Former Nixon Counselor John Dean Shares Ethics Lessons at Annual Kastenmeier Lecture

John Dean has been thinking, writing and speaking about Watergate for more than forty years — not only to document a critical moment in United States political history, but lately, to examine the role he and other lawyers played in the Nixon White House scandal.

“Something like twenty-one lawyers got on the wrong side of the law during Watergate,” he told an audience of nearly five hundred UW Law students, alumni, faculty, and friends at the annual Kastenmeier lecture, held last fall. “Why did so many of them cross the line?”

The event brought together Dean and former US Representative Robert Kastenmeier for the first time since the Watergate hearings. Kastenmeier, for whom the Law School lecture is named, was serving on the House Judiciary Committee when it adopted the Articles
of Impeachment against President Nixon. He earned his LL.B. at the Law School in 1952.

Dean, who served as chief White House counsel under Richard Nixon, became a key witness for the prosecution in the Watergate trial and ultimately served four months in prison on charges of obstructing justice. He believes Watergate-era crimes led to reforms in legal ethics that remain in place today.

In his talk, titled “Crossing the Line: Watergate, the Criminal Law, and Ethics,” Dean outlined five mistakes made by attorneys in the Nixon White House that still hold lessons for today’s attorneys:

  1. Incompetence. Dean hadn’t been trained in criminal law, nor had anyone else mixed up in the scandal, he believes. But against his urging, Watergate insiders refused to hire outside counsel to advise them on criminal matters.
  2. Loyalty to the client. Every lawyer should be wary of feelings of unquestioning devotion toward a powerful client, Dean said. “Particularly with the president, you have a situation where he can do an awful lot of nice things for you if you served him well and he liked that. And that didn’t escape most of the people who were involved.”
  3. Confusion about the client. After serving as chief White House counsel, Dean realized too late that he was working not for the president of the United States but for the office of the president of the United States. “It’s a big difference — a big difference,” he says. “The occupant of the office will come and go and change, where the office remains.”
  4. Arrogance toward the law. To illustrate how presidents and others abuse political power, Dean played video of Richard Nixon’s famous interview with David Frost, where President Nixon says, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” However, Dean maintains that powerful people — including presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Obama — have always viewed themselves as above the law, particularly in the arena of national security.
  5. The psychology of cover-up. According to Dean, “Humans are built for cover-ups, unfortunately.” He cited research into “loss-frame mentality,” the psychological tendency of people to take risks, even when the risks are irrational.

— Tammy Kempfert