John Dean knows something about White House abuse of power. He wrote a bestseller in 2004 on the Bush White House called Worse Than Watergate. In a recent interview I asked him what he thinks of that title now. Now, he replied, a book comparing Bush and Nixon would have to be called Much, Much Worse.
"Look at the so-called Watergate abuses of power," he said. "Nobody died. Nobody was tortured. Millions of Americans were not subject to electronic surveillance of their communications. We're playing now in a whole different league."And how does Bush compare with the Republicans seeking to succeed him? "If a Rudy Giuliani were to be elected," Dean said, "he would go even farther than Cheney and Bush in their worst moments."
What about the rest of the pack? "I'm very concerned about the current attitude in the Republican party," he said. "However there are candidates on the Republican side who are not quite as frightening as Giuliani." When I asked who he had in mind, he laughed and said "Ron Paul." He conceded that "there's no chance he's going to be president."
Dean's new book is Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches. It's a massively documented and thorough indictment, arguing that, over the last 30 years, Republicans have broken or ignored laws, rules, and the Constitution. He's especially critical of the growth of presidential power under Bush II, and what he calls the "corruption" of the courts by "radical conservatives."
I asked Dean to imagine the moment when Bush leaves office on Jan. 20, 2009, presumably to be replaced by a Democrat, presumably Hillary -- will it then be possible to say "our long national nightmare is over"? Dean replied with one word: "Yes."
He quickly added, "I do feel strongly that the Republicans have so abused the law and embedded so many people within the system, within the executive branch, that's it's going to take a couple of terms of Democratic presidents before you have people there who are representing the American people."
Does that mean he is supporting Hillary? "She's obviously the one the other Democrats have to beat," he said, "but I don't take any position."
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How then would he describe his political position? He says in his new book that he's left his "former tribe" - does that make him a Democrat today? "It doesn't," he replied. "I carry water for nobody. My only interest is being an honest information broker about what's happening. I have no agenda other than explaining - and being shocked at my former tribe."
"I've had invitations to become involved with Democrats," he added, "and have turned them all down. I'm an independent. That happens to be the largest group of voters in the country today - we're about 40 per cent strong."
When I pressed Dean to comment on the Democratic candidates, he said he was more interested in whether any Democrats would raise what he called "process" issues - "kind of a dull-sounding word, but actually it's about the machinery of democracy. I was stunned when the Kerry campaign in 2004 totally ignored the remarkable secrecy of the Bush administration. I called the Kerry campaign after the election, and asked them why they hadn't raised this issue. The Kerry people told me, 'We didn't raise it because it's a process issue.'"
"I began making inquiries," he continued, "and found that lots of Democratic party campaign consultants believe that the candidates shouldn't mention process issues. Democrats thought it would make them look wimpy to say 'we're being excluded from the legislative process.' Kerry didn't want to raise secrecy for the same reason - he thought it would sound wimpy."
Was Kerry right about the electorate? "I found that's exactly 180 digress away from the truth," Dean replied. "Most people can't tell you what a motion to recommit is. They don't know about that kind of process. But they know when they're getting screwed. And process is designed to protect the public interest. So people get it when the game of politics is not being played fairly, when one party is using the process for their own benefit. These kinds of things are of great interest to about 20 to 30 million voters."
What about the many more who are apathetic and ignorant -- doesn't that make him pessimistic about political change? Dean conceded that "large segments of the American public are turned off and tuned out from the democratic process. They can't name their senators. They don't know who's the Chief Justice. But the reason I'm optimistic is that I think we have enough proxies in those who are interested. They are fairly representative of those who are not. When you give them the information they need, they do the right thing. That's why I'm trying to give people good information and hard facts to show people what's gone wrong."