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 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, 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.
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, 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.”
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 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.
Opinions differ about whether the Watergate scandal would have exploded without Liddy.
Historian Stanley Kutler of the University of Wisconsin described him as a lowly “spear carrier” following the wishes of his commander in chief who will merit no more than a footnote in the history books.
The director of the nonprofit National Security Archive, Tom Blanton, said Liddy “brought out the worst” in Nixon and his aides, “raising the testosterone level in the White House and ratcheting them up to even more extreme action.”
Desperate to contain the scandal during the run-up to the 1972 election, Nixon’s aides launched a coverup with the personal approval and involvement of the president. Liddy refused to cooperate with prosecutors and Congress, and was sentenced in March 1973 to a 20-year prison term for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping. President Jimmy Carter commuted Liddy’s sentence in 1977 and he was released after 52 months behind bars.
By his own account, the Liddy of the Watergate break-in was a product of the culture wars of the 1960s. “The nation was at war not only externally in Vietnam but internally,” he said in his 1980 autobiography “Will,” which sold more than 1 million copies. “I had learned long ago the maxims of Cicero that ‘laws are inoperative in war’ and that ‘the good of the people is the chief law.’ “
George Gordon Battle Liddy was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 30, 1930, and grew up in Hoboken, N.J. He was named for a prominent lawyer and Tammany Hall leader. His Irish-Italian family raised him as a strict Catholic in parochial schools.
“The nuns introduced me to authority,” he recalled. “First, God. And then: The flag.” The son of a lawyer, he was inspired by the example of his uncle, one of J. Edgar Hoover’s original G-men, who claimed to have been involved in the killing of the gangster John Dillinger.
After graduating from Jesuit-run Fordham University in 1952, Liddy spent two years in the Army as an artillery officer but was exempted from service in Korea for medical reasons. He returned to Fordham to study law, completed his degree and joined the FBI in 1957.
That same year, he married computer instructor Frances Purcell, whose striking appearance, he wrote in his memoir, reminded him of a “legendary Rhine maiden.”
His wife died in 2010. Survivors include five children and a sister.
Liddy wrote that he left the FBI in 1962 because he wanted to secure a more comfortable life for his family. According to former FBI officials quoted by journalist and author Anthony Lukas, Liddy was pushed out because he was a “wild man” and a “superklutz.”
Leaving the FBI turned out to be a good career move. Liddy worked several years in patent law with his father’s firm and, in 1965, became an assistant district attorney in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
He became a local conservative folk hero through his involvement in the 1966 arrest of Timothy Leary, a former Harvard professor conducting unorthodox drug research.
Narrowly defeated in a GOP congressional primary, he took charge of the Nixon-Agnew campaign in Dutchess County, N.Y., in 1968 and was rewarded with a post as special assistant to the secretary of the treasury.
Liddy’s efforts at the Treasury Department fighting drug traffickers put him in touch with White House aide Egil “Bud” Krogh Jr., who had set up a special investigations unit nicknamed “the Plumbers” to combat leaks after the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.
In September 1971, Liddy teamed up with Hunt, a former CIA agent, to hire a group of anti-Castro Cubans to burglarize the Beverly Hills, Calif., office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in the hopes of finding compromising material.
After the Plumbers disbanded, Liddy was transferred to the Committee to Reelect the President (popularly known as CREEP), to organize intelligence activities against the Democrats.
He proposed a million-dollar sabotage and intelligence plan known as “Gemstone,” which was eventually pared back to a $250,000 scheme that included the bugging of the Democratic headquarters.
He also volunteered to assassinate newspaper columnist Jack Anderson, who he thought was responsible for compromising a top U.S. intelligence source. His superiors vetoed the idea.
Unable to find anyone proficient in bugging, Liddy recruited the CREEP security chief, James McCord Jr., whose links to the White House were easily traceable. McCord’s arrest, along with four Cubans, inside the Democratic headquarters shortly after 2 a.m. on June 17, 1972, led to the rapid identification of Liddy and Hunt.
Liddy refused to testify before the grand jury investigating Watergate, saying he had not been raised to be “a snitch or a rat.” But his silence failed to prevent the disintegration of the coverup after Nixon’s reelection in November 1972. When McCord began to cooperate with investigators in March 1973, Dean and other Nixon aides concluded that it was every man for himself and negotiated their own immunity deals.
As a federal prisoner, Liddy relished facing down the wardens and gangs who ruled the penitentiary. In his autobiography, he claimed that he responded to racial epithets from African American prisoners by singing the Nazi “Horst Wessel” anthem that he had learned as a boy, celebrating Aryan superiority.
“I don’t believe there was a man there who understood one word of what I sang,” he wrote. “But they got the message.”
After his release from prison, Liddy finally broke his silence about his role in Watergate with the publication of “Will,” which was well-received by many of his former antagonists. Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward described the book as the “self-portrait of a zealot,” but he also noted that it contained “an embarrassment of riches” growing out of “his blustery conceit and his freedom from any guilt about what he did. . . . His story rings true,” Woodward wrote in his review.
In an unusual twist, Liddy teamed up with Leary, his former nemesis, for a series of debates on college campuses. The men were the unlikely co-stars of the 1983 documentary film “Return Engagement,” in which they traded compliments as well as barbs.
Liddy deplored Leary’s “very dangerous” ideas while praising his “marvelous elfin sense of wit and Irish humor.” Leary depicted Liddy as “intelligent,” “highly educated” and “deeply idealistic” but attacked him for “turning America into a banana republic.”
“He’s Darth Vader to my Luke Skywalker,” said Leary, who served more than three years for possession of marijuana following the Poughskeepsie drug bust.
Liddy’s career as a screen villain took off in the early 1980s with the role of the dreaded Capt. William “Mr. Real Estate” Maynard on the NBC police drama “Miami Vice,” which was followed by cameo appearances in other shows. On the old Nashville Network cable channel, he co-starred as a crime boss in the short-lived series “18 Wheels of Justice,” a program that he boasted had “no redeeming social value.”
Success on the lecture circuit led to the “G. Gordon Liddy Show,” a radio talk show that was carried by more than 270 stations across the country and reached an estimated 10 million listeners. He found a wide following for his brand of macho wit.
His standard reply to callers asking how he was doing: “Virile, vigorous and potent.” To those asking for his views on the Second Amendment, he replied: “I believe in gun control. Hold the gun steadily and hit what you aim at.”
In recent years, he hawked the “Stacked and Packed” wall calendar, which he claimed featured “America’s most beautiful women, heavily armed.”
As a felon, Liddy lost the right to own a gun, but he found an easy way around the law. He told interviewers that he owned no guns, “but Mrs. Liddy owns 27, some of which she keeps on my side of the bed.”
Unlike other Watergate defendants, Liddy reveled in his celebrity status as the man at the center of a scandal that brought down a president and his reputation for carrying out those dirty tricks. His black Volvo sported the personalized tag H20GATE. He acknowledged that he probably would have ended up as an unsung “Washington political hack moving in and out of power” had it not been for Watergate.
“Things are very, very good for me,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I’m very appreciative. I was an accident of history.”
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Dobbs is a former Washington Post reporter and author of a forthcoming book about Nixon and Watergate, “King Richard: An American Tragedy.”