Capitol games

Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches
by John Dean
Viking Press
$25.95, hardcover, 352 pp.


It's pretty telling that some of the most incisive and brutal criticism of the Republicans these days comes from one of their own. John Dean, former legal counsel to President Richard Nixon, worked in an era far less partisan than today. Back in 1973, he had the intestinal fortitude and presence of mind to drop the boom on his boss during the Watergate scandal. Now, nearly 70 years old, he still has the moxie to call it like it is. His is a breed of independence that has been rendered practically extinct by today's neocon administration and the insistence on unconditional party loyalty. Dean's latest book, Broken Government, follows two other bestsellers, Conservatives Without Conscience (2006) and Worse Than Watergate (2004), condemning Republicans for practically making an art out of "gaming the system." Metro Times spoke with Dean about his writings, and some recent developments that his books have foreshadowed.


Metro Times: Are you still a Republican?

John Dean: I registered a couple years ago as an independent. I had actually never voted a straight ticket even when I was working at the Nixon White House. I've never been a straight party man. I've never thought either party had all the answers or all the candidates.


MT: Would you have made it in this White House?

Dean: No. [Laughs.] Being about 30 years older, I would have told them to go to hell in a wheelbarrow long before I handed that to Nixon.


MT: You say that the media and the Democrats don't think people are interested in stories about the ruthless way Republicans manipulate the process of government.

Dean: The Democrats totally ignored process in 2004. The candidates were going out and saying, "We don't want to appear as wimpish, so we won't talk about how they're screwing us up here on Capitol Hill." That's pretty vital stuff. The Republicans are truly gaming the system with great success, and nobody is calling them on it.


MT: How much are you involved in what is currently going on in politics these days?

Dean: I have deliberately stayed away from all partisan politics. I carry water for nobody. My only interest or agenda is good government, as somebody who has seen it at its darker moments.


MT: Would you call yourself a pundit?

Dean: For lack of a better description, that might be one term. For the 2004 election, I had a number of requests to come into congressional districts and indeed to go into one state for the Kerry people. I said, "Listen, I lose all my detachment and my ability to be an honest broker on information if I affiliate with anybody." I also thought that Kerry was running a lousy campaign and was in deep trouble.


MT: Have you had your share of contentious situations on right-wing talk shows?

Dean: Sometimes callers have no information about what I'm writing or why I'm saying it. When I walk them through the reason I've reached a conclusion, I find them sputtering. How do you, for example, refute almost a half century of hard scientific data showing how authoritarian personalities behave?


MT: It seems people don't want to accept that about themselves or their party.

Dean: Obviously they will go into denial or will say: 'Well, I just don't believe what you are saying.' The authoritarian personality is known for its inability to accept anything other than what they believe. They get into a worldview and a position and they follow that to the end of the Earth and off a cliff, if necessary, because they find too much personal discomfort in accepting the fact that they may be wrong.


MT: Self-reflection is the enemy.

Dean: Exactly.


MT: It's like what Norman Mailer said about George W. Bush: "You can't stop people who are never embarrassed by themselves."

Dean: That nails it.


MT: In the book you trumpet the fact that the Democrats took over Congress and brought back civility. But it seems they are just allowing themselves to get walked over.

Dean: The Republicans are going to use the same tactics they used in '94 to win the Congress, and that is to make the place so inoperative, difficult to make anything happen, that they can go out and claim to the public the Democrats can't run the place. The Senate, as you know, all they have to do today is just threaten a filibuster, and you've got to have 60 votes, and there is no way you can get it. The Republicans might vote against motherhood if they thought the Democrats were sponsoring it.


MT: Why don't the Democrats at least run the filibuster and make these people stand up for what they ostensibly believe in? Sixty votes are needed to stop a filibuster in progress, not to prevent it from happening.

Dean: Right, it's called a cloture vote.


MT: So they are allowing the Republicans to pressure them into changing the rules.

Dean: That's true. I think if they took a couple of key measures and just made the Republicans go to the floor and maintain an indefinite filibuster, after a while the public would say there is something astray here. Harry Reid is a master parliamentarian, so he knows as well as anybody in that body how to play that game.


MT: But then he allows votes like the Move On censure.

Dean: They don't play the game as hard as the Republicans. They are not as vicious, as ruthless, as manipulative, and what I've tracked it back to is that the Democrats just aren't authoritarian personalities.


MT: But it seems like authoritarian personalities are more easily led, willing to fall in step, if they are following the party line.

Dean: That is absolutely the nature of the personality. And that's one of the reasons the Republicans have been very good at winning elections. About 25 percent of the American public are their authoritarian followers. That's the core, and that's about the same core you have in the Republican Party. And they will do as they are told, and stay on message.


MT: What about Iran? Are the Democrats just going to let it happen?

Dean: They don't have the troops. But, as far as bombing it, let me put it this way: It wouldn't surprise me if they did that.


MT: This administration believes the president has the right to attack whoever he wants.

Dean: Every American should fear the kind of aggregation of power the Republicans are trying to put into the presidency. They've totally ignored the Constitution. The executive branch is broken.


MT: Should Congress-woman Nancy Pelosi have taken impeachment off the table?

Dean: I think that clearly Bush and Cheney and everybody in the administration have benefited from the abuse of that process under Clinton. Most of the public was disgusted with what the Republicans did, as well as a number of Republicans, but ironically they've never had to pay for it. It's clear there's no way if the House could impeach anybody that they could get a conviction in the Senate. They don't have enough votes.


MT: You wrote in your book that the Republicans weren't really trying to impeach Clinton so much as embarrass him. Wouldn't it at least bring the issues to the table, or maybe prevent Bush from doing more harm?

Dean: Pelosi doesn't want to play the same game the Republicans played.


MT: Well, it would seem that's the way to lose.

Dean: [Laughs.] Which they've proven.

David Wildman is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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