John Dean on Bush

The second coming of George III

John Dean
John Dean (Photo by John Anderson)

There's a famous story of heavyweight Republican consultant Karl Rove brushing off poor GOP poll numbers just prior to the November 2006 election, telling a reporter, "You have your numbers; I have the numbers." Former White House counsel John Dean argues that the Republicans have taken the same approach to basic freedoms. "I think it's probably true with all provisions of the Constitution," explained Dean. "They pretty much read them the way they want to."

Before his panel appearance at the Netroots Nation convention, the onetime White House counsel to President Richard Nixon and, in recent years, constitutional commentator, appeared at a July 17 fundraiser for Austin's North by Northwest Democrats at the North Lamar Waterloo Ice House. Much of the Net­roots community has reacted strongly against the July 9 U.S. Senate vote passing the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The law effectively rewrites the Fourth Amend­ment, the protection against unreasonable search and seizure, to fit the administration's world-view – that national security trumps the Constitution and the president makes his own law. Dean decried the decision and said, "It's just amazing that the weakest president since Nixon can get through the amendments to the FISA bill he just did, when most Amer­i­cans who know anything about it are horrified by it." But he added that the Internet community shouldn't feel singled out by the administration in its spinning of the Constitution. "With the Second Amendment, long before the Supreme Court ruled that [the right to bear arms] was about personal rights, they've been reading it that way," he noted.

Dean came to public prominence for giving insight into the workings of the White House, and former White House press secretary and Austinite Scott McClellan has followed suit with his recent book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Cul­ture of Deception ("belatedly," noted Dean). While McClellan wrote about the Texans in the Bush cabinet (see "Who Did He Serve?" June 20), Dean sees another side of the equation: the veterans of Nixon's cabinet and campaign machine who survived to become pivotal in Bush's administration. The highest ranked is Dean's fellow former Nixon staffer, Vice Pres­ident Dick Cheney, whom Dean described as "our best living example of the Peter Principle ... people succeeding beyond their levels of competence, where they then exercise their power and show their incompetence."

There are many other former Nixonites: ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (whom Nixon called a "ruthless little bastard," as a compliment), former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, sometime Bush foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger, and even Rove, a Young Republican protégé of convicted Watergate conspirator Donald Segretti. Dean recalled what he was told by Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., when she was a ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: "She was convinced, as someone who had an understanding of recent history, that Cheney and his closest aides were still fighting Water­gate, that they had never gotten over it, and they were trying to revive the Nixon presidency."

With the people come the policies, and again Dean finds in Bush echoes of Nixon's tactics of scouring legal history for justification. "I remember reading a brief the Nixon administration submitted on electronic surveillance," he recalled, "and they literally drew on George III as a precedent. We laugh at that, but the problem is, today you've got legal scholars advising the Bush administration drawing on the precedents of George III."

Dean argues that traditional conservative thinkers would have been appalled by the extraordinary loading of powers into the presidency. This time it's through Article II of the Constitution – the commander-in-chief clause – which he says the founders saw mainly as a label. Again, Dean argues, this finds the Bush administration using the absolutism of George III as a model and dressing him in a cloak of constitutionality. He explained: "He can go to war any time he wants to; he can ignore the Parliament or the Legislature. So to me, these are facades of legitimacy that they use to make their case over policy objections."

Dean sees the same proclivities in some of the ranking Texas Republicans, calling them "marginally able." The day before former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, quit his post as co-chairman of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign after describing America as "a nation of whiners," Dean said he "has a great résumé but, as he's obviously shown, a totally tin ear." As for Sen. John Cornyn, Dean called his continued political career "mortifying," adding: "He looks like a senator, but he doesn't act like one. I find him fairly pathetic." He similarly condemned Texas' biggest political export: President George W. Bush. "I'm sure he's a very likable person," said Dean, "just not terribly suited to run the country."

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