For the second post in a row I open with a reference to Watergate, though once again the post has nothing to do with the mother of all political scandals. I was just thinking of John Dean. An attorney and White House Counsel for Nixon, Dean was the reluctant Judas whose testimony to Congress in 1973 blew the lid wide open on the murky machinations at the dark heart of the Presidency. During his appearance at the Watergate hearings, John Dean didn’t come across as someone enjoying the grinding of an axe; despite being promised a degree of immunity from prosecution in return for co-operating with the committee, Dean still looked like a condemned schoolboy poised to receive a sound thrashing from the headmaster as a prelude to expulsion. He could probably foresee what his evidence would ultimately lead to, but the burden of playing a key role in the downfall of a US President perhaps wasn’t the kind of historical footnote he sought or relished. Whereas the Watergate hearings happened at the tail-end of the last era in which the vast majority of people didn’t want to believe the worst of their elected representatives – and indeed it undoubtedly began the process of terminal disillusionment in them – nobody expects anything better from them now.
Maybe the ghost of John Dean was evoked yesterday as a glaring contrast with the deliverance of similarly damning testimony of a government given by another former inside man. Indeed, the gulf between the diffident Dean and the hell-bent-on-revenge performance of Dominic Cummings couldn’t be wider. We’ve been living in a post-Watergate world of cynicism and scepticism when it comes to the integrity of political figures ever since John Dean confessed all in the summer of 1973, and Cummings’s grandstand audition for the next Tory administration – carefully distancing himself from the pandemic can-carriers by both laying into them and omitting names he clearly thinks will rise from the ashes and call upon his services in the future – was unedifying confirmation that the public’s tendency to believe the worst is entirely justified.
I’ve watched a sizeable chunk of the opening of John Dean’s Watergate testimony on YouTube, but just the first part of four instalments runs for six hours – and the rest nearly five each – so I’m presuming his appearance lasted several days; Dominic Cummings’s appearance before a select committee of MPs was scheduled for just the one day, but it still spanned seven straight hours – and I therefore had no option but to stick with the edited highlights. What made John Dean’s testimony so much more effective was that he delivered genuinely devastating revelations in such a mild-mannered manner; the weight of what he had to say seemed enhanced by the way in which he slowly unveiled it; moreover, the impact of those revelations was also given considerable clout by being made at that particular point in history, which was – as stated – a less cynical time. Cummings, on the other hand, embarked upon his theatrical kiss-and-tell at a moment when the standing of public servants probably couldn’t sink much lower. With Dean, it was the information that counted above all else; with Cummings, the focus was all on the performance; the information simply confirmed what most already knew.
I suppose one could say with friends like Dominic Cummings, who needs enemies? The man who ran away from the media spotlight throughout the fallout from his eye-testing expedition up north in the depths of lockdown owned the media spotlight yesterday and appeared to love every minute of it. He may have been ostensibly answering select committee questions, but he wasn’t going to leave without having done as much damage to the pretty threadbare reputation of his man at No.10 as was within his power as an ex-insider; this was the opportunity to get his own back after being prompted to jump last year – and Cummings grabbed it with both claws. His bitterness at being usurped at Downing Street by Carrie and her Woke entourage was laid bare; the day of reckoning had finally come for the jilted partner – and he damned Boris with all the vociferous, vengeful fury of a dumped spouse in a celebrity divorce case. The man whose rise to power he played no inconsiderable part in is now apparently ‘unfit for office’. Well, we didn’t need Dominic Cummings to tell us that, but it was still grotesquely compelling car-crash telly to see the ex-Svengali ripping into Boris and saying it out loud. According to Cummings, it’s ‘crackers’ that Boris is PM and that ‘thousands of people’ could provide better leadership. Boris is ‘a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle to the other’. Who was it pushing that trolley in the supermarket, though? Ah, yes – but maybe that proves Cummings was in sore need of an eye-test after all.
Of course, the pandemic was at the top of the agenda when it came to the actual questions Cummings was being posed yesterday; and his assessment of the approach taken by Boris and the Cabinet to the coronavirus gave him a chance to drive his first batch of nails into the Johnson coffin. He claimed Boris dismissed Covid as a scare story as late as February 2020, though to be fair that hardly makes Boris unique; he also said Boris’s main concern as the first lockdown was imminent was more the impact on the economy than lives – though once we were all under house arrest, the state of the economy proved to be a prime cause of worry for many. Boris’s reluctance to instigate lockdown was undoubtedly the reason it was delayed for so long, but Cummings paints himself as a bit of a hardcore pro-lockdown cheerleader whose advice was ignored, as though had it been taken by the PM thousands of lives would’ve been saved. He even said he overheard Boris utter the statement reported in the press, the one about him preferring to see ‘bodies piled high’ than impose Lockdown III. Not that Cummings reserved his most scathing accusations for Boris, however; no, the main guilty party in his opinion was Matt Hancock.
Cummings claimed he repeatedly told Boris to sack Hancock, but said the PM wanted the Health Secretary to stay in the job so he could take the majority of the blame whenever the whole affair eventually receives a public inquiry; Cummings more or less said Hancock was an incompetent liar and declared he should have been fired multiple times. Hancock’s hilarious, hurried response when briefly ‘door-stepped’ by a camera crew yesterday was to claim he was too busy ‘saving lives’ to react to Cummings’s accusations. Yes, our Health Secretary is actually a superhero armed with a super-power with which he heals the sick, dashing from one quarantined household to another. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super-Cock! Super-Cock was forced to defend his record in the Commons today – a tough call considering his disastrous care home policy at the height of the pandemic, not to mention his jobs-for-the-boys approach to dishing out Covid-related contracts; Cummings’s assessment of Hancock is one few would dispute, though there was plenty of stating the bleedin’ obvious during the performance. It was just unusual to hear it coming from someone who had been there.
For a man who was hysterically denounced as an untrustworthy, bare-faced liar during the period in which his lockdown trip to Northumberland was exposed, it’s amazing how many Boris-haters on social media now suddenly believe every word Cummings says just because he’s saying what they want to hear. Most of us recognise Cummings’s agenda and though a lot of what he said was unarguable, particularly when it comes to the incompetence of the PM and those around him, let’s not pretend Dominic Cummings was some blameless voice of reason in the eye of the storm. Yes, John Dean was as keen to save his own skin in 1973 as Dominic Cummings is in 2021; but whereas at the Watergate hearings Dean didn’t shy away from his part in what went on in the Nixon administration, with Dominic Cummings it felt more like a case of ‘Please, sir – it wasn’t me.’
© The Editor