own role, in the Nixon Administration, in conveying Nixon’s decision not to veto a VRA extension that gave 18-year-olds the vote, and explains how that decision ultimately led, indirectly, to 18-year-olds getting the vote. Dean also notes that Mitt Romney could never make the same decision to let 18-year-olds vote today, as so many young people are Democrats or Independents. Finally, Dean cites a number of reasons for which we should all be thankful for the VRA.

Donald Langevoort: A Thoughtful Legal Thinker

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the the work of legal scholar Donald Langevoort, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, specializing in business organizations and securities regulation, who uses cognitive psychology in his work in order to explain why attorneys at times have ethical lapses. Dean comments on various interesting aspects of Langevoort’s work, such as his explanation as to how lawyers can fail to see a problem that should have been obvious to them, and his work regarding the organizational and psychological factors that may influence lawyers’ perception and judgment. Dean also discusses a list of certain cognitive biases to which lawyers may fall prey.

How Lawyers Can Minimize Professional Mistakes During a Scandal Like That at Penn State: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean concludes his two-part series of columns on how attorneys can avoid making errors when serving as counsel to a person or institution enmeshed in a scandal. With the Freeh Report strongly suggesting a cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s child sexual abuse, Dean notes that the same question that arose in the Enron and Watergate scandals also arose regarding the Penn State scandal: Where were the lawyers? Dean offers some intriguing answers as to why lawyers may not function as they should in cover-up situations—noting that general counsels, though they are working for an institution, may tend to feel loyalty to the person, or persons, with whom they directly work, instead. Dean also introduces readers to the psychology of cover-ups, and especially the concept of the “loss frame,” drawing on the work of Richard Painter, Richard Kahneman, and Amos Tversky to explain why attorneys may get caught up in cover-ups. Dean also gives advice for those—whether they are attorneys or not—who find themselves in a loss-frame (roughly, a losing) situation, and notes what the ABA’s Model Rules counsel in such situations.

Talking With an Expert About Serious Attorney-Client Privilege Confusion During the Penn State Child-Abuse Scandal

In Part One of a two-part series regarding attorney-client privilege and the Penn State child-sex-abuse scandal, Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on potentially serious attorney-client privilege confusion relating to the scandal. Louis Freeh—the former judge and FBI director, and the author of the Freeh Report that was commissioned by Penn State regarding the scandal—has raised serious questions about the roles of the University’s General Counsel and its outside counsel, respectively, with respect to the scandal. With the assistance of Thompson Hine partner Jim Robenalt, who answered a series of questions posed by Dean, Dean seeks to illuminate the relevant legal and ethical rules in this oft-misunderstood area. In addition, Dean notes some parallels here to Watergate, during which questions also arose about attorneys’ representation of entities, such as the presidency, rather than persons, such as the president.

Gaming American Democracy: How Republicans Are Now Determined to Buy Political Power

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the baleful influence of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which permitted corporations to exert power over elections through corporate campaign contributions. Dean describes the profound differences that Citizens United has already made in our political system, and suggests ways in which covert corporate spending can be policed, even despite Citizens United. His suggestions include aggressive state-level prosecutions, including under bribery statutes.

Why Chief Justice Roberts Dared Not Overturn President Obama’s Healthcare Plan

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on Chief Judge John Roberts’s role in the Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare. Dean anticipated that Roberts would vote, as he did, to uphold the healthcare statute, and Dean notes some other learned commentators who had also anticipated Roberts’s stance. A major factor in Dean’s prediction as to where Roberts would come down was Robert’s own testimony in the confirmation hearings that led him to join the Court. Describing himself in those hearings as an “umpire,” Roberts made clear that he would apply pre-existing, well-grounded legal rules, and not create new ones out of whole cloth. To show how Roberts did just that, Dean sums up the various Commerce Clause precedents that were relevant in the Obamacare case, and explains how Roberts dutifully followed them.

Making Your Point: A Special Question & Answer Session About Effective Advocacy, with Ross Guberman

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean does a Q&A with Ross Guberman, the author of the book Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation's Top Advocates (Oxford 2011). The interview covers how Guberman got into the teaching of legal writing and honed his skills in the field, the effect good writing can have on a case, and the methods and techniques that Guberman uses himself, and teaches others. Readers may be especially interested in Guberman's account of three mistakes that lawyers often make in drafting and presenting their arguments. Finally, Guberman previews his next book, which will comment on well-written judicial opinions.

John Dean’s Notes for His Diary, From The Washington Post’s “Watergate at 40” Event

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the “Watergate at 40” event, hosted by The Washington Post, that he attended this past Monday, June 11. The event was held in the Watergate Office Complex, where the infamous break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) occurred. Dean describes the three panels at the event, which focused on (1) the investigation and cover-up; (2) Watergate’s legacy; and (3) Woodward and Bernstein’s role. In addition, the panel offered a tribute to Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post Executive Editor who played an instrumental role, along with Woodward and Bernstein, in breaking the story and placing a continuing spotlight on it, after government investigators had initially made some headway. Dean also relates an interesting anecdote regarding how the Watergate burglars turned off their Walkie-Talkies in the Complex to ensure silence, but as a result, were not alerted to the police's presence in the Complex.

How to Better Fight Cyberbullying: Finding Fixes for the Internet Protection Act

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a new proposed New York statute, the Internet Protection Act, which would provide a remedy for those who are the targets of anonymous Internet attacks—including the victims of cyberbullies, and businesses harmed by competitors’ fake reviews. Dean notes that the Act has drawn much criticism, but he argues that the focus of comments on the Act should not be to attack the Act, but rather to offer constructive criticism as to how the Act can be made consistent with the First Amendment. Dean summarizes the First Amendment arguments that have been raised regarding the Act; cites two key Supreme Court anonymous speech cases; notes that it is often possible to unmask cyberbullies without breaking the law, but it takes time and money to do so; and contends that a constitutional way to address cyberbullying would be through a law allowing the unmasking of the perpetrators of Internet harassment, and the issuance of a protective order against them. Even the deterrent effect of such a law, Dean predicts, could be powerful.

Denying Clemency for Draconian Sentencing Based on Bad Information: The Clarence Aaron Case

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a criminal case in which he argues that a deeply unjust sentence was handed down. Dean contends that it is high time for presidential clemency for the prisoner, Clarence Aaron, especially as the record shows that the Pardon Attorney gave President George W. Bush’s staff inaccurate and incomplete information in the case. As Dean explains, drawing on reporting by The Washington Post and ProPublica, Aaron—a 23-year-old first-time offender at the time of his arrest—was convicted for his role in abetting a non-violent drug deal. Dean notes that other participants in the deal had made careers in the drug business, and received light sentences in exchange for pointing the finger at Aaron, who received three life sentences. Their testimony has, since then, been shown and admitted to be false, yet Aaron still languishes in jail. Especially now that Aaron has the support of the relevant U.S. Attorney, Deborah Rhodes, and the sentencing judge, Dean contends that it is high time that Aaron receives a pardon.

Revisiting Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate Reporting: A New Smoking Gun?

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a fascinating new twist in the Watergate story—evidence that Woodward and Bernstein spoke to Watergate grand jurors. The evidence was unearthed by Jeff Himmelman, who has written a biography of former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who served during the Watergate years. It consists of a seven-page memorandum, dated 1972, that summarizes a conversation between Bernstein and a Watergate grand juror. The find prompted Bernstein recently to comment wryly, “Maybe they’ll send us to jail after all.” The memorandum is all the more notable because it is clear that Judge Sirica, who presided over the Watergate grand jury proceedings, did not believe that Woodward and Bernstein had obtained any information from any grand juror. Dean tells the story of how Woodward and Bernstein managed to avoid suffering consequences, despite their having intentionally had contact with at least one grand juror. He also provides a sampling of attorneys’ opinions as to whether the law was, or was not, broken, assuming that contact between Woodward and Bernstein and one or more grand jurors did indeed occur.

Did Keith Olbermann Blow His Lawsuit Against Current TV By Saying “I Screwed Up” on Letterman? Absolutely Not!

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a remark that was recently made by Keith Olbermann—the longtime news anchor and a friend of Dean’s—on David Letterman’s “Late Show.” Dean argues that the remark, “I screwed up,” has been seriously misinterpreted and placed in the wrong context. As Dean discusses, the remark’s meaning is particularly important because it may well play a part in a lawsuit regarding Olbermann’s termination last month from his position as the anchor of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and Chief News Officer at Current TV. Dean clarifies the context of the comment—noting that Olbermann meant that he’d screwed up in joining Current TV in the first place, not that he’d screwed up in his work there. Dean also raises a larger issue of the press’s picking up on language in initial court pleadings—such as Current TV’s in this case—when parties are not ultimately accountable for what they’ve said in those early pleadings.

Good Luck, Wisconsin, You’ve Got A Classic Authoritarian Governor: Part Two in a Two-Part Series on Scott Walker

In the second in this two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean puts together substantial evidence suggesting that controversial Wisconsin governor Scott Walker possesses disturbingly authoritarian personality traits. Dean’s analysis draws from both his own 2006 book, Conservatives Without Conscience, and the work of Professor Robert Altemeyer. Here, in Part Two, Dean explains in greater detail, based on evidence from Walker’s life, why he believes that Walker is a “double high authoritarian”—a suggestion which, if true, would be very troubling, Dean explains, as those with such personalities tend to find it difficult to govern in a democratic fashion. With Walker facing a recall vote on June 5, voters will have another chance to assess their governor and consider whether they believe Dean is correct.

A Fair Question: Is Governor Scott Walker a Conservative Without Conscience?

In this two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on authoritarian personality traits, drawing from his own 2006 book, Conservatives Without Conscience, and from the work of Professor Robert Altemeyer on this subject. In particular, Dean raises the question of whether controversial Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker might be categorized as having an authoritarian personality. In this column, Part One in the series, Dean explains the personalities of authoritarian dominators and followers, and unravels the conundrum of how some people (called “Double High Authoritarians”) may test as both dominators and followers at the same time. Dean notes that such people are especially frightening, and explains why that is the case. In addition, Dean ascribes some part of the Nixon White House’s dysfunction to the large contingent of “Double Highs” in the Administration, including Nixon himself. Finally, Dean begins his analysis of Governor Walker, which he will complete in Part Two of this series of columns.

Getting Watergate’s History Right: Max Holland’s Page-Turner Explaining Deep Throat’s Motives

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean discusses recent Watergate-related books and other writings, as we approach Watergate’s 40th anniversary. Dean makes the interesting observation that as more and more information is being released about Watergate, more writers are getting its history wrong, perhaps because of the difficulty of sifting through the massive record that now exists. Dean praises Mark Holland, however, as a sterling exception to that rule—noting that Holland’s book, which focuses on why Mark Felt became “Deep Throat,” shows an excellent command of the record, and indeed, casts light on a dark subject. In contrast, Dean notes that another respected journalist lacked the command of the record truly necessary to write accurately and insightfully about Watergate.