G. Gordon Liddy, 1930-2021

The Watergate conspirator, author, and talk show host was 90.

The most controversial and flamboyant figure in the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon has passed at a ripe old age.

WaPo (“G. Gordon Liddy, undercover operative convicted in Watergate scandal, dies at 90“):

G. Gordon Liddy, the undercover operative whose bungling of the Watergate break-in triggered one of the gravest constitutional crises in American history and led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, died March 30 at his daughter’s home in Fairfax County, Va. He was 90.

His son Thomas P. Liddy confirmed the death but did not give a cause, saying only that it was unrelated to the coronavirus.

A theatrical personality whose event-filled career included more twists and turns than a fictional potboiler, Mr. Liddy was at various times an FBI agent, jailbird, radio talk-show host, best-selling author, candidate for Congress, actor and promoter of gold investments.

The role for which he is best remembered was in the plot to bug the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex in June 1972.

Mr. Liddy’s combination of can-do ruthlessness, loyalty to Nixon and ends-justify-the-means philosophy made him a natural fit in a White House determined to get even with its political enemies.

At the same time, he was viewed by his superiors as “a little nuts,” in Nixon’s phrase. “I mean, he just isn’t well screwed on, is he?” the president complained to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman a week after the break-in.

With his intense stare, cannonball head, bristling mustache and machine-gun style of speaking, Mr. Liddy looked like the archetypal bad guys he later depicted in television shows including “Miami Vice.” His friend and fellow Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt described him as “a wired, wisecracking extrovert who seemed as if he might be a candidate for decaffeinated coffee.”

Mr. Liddy often boasted of his transformation “from a puny, fearful boy to a strong, fearless man” through a regime of intense exercise and physical bravado such as eating rats and holding his hand over a candle until the flesh burned.

“The trick is not minding,” he once explained of the pain, echoing a line used by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 movie “Lawrence of Arabia.”

He also developed an early fascination with Nazi Germany, saying that he felt an “electric current” surge through his body when he listened to Adolf Hitler on the radio. To the young Liddy, Hitler embodied the “power of will.”

Although Mr. Liddy frequently boasted of his impeccable tradecraft, he made elementary mistakes that allowed his former FBI colleagues to connect the break-in to the White House and ultimately to a small circle of Nixon aides.

He accepted personal responsibility for the fiasco, declaring that he was “the captain of the ship when she hit the reef.”

“If someone wants to shoot me, just tell me what corner to stand on, and I will be there,” he told presidential counsel John Dean.

Detractors viewed the gun-loving, hippie-hating Liddy as a threat to American democracy and the man responsible for many of the “dirty tricks” of the Nixon administration that led to the resignation of the president on Aug. 9, 1974. Supporters admired his war against “radicals” and “subversives” and his refusal to betray his fellow Watergate conspirators in return for a reduced prison term.

NYT (“G. Gordon Liddy, Mastermind Behind Watergate Burglary, Dies at 90“):

G. Gordon Liddy, a cloak-and-dagger lawyer who masterminded dirty tricks for the White House and concocted the bungled burglary that led to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, died on Tuesday in Mount Vernon, Va. He was 90.

His death, at the home of his daughter Alexandra Liddy Bourne, was confirmed by his son Thomas P. Liddy, who said that his father had Parkinson’s disease and had been in declining health.

Decades after Watergate entered the lexicon, Mr. Liddy was still an enigma in the cast of characters who fell from grace with the 37th president — to some a patriot who went silently to prison refusing to betray his comrades, to others a zealot who cashed in on bogus celebrity to become an author and syndicated talk show host.

[…]

Unlike the other Watergate defendants, Mr. Liddy refused to testify about his activities for the White House or the Committee to Re-elect the President, and drew the longest term among those who went to prison. He was sentenced by Judge John J. Sirica to 6 to 20 years, but served only 52 months. President Jimmy Carter commuted his term in 1977.

“I have lived as I believed I ought to have lived,” Mr. Liddy, a small dapper man with a baldish pate and a brushy mustache, told reporters after his release. He said he had no regrets and would do it again. “When the prince approaches his lieutenant, the proper response of the lieutenant to the prince is, ‘Fiat voluntas tua,'” he said, using the Latin of the Lord’s Prayer for “Thy will be done.”

Disbarred from law practice and in debt for $300,000, mostly for legal fees, Mr. Liddy began a new career as a writer. His first book, “Out of Control,” (1979) was a spy thriller. He later wrote another novel, “The Monkey Handlers” (1990), and a nonfiction book, “When I Was a Kid, This Was a Free Country” (2002). He also co-wrote a guide to fighting terrorism, “Fight Back! Tackling Terrorism, Liddy Style” (2006), and produced many articles on politics, taxes, health and other matters.

In 1980, he broke his silence on Watergate with his autobiography, “Will.” The reviews were mixed, but it became a best seller. After years of revelations by other Watergate conspirators, there was little new in it about the scandal, but critics said his account of prison life was graphic. A television movie based on the book was aired in 1982 by NBC.

Mr. Liddy found himself in demand on the college-lecture circuit. In 1982 he teamed with Timothy Leary, the 1960s LSD guru, for campus debates that were edited into a documentary film, “Return Engagement.” The title referred to an encounter in 1966, when Mr. Liddy, as a prosecutor in Dutchess County, N.Y., joined a raid on a drug cult in which Mr. Leary was arrested.

In the 1980s, Mr. Liddy dabbled in acting, appearing on “Miami Vice” and in other television and film roles. But he was better known later as a syndicated talk-radio host with a right-wing agenda. “The G. Gordon Liddy Show,” begun in 1992, was carried on hundreds of stations by Viacom and later Radio America, with satellite hookups and internet streaming. It ran until his retirement in 2012. He lived in Fort Washington, Md.

Mr. Liddy, who promoted nutritional supplements and exercised, was still trim in his 70s. He made parachute jumps, took motorcycle trips, collected guns, played a piano and sang lieder. His website showed him craggy-faced with head held high, an American flag and the Capitol dome in the background.

NPR (“G. Gordon Liddy, Chief Operative Behind Watergate Scandal, Dies At 90“):

G. Gordon Liddy, the Republican adviser who was convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon, died on Tuesday.

[…]

While he had taken great pride in remaining silent throughout the Watergate investigation and his own criminal trial, Liddy seemed to relish the notoriety the scandal brought him and he delighted in talking about it.

During the early 1990s, when he hosted one of the nation’s most popular conservative talk shows, Liddy openly discussed the botched burglary that led Nixon to resign in disgrace — absent any remorse except that he was caught.

He also took on numerous TV roles, acting as a villain in popular shows, including Miami Vice. And he became a regular on the college speaking circuit alongside LSD evangelist Timothy Leary.

While I was interested in national politics far earlier than most, Watergate hit too early even for me. While I vaguely remember going with my parents to vote for Nixon in 1972, I would have been just shy of my 7th birthday. When the Senate hearings aired from May 17 to August 7 the next year, they were an interruption of the kids’ programming that was only available in the mornings in those days and thus an annoyance.

A decade or so later, while I was in high school, I became fascinated with the scandal, though, and read pretty much every book available on it over a short period. I read and enjoyed Liddy’s autobiography, Will, probably two or three years after it came out. (My practice at the time was to wait for the paperbacks to be available at the half-price used bookstores.) I would read his novels at some point, probably as an undergraduate, and found them pretty entertaining.

I started listening to Rush Limbaugh’s program around the time of the LA Riots, which took place in the short period between leaving the Army in February 1992 and starting graduate school in May. I’m not sure exactly when I discovered Liddy’s show but I know I was listening to it in the late 1990s when I was teaching at Troy.

From my current perspective, Liddy was something of a nut. Certainly, an extremist in a number of unsettling ways. Still, while his brand of humor was less effective than Limbaugh’s, he was also more intellectually honest and quite excellent at give-and-take. He was willing and eager to debate the likes of Leary or Al Franken, relishing the verbal combat.

I grew tired of his schtick sooner than I did Limbaugh’s. His attempts to project his hyper-masculinity grew tiresome, if not comical, after awhile. And gimmicks like his “stacked and packed” calendars, featuring scantily clad women holding firearms, were rather juvenile for a man who was by then a grandfather many times over. I presume he carried on in that vein until finally retiring in 2012, just shy of his 82nd birthday.

Alas, again with the benefit of hindsight, the degree to which the Republican Party shifted into Liddy’s mold, absent the intelligence and intellectual honesty, is remarkable. During the Nixon era, Liddy earnestly believed the country was in the midst of a virtual civil war and that any means were justified in ensuring the good guys won. While that seemed absurd to me even as a teenager a decade later, I nonetheless admired his conviction and his willingness to suffer the consequences, as compared to co-conspirators who sold out the others in exchange for leniency. But, contra Barry Goldwater, extremism in the pursuit of virtue can very much be a vice.

UPDATE: The first comment, from Sleepy Dog, reminds me that I had meant to draw the contrast with fellow Nixon hatchet man Charles Colson, who died almost exactly seven years ago. Liddy was unrepentant to the end, believing he was on the side of the angels. Colson repented while in prison and devoted the rest of his days to ministering prisoners.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Being in college and a political junkie at the time of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, I devoured the stories that came out seemingly daily, buying the Globe and Times each morning. Liddy seemed crazy and the type of character that his buttoned down associates could convince themselves that Liddy could make problems go away. Unlike Chuck Colsen, he never had the eureka moment that what he did was wrong. A true believer to the end.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I’d actually meant to circle back to Colsen but forgot by the time I get there. But, yes, very different paths. I’m not a religious guy and am somewhat dubious of faith-based programs. But Colson certainly did a lot of good with his prison work.

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  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Mastermind Behind Watergate Burglary

    The burglary was bungled…so mastermind is a misnomer.
    Only worthwhile thing about Liddy is his cameo in the Steely Dan song, “My Old School”.

    California tumbles into the sea
    That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale
    Tried to warn you
    About Chino and Daddy Gee
    But I can’t seem to get to you through the U.S. Mail
    Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go, I’m gonna
    Take her down to Mexico, she said oh no
    Guadalajara won’t do

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  4. mattbernius says:

    From my current perspective, Liddy was something of a nut.

    An opinion that, based on the Nixon tapes, you and the disgraced president shared.

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  5. I saw Liddy at CPAC about ten years ago. I guess he was still doing his radio show at the time. He seemed broken and frail to me and I honestly didn’t know he was still alive.

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  6. wr says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “I honestly didn’t know he was still alive”

    Was that before you saw him or during?

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    During Watergate I was 19, I’d dropped out of high school, gone on to drop out of a junior college [edit:] (dropping out of San Fran State later) moved back to DC where I found myself with two job offers: meter reader for the local power company or library clerk at Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering. I took the latter. (If Cutler sounds familiar, he was White House council for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.). It was a Democratic law firm that did a lot of lobbying for people like GM.

    I had an apartment on New Hampshire Avenue and used to wake up every morning desperate to read my morning WaPo. For a budding political junkie it was. . . well, it was cool. It was exciting. New revelations almost daily, with WaPo, the NYT and CBS News leading the charge. Like most politically aware people at the time, especially in DC, the consensus was that no way Nixon was that stupid. Well. . .

    Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, McCord the spook, Segretti and Liddy were like Pokemon – collect the whole set and figure out the mystery! Evereyone had their favorite character. I was fond of Bad Bob Haldeman because he just made such a good bad guy.

    But I laugh when I see Liddy described as the burglary’s ‘mastermind.’ His crew was busted in flagrante FFS, trying to creep an empty office building, despite being allegedly professional operatives. I burglarized an open and operating restaurant that required me to saw through two-by-fours while just over the heads of dishwashers, and it took them six months to get me. Just saying. Liddy was a clown, a precursor of people like Alex Jones who traded on their supposed masculinity to appeal to weak, aimless, angry and not-very-bright men.

    The big difference between Nixon’s criminal gang and Trump’s is a consistent, across-the-board, 20 point IQ drop. Nixon’s boys were incompetent, Trump’s were buffoons. The GOP has slid steadily down the left side of the IQ bell curve. Dumb. . . dumber. . . dumbest. . .Trump.

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  8. Teve says:

    Back when I saw him in Jacksonville in the early 90’s and he was much funnier then he is today, Dennis Miller had a bit about Chuck Colson.

    It’s only after many of these people have painted themselves into irrevocable moral corners — then and only then do they turn their life over to Christ. Nobody goes to Christ on prom night, it’s only when they fucked it up so horribly that nobody down here will talk to them anymore. Charles Colson — this guy was the biggest prick on the planet for 45 years, he gets popped for Watergate, they’re leading him into Leavenworth where he’s about to be sodomized for the next decade — all of a sudden he found Christ. I guess Christ didn’t see him first, huh? “Oh, no, here comes that asshole Colson, probably wants to turn his life over to me. TAXI!”

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  9. JohnMcC says:

    I had both honorable discharge and BA degree by the time of the Watergate/Sen Ervin hearings. Like I suppose most of OTBers, was a political junkie and had become ‘woke’ enough to realize the War was a horrible disaster.

    One analysis of what went wrong during the Nixon administration that has stayed with me is that the campaign and later the WH staff was divided between those who were wantabe’s at political intrigue and those who were “crazy brave”. Liddy of course was exemplar of the crazy-brave and basically led the entire company into quicksand.

    I’ve wondered how much resemblance that dynamic has to the inner workings of the Former Guy’s disaster of the month club.

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  10. Joe says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I always liked reading the WaPo because it treated politics like the sports pages.

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  11. @wr:

    It’s more just a reaction to news of his death
    I haven’t thought about him in years and didn’t realize he was still alive.

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  12. @JohnMcC:

    I’ve long thought that Nixon would have been a much different President if he had been elected in 1060 than he was after 1968. Part of it was the fact that the times were so different but there is also the fact that that the people advising Nixon were far different from the crew that followed him into the White House on 1/20/69

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  13. @Doug Mataconis:

    Obviously I meant 1960, not 1060

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  14. MarkedMan says:

    When I look at people like Liddy and Oliver North, I see a sort of Cargo Cult version of who they pretend to be. They obviously have no moral compass and, to me, their bravo and hyper-masculinity are laughable. In my younger days I used to think the people who admired or even liked them were extremely gullible. That may be true in many cases, but I think the main attraction is that they project certainty and belief in the prevailing order, and assert in no uncertain terms that they are willing to fight for that order. And there is a significant percentage of the human race who fear disorder and chaos above almost anything. It’s these people that are most amenable to the Republican message vs. the Democratic one – R: “There are certainties and immutable facts and we will not get pushed off the path to safety and security by people who don’t understand the seriousness of keeping us on the path”; D: “There are few absolute certainties in life and a lot of the things you consider “disorder” we think are perfectly fine.” If that is the message they get, they are 100% going for the Republicans. A Dem arguing with them using the typical Dem point of view is just going to reinforce their allegiance to the Repubs. They may even understand that their heroes have feet of clay, but at least their guys are talking about the things they care about. The Dems don’t even see those things as important.

    I’ve seen estimates that this is about 30% of the population. Personally, I think it is probably a continuum rather than a strict division, although I may be wrong on that and perhaps an individual is either one or the other. In any case, as a species it may be a good thing that this significant group exists. Having everyone in society with a high tolerance for uncertainty and change may not be a survival characteristic. Of course, having too small of a group with such a tolerance would also not be bad for species survival.

    No amount of arguing is going to change this personality characteristic. The successful party is going to be the one that can make group-appropriate appeals. I suspect this is one of the reasons why Biden’s message on infrastructure is working across party lines. He is messaging a lot on stability. Bridges that are safe. Secure, well paying jobs so people can take care of their families. Electrical grids that work. Power that is clean and safe. It’s a good message that works across a wide range of personality types.

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  15. Sleeping Dog says:

    Thoughts on Liddy from someone who knew him.

    Perhaps. But I know that he didn’t die the way he wanted. When I asked him why he continuously flirted with women though he proclaimed himself happily married (he was married for 53 years until his wife died) He said there was no contradiction. “I’ve been flirting with girls ever since I can remember. And I will probably continue as long as my testosterone keeps flowing—until the unhappy day when I’m shot to death by a jealous husband.”

    Liddy certainly was a strange one.

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  16. Teve says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I suspect this is one of the reasons why Biden’s message on infrastructure is working across party lines. He is messaging a lot on stability. Bridges that are safe. Secure, well paying jobs so people can take care of their families. Electrical grids that work. Power that is clean and safe. It’s a good message that works across a wide range of personality types.

    I think that’s pretty accurate.

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  17. JohnMcC says:

    @Doug Mataconis: That would certainly be an interesting hypothetical discussion, wouldn’t it? Would highlight considerable “evolution” of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to…. Why stop at Nixon?

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  18. JohnMcC says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Completely off topic and possibly politically incorrect in this setting:

    I feel like I owe you an apology. When I first bumped into OTB, you were the primary writer of posts. I was pretty rough on you at times. Had not thought of that person who puts those blogs up as a normal guy. Pretty much let fly as if I was commenting to the Times or such. Obviously, meant nothing personal. When we didn’t see you for a while and learned you were sorting things out, suddenly you were a fellow much like me. And I was rather ashamed.

    Glad to see you’re back. Best of life to you.

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  19. Mister Bluster says:

    @JohnMcC:..possibly politically incorrect…

    ???

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  20. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: There’s a certain section of the population who are suckers for someone standing up in front and telling them what to do in a confident voice. As long as the message is communicated in a nice, big, round charismatic voice, it will be followed, no matter how stupid the actual policy is.

    “Waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.”

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  21. Mister Bluster says:

    @wr:..still alive
    A question I asked myself after my then girlfriend, Ruta Volodka, drug me to a double billing in 1975 at a neighborhood movie house in San Francisco featuring Women in Love followed by Lawrence of Arabia.
    Six hours of cinematic glory.
    I was as stiff as a board after sitting that long.

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