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Watergate's lesson: History becomes 'bogus' with bad information

John Dean: “History becomes bogus when you’re dealing with bad information.”
Watergate whistle-blower says future reporters shouldn't forget the past.
October 16, 2015

John Dean, who served as President Richard Nixon’s legal counsel, and then as a witness for prosecutors during Watergate, one of the 20th century's most notorious scandals, told Arizona State University journalism students he wants future reporters not to forget the past.

“There’s a group of people out there who want to revise history and are making money off of the Watergate scandal,” Dean said. “History becomes bogus when you’re dealing with bad information.”

The historical context of Watergate came to life Thursday evening in Dean’s discussion, “Uncovering Watergate’s Legacy and Impact on Journalism,” which took place in the First Amendment Forum in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

Dean’s lecture explored his four decades of reflection on the scandal, the lessons he learned and how time has given him a much better perspective.

“I didn’t look at it (Watergate) in a historical context at the time,” Dean told an audience of about 125 people, comprised mostly of journalism students who were born a quarter-century after Watergate unfolded.

“I was in the fight of my life taking on the President of the United States. My colleagues wanted me to fall on the sword as per their orders, and I didn’t take well to that. I’m still living with that stigma, but it doesn’t trouble me because I told the truth.”

man giving lecture at podium

Reporting on a scandal


John Dean, regarded as the main whistleblower
in the Watergate scandal, told ASU journalism
students, that he doesn't live with regret
because he told the truth.

Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The scandal unfolded on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of five burglars dressed in business suits, sporting surgical gloves, their pockets stuffed with crisp $100 bills and carrying suitcases filled with wiretapping equipment. Their intent was to bug the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. The five men were arrested and Nixon hastily constructed a cover-up.

Dean depicted the operatives as fumbling idiots and gave an even harsher assessment to the man who hired them, G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who served in several positions under Nixon.

“Liddy has often portrayed himself as a James Bond-type character,” Dean said. “He was not even in the Maxwell Smart category because he bungled so many operations.”

Dean also took time to praise the dogged efforts of The Washington Post in its relentless coverage of the case and cover-up, noting that it changed the face of modern-day journalism.

Dean served as counsel to Nixon from 1970-73. At the Senate Watergate Committee in June 1973, Dean implicated Nixon, administration officials and himself in the cover-up. During his testimony, he also mentioned the existence of Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List,” which included major political opponents of the president, labor organizations, media, academics, business people and celebrities.

“The White House was basically a cesspool,” Dean said of Nixon's tenure, noting his second term as especially vengeful.

He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and later testified during the trial of several of Nixon’s White House aides. Dean served four months in federal prison for his role in the cover-up.

Following his prison stint, Dean went on to become an investment banker, lecturer and author of 14 books, most recently “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.”

Dean said though the Watergate saga changed the face of journalism one of its negative impacts is its lasting “aura of cynicism” the press has toward standing presidents. He believes their attitudes have shifted from trusting to distrustful, and should move back toward the middle.

“Before Watergate there was too much leniency given to presidents,” Dean said. “Now there’s not enough benefit of the doubt to the let the president do what he needs to do.”

man speaking at podium
John Dean, former counsel for President Richard Nixon, shows a video of Nixon at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Oct. 15.


Christopher Callahan, dean of the Cronkite School, said the discussion was a teaching moment for students. 

“This is a fantastic opportunity for our students to hear from one of the key figures of Watergate, which was not just a watershed moment for American politics, but for journalism as well,” Callahan said.

For Megan Janetsky, a 19-year-old journalism student, the night was an opportunity to understand Watergate’s history first-hand.

“I knew a lot about the story and I love American history, so hearing an insider’s perspective and seeing the other side of the story and the extent in which Nixon went in order to cover this up was interesting,” Janetsky said.

Dean’s lecture was also of great interest to 18-year-old Mitchell Atencio, a freshman at the Cronkite School.

“Growing up, Nixon was painted as one of the most shady presidents in history and his famous line ‘I am not a crook’ meant the opposite was actually true. He was a crook, and so I grew up with this distaste for him. That started to shift a few years ago after I started to learn more about politics,” Atencio said. “I thought Mr. Dean did a good job of explaining Watergate to those who weren’t around for it and a lot of us might not know what actually happened.”

This won’t be the last students will hear from Dean, who has been appointed to ASU’s Barry Goldwater Chair of American Institutions for the fall and spring semesters.

The Goldwater Chair supports the appointment of scholars who have distinguished themselves in the fields of political science, history, economics, law or public policy. Dean will give several classroom and public lectures throughout the fall and teach courses in philosophy and law at ASU this spring.

 
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Exhibit shares little-told tale of Jewish refugees' time in China

Holocaust survivor shares her tale of being a refugee in Shanghai
ASU exhibit focuses on the stories of Jewish refugees who relocated to Shanghai
October 18, 2015

The interesting thing about this Holocaust story is that it’s rarely been told.

The account centers around Irma Glahs Gottlieb, a 95-year-old Scottsdale woman who survived the Nazi purge of Germany in the 1930s by moving to Shanghai, China.

While much of the Jewish diaspora connects survival stories to relocations in North America or other parts of Europe, the Holocaust’s connection to Shanghai is a lesser-known chapter of this tragic history.

Gottlieb’s bit of the narrative is something she has only told a handful of people up to this point, and only in bits and pieces to her children over the years.

“Actually, I didn’t want to talk about this but my children think I should talk about it,” Gottlieb said. “Why should they hear about all the hardships we had because eventually we lived a normal life? That’s what we called it — a ‘normal life.’ I felt the past was the past.”

Gottlieb has opened the past and shared her story publicly for the first time as part of the “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” exhibit, which is currently up and running through Dec. 15 at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix and at ASU’s Hayden Library on the Tempe campus.

Irma Gottlieb

Irma Gottlieb is one of many Jewish refugees
who resettled in Shanghai during the 1930s
while Jews were still allowed to leave Nazi Germany.

Photo and video (below) by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The exhibit is sponsored by ASU’s Confucius Institute, Center for Jewish Studies, and the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, and will feature artifacts, photographs, documents, and personal stories, like Gottlieb’s. Planned events throughout the exhibit’s run will include several lectures, a film screening and a book discussion.

“It’s a story we need to pay attention to because it’s still so relevant,” said Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of the ASU’s Center for Jewish Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We are in the midst of a major migration crisis in our country and Europe. It begs the question, what is our obligation to people in duress who have no other place to go?”

Gottlieb, who hailed from Succow, a small farming community in Germany, said hers was the only Jewish family in the town of 900 people.

“My first years were very, very playful and I had everything I could ask for. I’m an only child so needless to say I was very spoiled,” Gottlieb said. “The only time I knew I was different than the other kids is when the Jewish holidays came. Then my parents took me to a synagogue in the next town.”

By 1933, the atmosphere for Jews in Germany had become troublesome as persecution and violence became more commonplace. Gottlieb said it was a slow boil that started with being ignored by classmates while others taunted her. It became unbearable when her instructor refused to teach her.

So her parents, who owned a general store in Succow, sent her to a finishing school in Lehnitz, which was a donated mansion just outside of Berlin. The school was started by the Jewish community so that children and teens who had been excluded by their communities could continue their educations.

“During the morning and day we’d have lectures and I’d work on several languages (she is fluent in German, French and English) and in the afternoon we kept house,” Gottlieb said. “We’d clean, iron and peel potatoes in the kitchen, and every Friday night we’d have a rabbi who’d come to the house and hold service. That was the first time I actually felt comforted.”

That comfort didn’t last long. On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, a wave of anti-Semitic violence took place throughout Germany, Austria and areas of Czechoslovakia in what historians describe as Kristallnact (“Night of Broken Glass). The name depicts the act of Hitler Youth and SS officers smashing the windows of synagogues, homes and more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, burning many of them to the ground. Jewish cemeteries were also desecrated.

It was a clear sign to Gottlieb’s father, and many other Jews, that they needed to leave the country. But it wouldn’t be easy.

According to Gottlieb, the German government forced her family to sell the general store “for a song” and departing Jews could only leave the country with 10 marks in their pockets.

At that time, there were only a handful of countries that would take in Jewish refugees. Gottlieb’s family was originally going to flee to the United States, but visa restrictions were difficult and required an affidavit, a sponsor, and a waiting period because of a quota.

They didn’t feel like waiting was an option. Gottlieb's father had already been picked up by the Nazis and then released because he'd been a decorated World War I vet.

But Shanghai was an open city, with no visa requirements — though some form of documentation was required to exit Europe.

Jewish refugees obtained documentation in various ways, including through the aid of relief organizations. But a significant number of them received the necessary documents through the efforts of He Feng Shan, the Chinese consul in Vienna who is often described as the “Chinese Shindler,” and Sigihara Chiune, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania.

As a result, Shanghai became a modern-day “Noah’s Ark,” accepting some 18,000 Jewish refugees and offering them shelter.

Gottlieb and her parents fled Germany by taking a train to Genoa, Italy, where they boarded the SS Victoria, a small luxury cruise ship.

“Suddenly I could talk and dance,” said Gottlieb, who was 18 when she boarded the ship. “I didn’t have to watch what I said and nobody was stopping me. I still have the tickets.”

But that trip was the first and last taste of happiness she experienced in years. Gottlieb said the four-week journey became surreal — many of the young men on the ship had been released from concentration camps and were either bald or shaved.

And when Gottlieb and the other refugees eventually disembarked in Shanghai, she received a cultural and economic jolt.

“We went from luxury to nothing in one day. We didn’t really know what to expect.” Gottlieb said. “They put us in back of a truck and brought us to a refugee camp in Hongkew. Men were placed in one section, women in the other. We slept in bunk beds.”

Almost 77 years later, Gottlieb can still recall their inaugural meal in a large dining hall with a long wooden bench and table: a hard-boiled egg, a piece of bread and cold tea in a tin cup. Before anyone took a bite, an angry refugee rolled his egg down the table and tossed the piece of bread to the floor. Through clinched teeth, he announced the meal wasn’t fit for a dog. Gottlieb said silence engulfed the room.

“That was the hardest moment. It was very sad and sadder even now when I think about what my parents must have felt,” Gottlieb said. “I think I realized for the first time … I think I cried.”

But at least they were out of Germany.

“As bad as things might have been in Shanghai, they weren’t half as bad as for the Jews in Europe,” said Robert Joe Cutter, director of the Confucius Institute. “Had they stayed in Europe, about 90 percent of them would have been dead. It did save their lives.”

The Glahs' eventually moved into a dilapidated home, purchased by a Jewish family who rented the family a room. The room had no hot water, kitchen or for that matter, a bathroom — only a bucket.

Gottlieb’s father made daily trips to the camp to bring back their daily ration of soup, which is what they existed on for several months.

Life eventually got better over time. Eventually a container filled with some of the Glahs' home possesions arrived.

However, they were forced to sell many of these creature comforts for food and money.

“My mother would say, ‘Today we eat a chair. Tomorrow we eat a desk.’ It was basically whatever my dad sold that day,” Gottlieb said.

The Jewish refugees eventually settled into their new surroundings and created businesses, bakeries, schools, synagogues, grocery stores, restaurants, bookstores, boutiques and clothing stores. Musicians played concerts on a rooftop garden, acting troupes entertained the refugees, and sports — boxing, football, tennis and table tennis — became popular diversions.

So did the movies. Gottlieb recalled seeing a screening of “Gone With the Wind” in Shanghai for a dime. For four hours, the Hollywood classic gave her a temporary distraction.

“We all tried to live as normal as we could. We had school, our own teachers and the people were just angels — the people who donated money so we could have food and schools and concerts,” Gottlieb said. “For me, everything was wonderful because I didn’t have to wonder who was behind me and could say things freely. I looked at it differently, like a young person would.”

Gottlieb’s teen years gave way to adulthood when she met her husband Erich at a summer camp created for refugee children who needed a respite from the trauma of their forced exits back home. He wanted to marry her on the spot, but her parents said no. He had a job with the Chinese Salt Administration and her parents feared he would take her into the interior of China and they would never see her again.

“My parents said, ‘If he feels the same way about you when he comes back, then you can get married,’ ” Gottlieb said. “So he did.”

Erich returned two years later and in June 1941, they were married in front of the German consulate at the insistence of her parents, who wanted it to be legal in the eyes of the German government.

Gottlieb instantly recognized the act as ironic, given the fact they were stateless. And there’s also that reminder of why they left.

“My marriage license has a swastika,” Gottlieb wryly said.

Old wedding photo
Irma Gottlieb is seen in a wedding photograph with her husband when they married in Shanghai in 1941. Deanna Dent/ASU Now

When World War II broke out in 1939, Erich and Irma safely made their way to Chungking, China, where they lived for the next few years. She didn’t see her parents for four years and only had contact with them through two letters, delivered by the American Red Cross.

After the war, Gottlieb found her parents in a Japanese ghetto in Hongkew. Later they all moved together to the United States, eventually settling in the Chicago area, where Irma and Erich raised a family and finally returned to a 'normal life.'

Gottlieb’s daughter Evelyn Simon, who was born in Shanghai, said her mother has left out many of the darker details of her ordeal, but that the light outshines the darkness.

“There is a lot of dysfunction and trauma that goes from generation to generation in regards to the Holocaust, but that wasn’t totally the case with us,” Simon said. “My parents didn’t want to color our vision of the world growing up. A lot of this information hasn’t come up until recently.”

Gottlieb’s vision of the past remains mostly positive and agrees with Holocaust historian David Kranzler, describing the relocation as “The Miracle of Shanghai.”

“I am very, very lucky to be here because all of my friends have passed away from not enough food, medicine and illnesses,” Gottlieb said. “Our life was saved by going to Shanghai whereas every other country had the doors closed. I definitely see Shanghai as a haven.”