In 1966, an ambitious young prosecutor in Dutchess County, New York, had the bright idea of staging a raid on the communal home of Timothy Leary. G. Gordon Liddy was expecting to find the supply of illegal substances and perhaps camp followers of Leary, a onetime Harvard psychology professor who was gaining renown as a flamboyant exponent of hallucinogenic drugs, particularly LSD. And he did, with maximum publicity. But because he failed to inform Leary of his rights when under arrest, a local magistrate swiftly dismissed the charges, and Leary went free.
The botched raid was an embarrassment for the prosecutor but only a temporary setback. Two years later, after narrowly failing to win a Republican congressional primary, Liddy was placed in charge of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign in Dutchess County, and after Nixon’s victory, he won a job as special assistant to the secretary of the treasury with a brief to fight drug traffickers.
Two years later, when the secret Pentagon Papers were published, a White House deputy named Egil Krogh recruited Liddy for a special investigative unit, nicknamed “the Plumbers,” tasked with fighting unauthorized leaks of classified information. Liddy joined with a former CIA agent named E. Howard Hunt to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon analyst who had purloined the Pentagon Papers, by breaking into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in search of embarrassing material.
None was found, but Liddy and Hunt were reunited on the staff of Nixon’s reelection committee to run an intelligence and sabotage campaign against the 1972 Democratic presidential candidates. One of Liddy’s many imaginative suggestions was a proposal to send a team of ex-intelligence agents to infiltrate the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate in Washington and plant bugs on officials’ telephones.
The rest is history, and Liddy’s death this past week from Parkinson’s disease, at age 90, raises an interesting question: If his White House patrons had known about Liddy’s midnight raid on Leary’s residence six years earlier and its spoiled aftermath, would they have given the Watergate caper the green light?
We’ll never know, of course. But the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 produced no more colorful, disquieting, amusing, or resourceful personality than George Gordon Battle Liddy, a timid, Brooklyn-born son of Irish-Italian parents who grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, suffering from debilitating respiratory ailments and who drove himself to health and rigorous self-discipline by running, lifting weights, and as recounted in his startling memoir Will (1980), holding his hand over a candle flame and eating a rat.
After graduating from Fordham University in 1952, he served as an Army officer and returned to Fordham to earn a law degree. He was an FBI agent for five years before resigning to work as a patent lawyer in his father’s firm. In his mid-30s, he joined the Dutchess County District Attorney’s office.
Liddy was unique among Watergate defendants for resolutely refusing to cooperate with investigators and prosecutors or testify before Congress about his activities in the White House and the Committee to Re-Elect the President, among other things. His physical appearance, ramrod straight with piercing eyes, thinning hair, and a voluminous mustache, only added to his appeal for admirers. “When the prince approaches his lieutenant,” he declared, “the proper response of the lieutenant to the prince is Fiat voluntas tua,” meaning, “Thy will be done.” For his part, Prince Nixon thought Lieutenant Liddy was “a little nuts. … He just isn’t well screwed on, is he?”
For his loyal defiance, Liddy paid a stiff price. Judge John Sirica sentenced him to the longest Watergate prison term, later commuted by President Jimmy Carter to 52 months. Liddy, disbarred and disgraced, reinvented himself. He paid off his legal debts by writing bestsellers, hosted a popular radio program, and played heavies in movies and television. And he hit the college lecture circuit, where his affable manner and tough-guy posture was the ideal foil for his debate partner, Timothy Leary.
Philip Terzian is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.
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