By MICHAEL R. BLOOD
John Dean, the White House lawyer who famously helped blow the whistle on the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from office, says the country has returned to an "imperial presidency" that is putting the United States and the world at risk.
In his new book, Conservatives Without Conscience, Dean looks at Republican-controlled Washington and sees a bullying, manipulative, prejudiced leadership edging the nation toward a dark era.
"Are we on the road to fascism?" he writes. "Clearly, we are not on that road yet. But it would not take much more misguided authoritarian leadership, or thoughtless following of such leaders, to find ourselves there.
"I am not sure which is more frightening," he adds, "another major terror attack or the response of authoritarian conservatives to that attack."
Dean, who served 127 days in prison for his part in the Nixon administration’s Watergate cover-up, recently talked to The Associated Press about the ascendancy of the conservative right and the two-fisted style of political leadership he says was central to its rise.
"We have returned to the imperial presidency," he said. "We have an unchecked presidency."
More than three decades ago, the 67-year-old Dean was a young White House lawyer when he warned President Richard M. Nixon that the cover-up of a break-in at Democratic national headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex was "a cancer growing on the presidency."
Dean, who later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, went on to become the star witness at the congressional Watergate hearings, implicating several high-ranking administration officials.
His book is anchored to a discussion of authoritarianism, a school of thought that, in the simplest terms, tries to explain why some people lead and others follow. The classic authoritarian personality — mostly found in men — thirsts for power, is exploitive, cheats to win, opposes equality, intimidates and is mean-spirited.
This headstrong leadership style marks the current Republican right in varying degrees, he says, starting with President Bush and moving on down through the leadership ranks. The Bush White House, Dean says, has "given authoritarianism a new legitimacy," the same legitimacy he says it enjoyed before Nixon’s presidency unraveled.
Authoritarian thinking, Dean writes, "was the principal force behind almost everything that went wrong with Nixon’s presidency."
For anyone familiar with Dean’s writing, the sharp stabs at the Bush administration will come as no surprise. His latest book is a sequel of sorts to his 2004 best seller, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.
Dean’s current book has been steadily climbing best-seller lists, with publisher Viking ordering a second run for a total of 180,000 copies.
Booksellers pointed to Dean’s prominence and his engaging writing style for the book’s success despite a flood of political commentaries in recent years.
"Books like this one, whether they be on one side or the other, there is a lot of interest from consumers," said Bill Nasshan, senior vice president of books for Borders Group, Inc.
Booksellers also are not concerned about oversaturation in the current events section.
"We expect a lot more of these books to be published. With the coming midterm election, the country is more divided than it’s ever been," said Bob Wietrak, vice president of merchandising at Barnes & Noble Inc.
In Conservatives Without Conscience, Dean pays Bush a backhanded compliment, saying that while the president is "not a puppet" it is Vice President Dick Cheney who is the White House’s dominant authoritarian.
"Cheney has swallowed the presidency," Dean says.
While his journey from Nixon White House insider to Bush administration antagonist has evolved over the years, Dean told the AP that his politics haven’t changed drastically during that time. He still sees himself as a defender of the conservative values championed by the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican icon to whom his latest book is dedicated.
But Dean says his version of Republicanism doesn’t square with the authoritarians who have dominated his former party in recent years, from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to White House strategist Karl Rove.
He sees them drifting from traditional conservative values, citing, among other examples, deficit spending and the federal budget debt.
"My views have changed very little over the last 40 years," Dean said. "The Republican Party and conservatism have moved so far to the right that I’m now left of center.
"This country works best as a centrist nation. I think, basically, the electorate is centrist. You have the debate being set by the extremes."
Associated Press Writer Christina Almeida contributed to this report.