Now the grave charges against the President had passed a point of no return. Carried with chilling reality into millions of American homes and spread massively on the official record of a solemn Senate inquiry, the torrential testimony of John W. Dean III fell short of proof in a court of law. But the impact was devastating. As President, Richard Nixon was grievously, if not mortally wounded.
Nixon was a continent away at San Clemente, going about the business of the presidency. He reached a historic compromise with Congress on halting the Cambodia bombing by Aug. 15 (see page 14). He prepared to celebrate the nation's 197th Independence Day, a Fourth of July dimmed by deeply troubling questions (in the words of the Declaration) about the "just powers" of the present Government and by increasing doubts about the "consent of the governed." Though not present in the packed hearing room, Nixon was personally and directly confronted by the crouched figure of his youthful accuser, until lately his faithful counsel.
Leaning into the microphone, Dean, 34, spoke in a lifeless monotone that would long be remembered by TV audiences. There were just enough unexpected angles and lines in his face, including a slightly crooked grin, to rescue it from mediocrity. Thanks to a pair of glasses, he looked more owlish than his earlier, boyish pictures had suggested. With impressive poise and a masterly memory, Dean spun his detailed web of evidence. He readily admitted his own illegal and improper acts. But he emerged unshaken from five full days of recital and crossexamination, with his basic story challenged but intact.
Clearly, without some kind of direct and detailed Nixon reply, the committee—and the country—would have difficulty believing that the President was not an active and fully aware participant in the Watergate coverup, as Dean charged. In fact, how and when the President would reply became a decisive factor in his hopes for political survival. Chairman Sam Ervin and other committee members had already begun to ask for his appearance.
With dozens of dates, snatches of dialogue and some documents, Dean had similarly implicated Nixon's most intimate former aides, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, in multiple actions in the Watergate coverup. Less vigorously but still deeply, Dean had also drawn into that circle of conspirators a man he much admires, former Attorney General John Mitchell.
Focusing Blame. While Nixon's deputy press secretary quickly revealed that the President had no intention of submitting himself to senatorial questioning, a White House counterstrategy seemed to be emerging. It was to blame Dean and Mitchell for the Watergate wiretapping and its concealment. Ehrlichman and Haldeman will likely take the blame for shielding the clandestine activities of the White House team of agents—"the plumbers"—but plead that these were separate from Watergate and necessary in the interests of national security.
The focusing of blame on Mitchell triggered speculation that he might become angry enough to lash back at the entire White House. But his attorney said last week that Mitchell will not implicate the President when he becomes the next Ervin committee witness, as scheduled. Although Mitchell talked almost daily with Nixon last year even after