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LLRX Book Review by Heather A. Phillips: Broken Government by John W. Dean

By Heather A. Phillips, Published on November 24, 2007

Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial BranchesJohn W. Dean, Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, (Viking Adult, 2007). ISBN 978-0670018208

"In almost four decades of involvement in national politics, much of them as a card-carrying Republican, I was never concerned that the GOP posed a threat to the well-being of our nation. Indeed, the idea would never have occurred to me, for in my experience the system took care of excesses, as it certainly did in the case of the president for whom I worked. But in recent years the system has changed, and is no longer self-correcting."

Given that he worked as White House Counsel for Richard Nixon, someone unfamiliar with John Dean's recent record might assume that he is a died-in-the-wool conservative. And, in a sense, his belief in the underlying workability of American governance was the foundation of the very principles that lead him to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the Nixon White House. One might also be tempted to think that he's unflappable -- that, given his background, nothing in the way of dirty tricks or malfeasance could truly shake him. You'd also be wrong.

I got the sense while reading the book that Dean is not just shaken, or merely offended; he is outraged. Broken Government reads like an indictment of the current administration and recent Congresses. Dean contends that Congress, under its recently past Republican majority, utterly failed to exercise any oversight over the executive branch, allowing it to run amok. As the power of the executive branch increased, so did its penchant for secrecy and dogma, transforming venerable government institutions into lairs of trenchant partisanship. The resurgence of the 'unitary executive' and its surging population of the federal bench with fundamentalist Christians are, Dean contends, only the most recent symptoms in a malady can be traced back to the presidencies of Nixon and Ford.

Moreover, in this strange stew of laissez-faire rubber-stamping (on the part of Congress), and contemptuous authoritarianism (on the part of the White House), the actual business of governance has been neglected. Crucial issues such as civil rights and orderly finances have been pushed aside or papered over in favor of more partisan projects -- such as the politicization of the Justice Department, the disclosure of Valerie Plame's covert status and the subsequent protection of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Important issues are not the only things falling by the wayside. So are capable people. Dean mentions that "countless nonpolitical career attorneys -- including some of the most experienced and able men and women ever to serve in the department (of Justice) -- have left because of the way Bush's people run it."

Dean inspects and analyses all three branches of government. But unlike most political commentary, Dean examines the processes of decision-making rather than the policies that are pursued. He goes on to observe that the contestants in -- and the winner of the 2008 presidential campaign will have to confront the challenges that recent mismanagement has created.

But even though Dean's book is a litany of complaints and invective, there is also the sense of personal disappointment about the book. Remember that Dean used to be -- not just a Republican, but a powerful and influential Republican. But now Dean claims that the values that the Republicans used to stand for are no longer discernable within the GOP.

"Conservatives once claimed they stood for law and order, and that no person was above the law, but their words belie their true beliefs as expressed in their (current) actions."

He goes on to bid the party of his past a bitter and disappointed farewell. "Having watched the GOP's evolution as it embraced the radicalism of authoritarian conservatism, slowly ceding control to its most strident faction, the authoritarian conservatives, I can no longer recognize the party. These new conservative leaders have not only sought to turn back the clock, but to return to a time before the Enlightenment when there were no clocks."

While not a law book, in the strictest sense, Dean’s book would be a good addition to a library focusing on political and lawmaking institutions, or one that makes a point of keeping up with current events.

cover of Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial BranchesBroken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches
Author: John W. Dean
Binding: Hardcover
List price: $25.95 USD
Amazon price: $18.94 USD