In July, 1970, John Dean flew to San Clemente, California, to be interviewed by President Richard Nixon and his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman as a possible successor to John Ehrlichman as counsel to the President. In 1974, he was in jail, convicted of conspiring to cover up the most awesome structure of criminal actions ever created by a presidential administration in United States history. John Dean was no hero; he has been called one of the sleaziest White House operatives, a compulsively ambitious striver who pandered to his superiors’ worst impulses. He largely engineered the cover-up of the illegal activities both within and without the White House and then turned informer in time to plea-bargain for himself. But he appears to have learned from his experiences and perhaps to have grown as a man as a result of them.
Certainly, Dean has produced in Blind Ambition, with the help of his collaborator, the well-known and skillful journalist Taylor Branch, an interesting chronicle of megalomania and deception, a book which contains not only an insider’s view of Washington under Richard Nixon, but also some surprisingly valuable insights. Every page of this relentlessly self-centered book conveys the authenticity of having been there. It is a highly personal narrative from a single point of view, and neither a historian’s account of the Watergate affair nor a work of moral philosophy, as its advocates tried to imply, but, rather, a necessary document for gaining a deeper understanding of the collapse of the integrity of the Nixon Administration.
Because the book was written with the aid of a collaborator, there is no way for the reader to judge how much of the personality implied by the style is that of John Dean. Yet, perhaps the chief interest of this engrossing book is what it seems to reveal of the mind and temperament of the man. Most of what Dean narrates was public knowledge when it was published, but he adds along the way some bizarre and frightful details of the grotesque and witless scuffle for status among Richard Nixon’s staff. He also devotes a great deal of space to the necessarily seedy business of plea-bargaining. Much of the book leaves the reader with a vaguely unpleasant feeling, and, at times, with a sense of disbelief. Even several years after the events, it is difficult to believe that such petty-minded and amoral individuals could have attained such positions of power in the executive branch of the United States government. Blind Ambition brings into focus the process which gave many of these men their jobs and their power and the lengths to which they were willing to go when this power was threatened.
Loyalty was the supreme virtue to these men, not loyalty to a principle or an ideal, but loyalty to Richard Nixon and to one another. But, as the record shows, even this loyalty could be compromised if it was found to be expedient to do so, for if loyalty was considered a virtue, expediency was a way of life. The portraits that Dean draws of his cast are slick and vivid; the reader has no difficulty in understanding the growing desperation that drove men such as Egil Krogh, the deputy assistant to the President for domestic affairs, and Jeb Stuart Magruder, deputy campaign director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, and Charles Colson, special counsel to the President, known as the White House “hatchet man,” and other ambitious and blind men to risk their careers and lives by committing increasingly blatant crimes. Dean necessarily brings into his narrative the entire cast of now-famous players, from Mitchell and Haldeman and Ehrlichman to the pitiful bit players such as Lawrence Higby to the more bizarre personalities of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. But always, as Dean details his impressions of these individuals and explores what he believes to have been their motivations, he is concerned basically with his own personality and his own reactions to the events transpiring.
One aspect of John Dean’s personality which is well-documented in this book is his instinct for self-preservation. Conservative in everything except his ambition, a model of propriety in most aspects of his life, John Dean held back when he sensed danger and changed course when the...
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