While Bob Woodward was bringing the details of the Watergate scandal to light for the Washington Post 41 years ago, then-White House Counsel John Dean was the self-declared “linchpin” of President Richard Nixon’s cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
But in a rare interview, the two men -- who essentially played opposite roles in the scandal -- sat down with “Politics Confidential” to offer new details about the Watergate cover-up and remember the late Ben Bradlee.
Bradlee, the legendary former Washington Post executive editor whose funeral is Wednesday, presided over the paper during its historic coverage of the Watergate scandal.
“What was powerful about him he was fact driven, what are the facts,” Woodward said of Bradlee. “He used to say, ‘I don't give an ass who the president is, let's find out what's going on.’ And he was always suspicious that the official version wasn't correct, and so it was a curiosity-driven enterprise.”
Most of the country came to know Bradlee through actor Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in the film “All the President’s Men,” a depiction Woodward said was spot on in capturing Bradlee’s “tough” but even-tempered persona.
“Ben was the ‘Hey, what's going on?’ if we made a mistake … let's untangle this, and there was never any anger at us when we screwed up," Woodward said.
“He always had a great curiosity about how Nixon could keep giving him such good news,” John Dean added jokingly. “He called him a bungler."
Though Dean jokes about Bradlee’s appetite for news on the Watergate scandal now, it was hardly a laughing matter in the days when he led Nixon’s cover-up effort.
“I am the linchpin of the conspiracy, because [John] Ehrlichman and [John] Mitchell can barely communicate,” Dean said of his role in the scandal at the time. “I'm the glue right between them all that holds it together.”
But in April of 1973, Dean dropped his allegiance to Nixon to cooperate with prosecutors and confessed to his involvement in the cover-up, in exchange for immunity and an agreement that they would not report his testimony back to the Department of Justice.
“I knew from my own dealing from Justice exactly what would happen,” Dean said, explaining the need to stay “off the record” with prosecutors. “It would go to Henry Peterson, the head of the criminal division, he would report to the Attorney General Dick Kleindienst, who would report it back to the White House.”
That same week, Nixon’s former re-election campaign deputy manager Jeb Magruder, who cooperated in planning the break-in, also cut a deal with prosecutors. And by the week's end, prosecutors broke their deal with Dean and reported back to the Department of Justice to close in on the investigation.
Adding to the drama of the prosecution’s new discoveries was the fact that they came to a head during the same weekend of White House Correspondents Dinner on April 14, 1973.
President Nixon made an appearance at the dinner, unaware that his cover-up was falling apart, while Woodward and Post colleague Carl Bernstein took the stage for an award for their reporting on the scandal.
“Richard Kleindienst, who's the attorney general, was at the correspondents dinner, and Carl and I went up and ... he said, ‘Follow your convictions,’ In other words, he was very encouraging. And then he said, ‘Watergate's about to explode,’” Woodward remembered Kleindienst telling him.
At the time of the dinner, Kleindienst did not know the details of what prosecutors had learned from Dean and Magruder, which included the implication of his predecessor, former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, in the cover-up.
But later that night, the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division came to his house, staying until the early hours of the morning to fill him in on the details on the unraveling cover-up.
Kleindienst reported back to the president that Sunday morning. And later in the day, Nixon met with Dean one-on-one in the White House Executive Office Building, and according to Dean, essentially confessed to his crimes.
But that piece of history has been lost, Dean said, because the recording of that meeting “disappeared.”
“What we know today … is the tape really didn't disappear,” said Dean.
Though the official explanation is that the White House taping system failed to record the meeting, Dean said that such a failure is very unlikely, and would have been the only such failing in the history of the Nixon White House recording system. In his book "The Nixon Defense," Dean points to additional evidence that suggests Nixon had the tape pulled, to prevent it from becoming part of the official record.
“It might be in the Haldeman attic, for all I know,” Dean said of the tape in question.
“In this meeting, he takes me through different things that are very troubling,” Dean recalled. “We had talked on March 21 about the fact, he had asked me how much money could it cost to pay these guys off, to keep them quiet,” Dean said. "He said, 'Do you remember that conversation?' I said, 'Yes sir, I do.' He said, 'Of course, you knew, when I said we could get it, I was just joking?' And I said, 'Well I didn't read it that way, but if that's what you say, Mr. President.”
At another point in the meeting, Dean said Nixon got out of his chair and crossed to corner of the office.
“In a stage whisper he says, 'I was foolish to talk to Chuck Colson about clemency for Hunt, wasn't I?' And I said, 'Yes Mr. President, that was probably an obstruction of justice.’” Dean said. “So he, in essence, is confessing, a combination of the money … and the clemency that he had authorized, clemency for Hunt. This tape was obviously deadly.”
For more of the interview with Dean and Woodward, including a discussion on how covering the presidency has changed since Nixon, check out this episode of “Politics Confidential.”
ABC News’ Ali Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Brian Haefeli and Gale Marcus contributed to this episode.