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Key Watergate figure examines use—and abuse—of executive powers

Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean delivered this year's Tresolini Lecture in Law.

Prior to taking the stage Thursday night to deliver the 2008 Tresolini Lecture in Law, John Dean ducked behind the curtain of Baker Hall for a candid discussion with 14 Lehigh undergraduates.

For the students, Dean was living history, a person they read about in books or recalled seeing on television. As the White House counsel to Richard M. Nixon, who is best known for his devastating testimony against his former boss during the Watergate hearings, Dean shared insights and anecdotes from his years in the Beltway with a generation that was not yet born when Watergate dominated the headlines.

Students’ intellectual curiosity kept 70-year-old Dean fielding questions on everything from getting through law school (the key, he says, is being well-read) to fixing a broken presidential nomination process. He told the students that they too were witnessing political history, with a woman and an African-American vying for the Democratic nomination.

“I’ve taken history classes in which Mr. Dean’s contributions have been discussed, and it was surreal to sit within 50 feet of such an influential writer, lawyer, and political commentator,” said Missy Leuzzi ’09, a double political science and English major, who joined the pre-lecture discussion.

Dean later addressed a much larger—and notably grayer-haired—audience in Zoellner’s Baker Hall for a lecture entitled “Executive Power: From Nixon to Bush and Beyond.” Spanning from Nixon’s earliest days to the current Bush administration, Dean examined each president’s use of executive power, its impact on other branches of government, and what citizens can draw from each president’s interpretation of executive authority as they look to select our nation’s future leaders.

Nixon, he said, is the first president who used the presidency and campaign to politicize the Supreme Court. Jimmy Carter, he said, created the modern vice presidency after selecting and empowering Walter Mondale. He believes the George H.W. Bush was markedly restrained, and that Bill Clinton exercised “raw presidential power.”

“I don’t carry partisan water for anyone”

Dean said President Bush "has been exercising powers he doesn’t have."

“John Dean, still a professed conservative of the Goldwater variety, left the audience with several things to consider, including most significantly the proper scope of power for the office of the presidency (regardless who occupies it); the process by which political parties or ideologies may evolve under the influence of key figures or circumstances; and the necessity for a keen political memory so that we may learn from—rather than be lulled back into—the mistakes of the past,” said Brian Pinaire, assistant professor of political science and organizer of the annual Tresolini Lecture.

“I thought that Mr. Dean did an excellent job outlining the executive powers in recent history,” said Ashley Pritchard ’09, a double major in political science and economics. “It was enjoyable to me personally as I have now been studying executive power in constitutional law for about a year now and I was able to follow his assessments of events in history such as the War Powers Resolution and President Bush’s recent signing statements.”

Since leaving the White House in April of 1973, Dean has focused his efforts on investment banking and on writing about the subjects of law, government and politics. His latest book, Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, was released in 2007, and incited heated debates about the lasting impact of the Bush administration.

As an outspoken critic of that administration, Dean reiterated his views on Bush’s penchant for secrecy and his deception over the war in Iraq.

“He has been exercising powers he doesn’t have,” Dean said. “I look back on the Watergate abuses and it just pales. In his darkest moments, I can’t imagine Nixon telling the CIA to use torture as an interrogation technique.”

But Dean told the audience he didn’t come with any agenda or endorsement. “I don’t carry partisan water for anyone,” he said. “Good government—that’s all I’m interested in.”

Wade Haubert, a graduate student in the political science department who attended the lecture, said, “The message that was conveyed is that we are going down a very dangerous road where the executive office has seen an exponential increase in its powers and this is dangerous to democracy. Sadly, some members of the audience, through their questions, clearly did not understand that and viewed him only as an anti-George Bush/Dick Cheney person.”

With the Pennsylvania primary less than three weeks away, audience members were eager to learn Dean’s perspective on the current presidential race in order to understand the “beyond” his lecture title referred to.

“No future president is bound by these exercises of executive power,” Dean said.

Dean joins a long list of legal luminaries who have delivered the Tresolini Lecture at Lehigh, which is named for Rocco J. Tresolini, former chair of the Department of Government. The lecture series brings in people who can speak to the relationship between law and government.

Last year’s lecture was delivered by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Past speakers have included U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Arthur Goldberg; political activist Daniel Ellsberg; attorneys David Boies, Barry Scheck, and Morris Dees; U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.; and journalists Nina Totenberg and Anthony Lewis.

--Tricia Long

Posted on Monday, April 07, 2008

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