"We have a cancer within, close to the presidency, that's growing."
John Dean to Richard Nixon
March 21, 1973
When the Senate Watergate Committee convened in mid–May 1973, wrote Theodore H. White in "Breach of Faith," the committee's vague objective was to investigate 1972 presidential campaign activities.
In five weeks of hearings, the committee had heard some intriguing testimony but nothing that could directly link Richard Nixon to the crimes that had been committed in his name.
That started to change 40 years ago today when former White House counsel John Dean began a week of testimony.
Well, actually, the tide began to shift a couple of weeks earlier when Jeb Magruder, a former special assistant to the president and deputy director of Nixon's re–election campaign, testified that the former attorney general and campaign director, John Mitchell, had authorized him to burglarize the Democratic headquarters.
That certainly ratcheted up the interest in Dean's testimony. Mitchell and Nixon were close. Mitchell, after all, had directed Nixon's campaigns in 1968 and 1972. In between, he had been Nixon's top law enforcement officer.
There was nothing very exciting about the testimony on the surface, though. As theater, it was tedious. Dean delivered an opening statement on the first day in a lifeless monotone, and he referred to many people with whom viewers weren't necessarily familiar.
While there may have been nothing exciting about his delivery, there was plenty that was exciting in his testimony. And a buzz of excitement preceded his appearance before the Senate Watergate Committee. His testimony became must–see TV long before the phrase was used to promote a network schedule.
Dean had a lot to tell the senators, and he used his entire first day on the stand to read a massive opening statement, pausing occasionally for a sip of water.
Dean told the senators that Nixon had been involved in the coverup all along. He also said he warned the president — prophetically, as it turned out — that "there was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed the president himself would be killed by it."
Looking back on that conversation, with the benefit of the transcript of the actual recording, White observed that Dean, in his choice of the cancer analogy, had "obviously thought through his briefing [for Nixon] carefully."
As the week went on, Dean told the senators that Nixon had misled the nation and insisted his accusations against Nixon were true. He revealed the existence of the "enemies list" and told the senators its purpose, and he told a story of a president who was obsessed with demonstrations and spoke of using IRS audits as weapons against his political foes.
Dean's testimony that week was often so detailed that some observers openly wondered how he could possibly have retained so much detail about conversations he'd had months earlier. To confirm what he said, it would be necessary to have some kind of corroborating evidence. But the conversations hadn't been recorded. Or had they?
"The televised hearings were already an unexpected hit that summer," wrote Matthew Cooper last month in the National Journal, "but the ratings soared with Dean's testimony. Still, when Dean finished, Nixon's defenders dismissed his account as one man's obfuscations and misinterpretations of what the president meant."
"Then, a few weeks later, a former White House aide named Alexander Butterfield testified before the committee that the president had installed a taping system in the White House," Cooper wrote.
And all bets were off.