Key Watergate player John Dean speaks at CSC on scandal’s ethical legacy

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The 33rd annual Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference at Lipscomb University wrapped up Saturday, June 8, with a talk by a man who faced one of the most famous ethical dilemmas in history.

John Dean, former counsel to President Richard Nixon and key witness for the prosecution in the Watergate trials, spoke to conference participants on “The Ethical Legacy of Watergate.” Unfortunately, the legacy of America’s most famous presidential scandal is not a particularly strong one, he noted.

“With Watergate, we wrote the book on what not to do, but nobody is checking the book anymore,” Dean told the crowd of theologians and scholars attending the three-day annual conference. This year’s theme was “Crisis in Ethics: theology, business, law and the liberal and fine arts.”

“Watergate reforms have come and gone,” Dean said, noting that a law requiring an independent counsel to investigate presidential wrong-doing has been eliminated, that campaign finance laws passed in the wake of Watergate have been gutted and that investigative journalism of the kind that brought the 1970s abuses to light has faded away.

The only positive ethical legacy Dean noted was that the scandal motivated the American Bar Association to revamp its ethics rules for lawyers.

Dean was in his 30s when he went to work for the White House and became embroiled in the cover-up of illegal activities brought to the public eye through a break-in at the Watergate hotel/office complex. As more information came to light and Dean saw just how far his colleagues were willing to go to hide their activities, he decided to work with prosecutors and the Senate committee to reveal the truth.

Dean told the crowd that he was convinced that “nobody at the White House had a clue we were doing anything illegal until after Nov. 7, 1972. We were in the psychology of cover-up,” he said.

“Such crimes are not bright-line crimes. It’s very easy to slip over the line. There’s no flashing light to let you know you have gone too far,” he said.

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During his televised testimony before the Senate committee, Dean presented a list of those in the White House who were involved. He had marked each lawyer on the list with a star because he was shocked how many lawyers had been part of the conspiracy. That list inspired leaders of the ABA to re-work their ethics rules for lawyers, and today, Dean speaks to lawyers nationwide about the new ethics rules and demonstrate how the rules would have stopped the illegal activities and cover-up in the Nixon White House.

The new ethics rules provide lawyers with more “leverage to force their clients to do the right thing,” he said. This area of modern legal ethics is the primary place where the legacy of Watergate is making a difference today, Dean said.

Next year’s Christian Scholars’ Conference will begin on June 5, 2014, and will feature Carl Holladay, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament Studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, as one of the highlighted speakers.

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