Dean and CummingsFor 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


There was an abundance of memorable moments during the Watergate scandal, but none managed to condense as much drama into such a short space of time as the so-called ‘Saturday Night Massacre’, which occurred on October 20 1973. The reputation of Nixon’s administration had suffered additional embarrassment ten days earlier with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew whilst he faced charges of tax evasion unrelated to Watergate; but when the President ordered the Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the man Richardson had appointed as an independent special prosecutor to investigate the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party offices in Washington’s Watergate building, the Attorney General refused to do so.

As part of his investigations, Cox had issued a subpoena to Nixon that ordered the surrender of taped conversations between the President and his aides recorded in the Oval Office; Nixon had refused in recognition of the threat Cox posed to his story of events. By ordering his Attorney General to dismiss Cox, the President assumed the problem would be solved; he hadn’t anticipated Eliot Richardson would refuse the order and then resign in protest. Nixon’s response was to demand Richardson’s deputy William Ruckelshaus do the deed instead; Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned.

Desperate to save face, Nixon initially claimed Ruckelshaus had been sacked and turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox; Bork did so after being sworn-in as acting Attorney General, though the whole unedifying affair served to finally turn public opinion against Nixon. An NBC poll a week after the Saturday Night Massacre showed a plurality of Americans supported the impeachment of the President for the first time, even though it took another nine months before the House Judiciary Committee approved its first article of impeachment; and Nixon resigned before the process could even begin.

What an excitable US TV news presenter referred to as the biggest constitutional crisis in the history of the nation as the Saturday Night Massacre unfolded has had echoes in the past couple of eventful weeks in Washington. The main difference between 2017 and 1973 is that Nixon’s credibility began to disintegrate when he had already served one full term in office and had retained power on the back of a landslide victory. As for the Donald, it’s only four months since he took the oath of office for the first time and there seems to have been enough constitutional crises to make Richard Nixon’s spell as President seem like an uneventful and rather dull period of American history.

The dismissal of FBI Director James Comey on May 9 certainly revived memories of the Saturday Night Massacre for those either old enough to remember it or those who have read about it since. Comey’s termination came in the wake of the FBI investigation into the Hillary Clinton email affair as well as the organisation’s conviction that Russia interfered in Trump’s election campaign. Subsequent revelations that Trump had shared classified information with the Russian Ambassador and Russian Foreign Minister during a recent visit to the White House have done little to dispel the lingering belief of Russian involvement in the Donald’s rise to power. Comey has claimed the President asked him to cease investigations into the short-lived National Security Adviser Michael T Flynn’s Russian connections, something Trump has naturally refuted.

Lyndon Johnson’s opinion of the FBI’s fearsome first Director J Edgar Hoover, that it was ‘better have him inside the tent pissing out than have him outside pissing in’, suggests simply sacking James Comey might not be the end of the affair for Trump. Despite the President’s intervention in Syria not exactly easing US relations with the Kremlin, the Russian issue won’t go away. The appointment of a special counsel in the shape of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to continue the investigation hasn’t necessarily met with Trump’s approval, with the President referring to the ongoing efforts to establish a direct connection between him and Russia as a witch-hunt. Mind you, Trump’s tiresome whinging about the media and how everyone is against him is only unprecedented on his side of the Atlantic; he’s more than matched over here by the most frothing-at-the-mouth Corbynistas and their incurable persecution complex.

Trump has already taken his ‘You’re fired’ catchphrase from ‘The Apprentice’ into his Presidency, sacking the likes of acting Attorney General Sally Yates for disputing his executive order to bar citizens of certain specified Muslim countries from entering the US; he also demoted and replaced acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Daniel Ragsdale the same day he dismissed Yates. No explanation for this dismissal was given, though mere coincidence in what was labelled by some as the ‘Monday Night Massacre’ seems unlikely. In this context, his firing of James Comey makes perfect sense. Trump still sees himself as the head of a company and everyone else as his employees. Anybody challenging his authority has to go.

Watergate was a slow burner of a scandal that unravelled at a sedate pace worthy of a weighty novel; it confirmed suspicions of Nixon that his most committed critics had harboured for a long time and cast a cynical shadow across Washington that has never really gone away. What’s happening now isn’t quite the same. In contrast with Richard Nixon’s unattainable ambition to be loved, Donald Trump couldn’t care less; Nixon’s downfall had all the elements of a Greek Tragedy, whereas Trump entered the political arena looking for a fight and now he’s got one. As long as Russian rumours continue to circulate and talk of invoking the 25th Amendment if impeachment fails giving his opponents hope, the Donald’s capacity to govern is entirely in his own hands. We shall see.

© The Editor