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How Conservatives Have Become Authoritarians and What it Means

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Contemporary conservatives have become extremely contentious, confrontational, and aggressive in nearly every area of politics and governing. Today they have a tough-guy (and, in a few instances, a tough-gal) attitude, an arrogant and antagonistic style, along with a narrow outlook intolerant of those who challenge their extreme thinking. Incivility is now their norm. "During the Father Bush period, there was a presumption of civility," Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute observes, but "we lost it under Clinton," when conservatives relentlessly attacked his presidency, and "then the present President Bush deliberately chose a strategy of being a divider, rather than a uniter."

Even more troubling, the right-wing presidency of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney has taken positions that are in open defiance of international treaties or blatant violations of domestic laws, while pushing the limits of presidential power beyond the parameters of the Constitution. It is aided and abetted in these actions by a conservative Republican Congress that refuses to check or balance the president. These patterns were apparent long before the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, but the right wing's bellicose response to the events of that day has escalated into a false claim of legitimacy. Many authors (and journalists) have described the extreme hubris now present in Washington, along with the striking abuses of power. While some of this activity has ostensibly been undertaken in the name of fighting terrorists, much of it is just good old-fashioned power corruption.

Conservatives Without Conscience, however, is not a book about Bush and Cheney. My venture here is not to expose more malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance in places high or low in Washington, nor even to try to catalog it, for the gist of what is occurring under con-servative Republican rule is all too obvious. Although this is a report that cannot be given without frequent references to the administration's disquieting politics and governing, my effort, fundamentally, is to understand them, to explain why they are happening, while placing them all in a larger context, including the particular events that initially prompted my inquiry about people with whom I once thought I shared beliefs.

Frankly, when I started writing this book I had a difficult time accounting for what had become of conservatism or, for that matter, the Republican Party. I went down a number of dead-end streets looking for answers, before finally discovering a true explanation. My finding, simply stated, is the growing presence of conservative authoritarianism. Conservatism has noticeably evolved from its so-called modern phase (1950-94) into what might be called a postmodern period (1994 to the present), and in doing so it has regressed to its earliest authoritarian roots. Authoritarianism is not well understood and seldom discussed in the context of American government and politics, yet it now constitutes the prevailing thinking and behavior among conservatives. Regrettably, empirical studies reveal, however, that authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral. They are also often conservatives without conscience who are capable of plunging this nation into disasters the likes of which we have never known.

Although I have only recently learned the correct term for describing this type of behavior, and come to understand the implications of such authoritarian thinking, I was familiar with the personality type from my years in the Nixon White House. We had plenty of authoritarians in the Nixon administration, from the president on down. In fact, authoritarian thinking was the principal force behind almost everything that went wrong with Nixon's presidency. I had had little contact with my former colleagues, or with their new authoritarian friends and associates, until the early 1990s, when they decided to attack my wife and me in an effort to rewrite history at our expense. By then I had left public life for a very comfortable and private existence in the world of business, but they forced me back into the public square to defend myself and my wife from their false charges. In returning, I discovered how contemptible and dangerous their brand of "conservatism" had become, and how low they were prepared to stoop for their cause.

About 7:00 a.m. on Monday, May 6, 1991, I received a phone call that was both literally and figuratively a wake-up call, one that would dramatically change the political world as I thought I knew it. My last politics-related activity had been in 1982, when I wrote Lost Honor, a book about the consequences of Watergate during the decade that followed it. Since then I had focused exclusively on my work in merger and acquisition ventures, and I no longer had any interest in partisan politics. In fact, I had done everything I could to lower my public profile and regain my privacy by refusing to give press interviews. I became a true nonpartisan, sometimes voting for Republicans and sometimes for Democrats, always determined to select the best candidates for the job. I paid little attention to Washington affairs other than major events. I did maintain my relationships with old friends in Washington, including some still active at the highest levels of government and several who worked for Reagan and Bush I, but we seldom discussed politics too seriously. I discovered that I enjoyed life more outside of the political arena, and so I had no interest in returning to it.

When the phone rang that Monday morning, I assumed it was my wife, Maureen-"Mo" to family and friends-calling from Pennsylvania, where she had gone to care for my mother, who had recently suffered a stroke. I was instead greeted by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, and his producer Brian Ellis. Wallace quickly got to the reason for their call. "Have you heard about this new book about Bob Woodward?" he inquired referring to the Washington Post's star reporter and best-selling author. "I'm talking about a book called Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, by Leonard Colodny and Robert Gettlin."* Wallace explained that 60 Minutes was working on a story about Silent Coup, which St. Martin's Press was going to publish in two weeks, and Time magazine was going to run an excerpt from the book. Wallace said the book dealt not only with Woodward but also "with you, sir, John Dean."

"How so?" I asked. I knew about the book because Colodny had called me several years earlier looking for dirt on Woodward, and I had told him I had none. Later he called back to ask me some questions about my testimony before the Senate Watergate committee. But Colodny had said little about how I related to his book. I had assumed his project had died.

"Do you know a woman by the name of Heidi Rikan?" Wallace asked.
"Sure, Heidi was a friend of Mo's. She died a few years ago. What does Heidi have to do with Silent Coup? " Heidi and Mo had been friends before we were married and was a bridesmaid at our wedding. Wallace ignored my question.

Employing his trademark confrontational tone, Wallace began throwing hard balls. "According to Silent Coup, Heidi was also known as Cathy Dieter, and this Heidi/Cathy person, as they call her in the book, had a connection to a call-girl ring back in 1971 and '72. In fact, I gather she was the madam of the operation. According to Silent Coup, this call-girl ring had a connection with the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate. Apparently the DNC was providing customers for the call girls. The book says that your wife was the roommate of Cathy Dieter, and she seemingly knew all about this activity. In fact, according to Silent Coup, this call-girl operation was the reason for the break-ins at the Watergate."

I was, understandably, stunned. I had never heard or seen anything that would even hint at Heidi's being a call girl, and I could not imagine Mo's not telling me if she knew, or had any such suspicion. And I knew for certain that neither Heidi nor Mo had anything whatsoever to do with Watergate. My thoughts raced as Wallace continued with his questioning.

"Did you know an attorney in Washington by the name of Phillip Mackin Bailley?" he asked.

When I answered that I did not, he pressed. "Do you remember an incident while you were working at the White House, as counsel to the president, when an assistant United States attorney came to your office, a fellow named John Rudy, to discuss Phillip Bailley's involvement in prostitution, and you made a copy of Mr. Bailley's address book, which had been seized by the FBI?"

"I recall a couple of assistant United States attorneys coming to my office in connection with a newspaper story claiming that a lawyer, or a secretary, from the White House was allegedly connected with a call-girl ring. As I recall, we had trouble figuring out who, if anyone, at the White House was involved. But I never made a copy of an address book." My mind was searching, trying to recall events that had taken place almost two decades earlier.

Wallace now dropped another bomb. He told me that according to Silent Coup Mo's name was in Phillip Bailley's little black address book. He also said that Bailley had been indicted for violating the Mann Act, which prohibits taking women across state lines for immoral pur-poses, specifically prostitution. Silent Coup claimed that my wife was listed in the address book as "Mo Biner," along with a code name of "Clout." Supposedly, Bailley's address book also contained the name of Cathy Dieter. Before I could digest this information, Wallace added more.

"According to Silent Coup, sir, you, John Dean, are the real mastermind of the Watergate break-ins, and you ordered these break-ins because you were apparently seeking sexual dirt on the Democrats, which you learned about from your then girlfriend, now wife, Maureen." When I failed to respond, because I was dumbfounded, Wallace asked, "Does this make sense to you?"

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John Dean was White House legal counsel to President Nixon for a thousand days. Dean also served as chief minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee and as an associate deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice. He is author of the book, (more...)
 

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