Legal History

John Dean: Different Lawyer Ethics Rules Might Have Changed History (and Spared Nixon)

The former White House counsel disbarred for his role in the Watergate cover-up says President Nixon might never have been forced from office if different lawyer ethics rules had been in effect.

John Dean now teaches a legal ethics course about reporting changes implemented by many states. The new rules, adopted after Watergate and refined after Enron, require lawyers to report wrongdoing within an organization, up to the highest levels, and, if nothing is done, they may “report out” to an outside authority. Writing for Bloomberg View, Dean says he wishes the rules were in place after the burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex.

“On June 17, 1972, when the arrests occurred, I was a 34-year-old White House counsel, a midlevel staff person who was asked to deal with the mess,” he writes. “I became the ‘deck officer’ dealing with the burgeoning disaster. Because the rules of legal ethics have changed so much, lawyers today wouldn’t address the problem confronting the Nixon White House as I did. Now they are in a stronger position to prevent wrongdoing before things go too far.”

Things may have been different, he writes, if he and other presidential aides had taken steps to make sure the criminality of the Watergate burglaries never reached into the White House. He wasn’t able to communicate with President Nixon until eight months into the cover-up. “By then we were all too deeply involved, including the president,” he writes.

He sees a different outcome under today’s legal ethics rules. “Rather than a defeated Richard Nixon being forced from office early by his own secretly recorded and incriminating conversations, there should have been a joyous farewell on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 20, 1977, as the president flashed a final victory sign, stepped into his helicopter, and headed off to a respected place in U.S. history. Rather than Nixon’s top aides going to prison, many of us might have gone on to even higher public service.”

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