Former Watergate conspirator and longtime conservative talk show host G. Gordon Liddy recently announced his retirement. This reminds me of a key moment in my intellectual development. Another event helped crystallize this determination, turning it into driving motivation.
It all started in my senior year at the University of Southern California. I was walking on campus when I saw a poster advertising an upcoming speech and book signing with “Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy.” In many ways this alone was one of the reasons attending a school like USC was so great.
Watergate was a huge event. I recalled it well. Dad and I listened by radio to President Richard Nixon’s resignation while on vacation at Caples Lake, a high mountain fishing destination in the Sierras. It was August of 1974. I saw the movie All the President’s Men with my friend and teammate Steve Compagno at a movie theatre in San Luis Obispo. I also knew many of Nixon’s key aides, some of the major figures of the scandal, were USC alums.
Our family was Republican. Nobody was saying Nixon was not a flawed man who did not deserve to pay for his misdemeanors. Like many conservatives we believed he was screwed to the floorboards by the foul Teddy Kennedy and his ilk. I knew G. Gordon Liddy was a seminal figure in Watergate. I was unaware of any of Liddy’s details, personal or otherwise. I knew, however, I wanted – I had – to attend his speech at Bovard Auditorium.
I asked friends to attend. For some reason nobody did. Busy, uninterested, unavailable, for whatever reason I was solo. I was immediately stunned to see Bovard Auditorium packed to the rafters. I was lucky to get a single seat in the second deck. I am sure many people were turned away outside. The atmosphere was electric. As I looked around it struck me USC had some very serious students. They did not appear to be a bunch of Left-wingers. Instead, they looked to be a bunch of Right-wingers.
I was vaguely aware by the early 1980s, college campuses were becoming liberal bastions, professors were radical, and students were indoctrinated by this. I certainly knew what Cal-Berkeley was like. I understood Stanford to be similar. I had not yet read William F. Buckley’s God and Man At Yale. I was not yet attuned to such things.
I knew USC was a “conservative” campus, but I was not fully formed enough to realize the ramifications of such a thing. Pete Cooper, a political science major, spoke of it. He expressed an interest in Orange County’s Chapman University, “a fine conservative institution,” when picking colleges. It seemed natural, this being his inclination (at the time), USC fit the bill.
But I was unprepared for my day with George Gordon Battle Liddy. He came on stage like a rock star, like something from the WWF. His entrance came amidst a wave of patriotic fervor, American flags, and chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.” from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey triumph over the Russians.
He was impeccably dressed in a black Brooks Brothers suit, a total Wall Street look. He had jet-black hair, piercing eyes, bushy eyebrows, a powerful, virile moustache. He was, dare I say the words, sexually vigorous. Beautiful Right-wing SC girls were whistling and hollering as if he was . . . Jim Morrison or somebody. He had this look of intensity like one might see in a hit man. He was not tall but was buffed, a fact apparent even in his suit. He was athletic, in the full bloom of manliness.
He spoke in clipped, staccato, intelligent tones, vaguely of the East Coast but not of the streets. He sounded a little like Walter Winchell from The Untouchables. He had a commanding presence, a rapier-like wit. I was immediately enthralled, leaning forward. I wanted to know more. He fulfilled that desire.
Liddy told his story. He had it down pat, had done this before. There was no hemming or hawing. He knew what he wanted to convey and did it. He told us he was touring college campuses with Dr. Timothy Leary, a man he said was “my friend,” who shared his “Irish wit.” Dr. Timothy Leary? I knew who Leary was; the acid guru of the 1960s. How could Liddy be associated with him? I found out.
Liddy described his childhood in New Jersey, his stern Wall Street attorney father, and a German maid who taught him her native language. She admired Adolf Hitler in the 1930s before the world knew better. Feeble, afraid of his own shadow, with the help of the maid Liddy faced his own inner fears; lightning and rats. He captured a rat, cooked it, and ate it on the roof of his house during a lightning storm. He became an athlete.
He described running cross-country at Fordham University, his tour as an infantry officer during the Korean conflict, and how “I then attended Fordham Law School on the G.I. Bill.” From there, he entered J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. He filled our heads with tall, lurid tales of “wild West” fugitives, a stakeout at a whorehouse in Wyoming, and the capture of Federal criminals. After that, a brief sojourn in his old man’s Manhattan law firm, where the money was good, but not satisfying.
A wanderlust for politics led to a fateful a stint as district attorney of Dutchess County, New York. He described it as very conservative. The citizenry was concerned that Dr. Leary was occupying a local mansion, entertaining local girls with LSD, while deflowering them with sexual abandon. Liddy’s storytelling style was the most colorful, descriptive and comedic possible. I was enthralled.
He found Dr. Leary standing in a shirt with no pants or underwear, at the top of the staircase. He had been interrupted “In flagrante delicto,” Liddy announced. From his position looking up at the pants less “good doctor,” the young D.A. had “quite a view.” The place erupted in laughter. From there it was on to his candidacy for Congress. The favored Republican hoped to avoid a primary fight. He told him if he dropped out, supported him, and if Richard Nixon were elected in the fall of 1968, he would arrange a job for Liddy in the next administration. It was not unlike the deal Caspar Weinberger offered my Uncle Charles during the 1952 California Republican Assembly primary.
Liddy detailed the candidacy of “Richard Nixon of California,” his election, and his time at the White House. Liddy’s memo to Nixon brought him to the President’s attention. Liddy described the “peace protests” of the 1960s and early 1970s in a way I never heard before. Growing up, the media always described “flower children” marching for a better world. Liddy described angry, violent mobs; terrorist cells like the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Zebra killings, and in Europe the Meider-Bahnhof complex. He said he personally spoke to J. Edgar Hoover, reading oft-classified FBI reports describing Communist infiltration of the Left-wing protesters and Civil Rights Movement in America.
When the Pentagon Papers were exposed, Liddy said the atmosphere was one of “civil war” needing to be dealt with seriously. That was when he was called upon to utilize his skills learned in the FBI, forming the “plumbers.” He was tasked by his President to practice what he called the arts of “espionage,” pronounced the word with great flair and vigor, evoking a real-life Robert Ludlum novel.
His tales of Cuban CIA operatives, veterans of the Bay of Pigs, were colorful. He spiced it up with the story of a never-acted-upon plan to “infiltrate the Democrat National Convention of 1972 with prostitutes, with my carrying out full recruitment and training,” which brought the house down.
He described his personal taste in “Nordic maidens of fair complexion and flaxen hair,” but his partner was an anti-Fidel Castro Cuban from Miami who “favored exotic Latinas.” Therefore, he said with a comedic smugness and smirk, a certain “compromise regarding the physical characteristics of these operatives had to be reached.” When questioned by Attorney General John Mitchell of his nefarious plan, Liddy responded, “General, let me assure you, these are the finest girls in Baltimore.” The plan was for the girls to attach listening devices to their corsets and, after satisfying Democrat big-wigs loosened up by sex and alcohol, get them to reveal campaign secrets.
The guy was talking about things Democrats excoriated him over. In full detail he was turning it into comedy, all to his favor. He was a master. From there it was the Watergate operation, his capture, willingness to “stand on a street corner” so CIA assassins could shoot him dead “if my President needs me to,” a criminal trial, and several years in prison which were “the most interesting of my life.” He was not sent to a “country club” like most of the Watergate conspirators. Liddy was holed up in an ancient prison once used for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination conspirators. Liddy provided a no-holds-barred recitation of how he used his self-defense skills, warding off would-be attackers, then his legal skills to make himself a popular, indispensable “jail house lawyer.” When the warden illegally opened his mail, Liddy sued him. Dressed in a three-piece suit, Liddy sat the warden down, telling him, “You’re in my courthouse now, warden.” Liddy won the case and the prison yard cheered him. He despised “prison guards,” insisting they were not law enforcement professionals but mere “jailers.” A man trying to argue with Liddy was engaged in a “battle of wits, my friend, and you are badly unarmed.”
President Jimmy Carter (ironically) pardoned Liddy. His family was destitute. He lost his license to practice law, but went on the speaker’s tour. He wrote a book, Will, a runaway Best Seller. It restored his finances and then some. He beat the bastards.
Here was an infamous Republican, a criminal, but he was received like a conquering hero by people who felt the country had been under siege by radicals; people who undermined the troops in Vietnam, the effort stopping these unpatriotic Left-wingers opposing a war against Communism, even if illegal, was justified in light of liberal immorality. It was an epiphany for me, mainly because I was never around like-minded people. I found those people at the University of Southern California! Pete Cooper was right. USC was a conservative school. I found my place, my people. I was one of them. They were with me. This would be a home for life.
Liddy took questions, giving insightful answers about how the Israeli Air Force and the Mossad, due to the necessity of daily survival, were in the Carter and early Reagan years, before the military was built up and William Casey put some muscle back at Langley, the best in the world. He described the global politics perfectly, telling this audience America stood alone as a beacon of hope, but also of strength that must be exercised to defeat our enemies. They planned to defeat us. We, as young patriots, were the people tasked with carrying out their destruction.
People often spoke of how they felt when John Kennedy called them to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It was nothing compared to the excitement I felt when I heard Liddy’s “call to arms.” I was young, ready to gradate from what Liddy called “a great school, a prestigious institution of higher learning.” I saw ahead of me a world just waiting for me to make my mark, a difference.
A young lady stood, telling Liddy USC was located in a crime-infested neighborhood. Sometimes students were fearful to walk the streets. What advice did he have?
“I attended Fordham, located in a similarly rough section of New York City, so I understand your concern,” he said. “I would round up a group of tough guys; football players, swimmers, men who can defend themselves, and organize patrols to take back what is rightfully yours.”
The place exploded.
There was only one thing Liddy said that day I disagreed with, unless I heard him incorrectly, which I may have. He spoke of growing up in a strict Catholic household. At some point he “freed himself” from the stronghold of religion, learning to think for himself. As I recall he described Christianity as choking him, or holding him back from his true potential. When he no longer believed, he was “free.”
When Liddy became a conservative talk host in the 1990s, he referred to Christianity in a far more positive light. On occasion I was fairly sure I understood him to be a believer. When his wife died his web site specifically said she passed on to the Good Lord, so I do not know if I heard him out of context in 1983. Perhaps he returned to his Christian faith in the succeeding years.
When Liddy was done, a line of students, mostly testosterone-filled frat boys, lined up to shake his hand. The guy in front of me told him “you got balls, man.” Will was selling at the bookstore across the way. It was a long line. I bought a paperback copy. He signed it, “Best, Steve, G. Gordon Liddy.” I read that book in about three days. I added it to Patton: Ordeal and Triumph and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as one of my great influences. It was utterly fascinating, inspiring. I referred to it many times over the years. I still have that dog-eared copy, many pages falling out, but held together by a rubber band. By pure coincidence, I guess, about a day or two after the Liddy speech, the movie version of his book, starring Robert Conrad, came on TV. Of course I watched it with my roommate, Terry Marks.
Liddy used his book and speaking tour, catapulting to incredible fame and success. All of it no doubt left the Democrats weeping and gnashing their teeth. He had a decent run as an actor, his most famous appearance coming in an episode of Miami Vice. Playing a war lord raising money for anti-Communist military forces in Nicaragua, he is asked whether in fact the money he asks for will go toward defeating the Leftist forces of Central America.
“I anticipated your skepticism,” Liddy’s character, a thinly veiled Liddy, replies. He then pulls out a satchel, dumping its contents on the table.
“What the hell are those?”
“Ears,” Liddy says. “Sandinista ears.”
When conservative talk radio became all the rage, Liddy rode it for all it was worth, establishing himself as one of the most popular, entertaining of the genre. My instincts, which told me USC was a conservative school, were further confirmed a year later. In 1984, Democrat Presidential candidate Walter Mondale made a speech on campus. He was interrupted by students chanting, “Reagan country!” Mondale chided the Trojans, telling them, “You oughta be ashamed of yourselves. This is the school that produced Donald Segretti.”
When Michael Moore screened Fahrenheit 9/11 at USC in 2004, I am told he was booed off stage. I was not there, but got at least three separate eye witness reports confirming it. Others disputed it, but the versions I heard of were given imprimatur when Moore took to wearing a UCLA cap because USC gave him such a poor reception.
Two things emerged from my experience with G. Gordon Liddy. First, I developed a spot-on imitation of the man. I always did a good George C. Scott (Patton). I developed a strong Ronald Reagan.
“Welll, there ya go again.”
But I could do a perfect G. Gordon Liddy. When he became a talk show host I picked up on more Liddyisms, hitting them to perfection. I loved how he put down prison guards. He despised them because they were his keepers during incarceration. A prison guard called his show one day trying to say, “I’m in law enforcement, just like you were.”
“You’re not in law enforcement, you’re a prison guard!” Liddy roared. “
But my favorite was, “Prostitutes, I say. Infiltrate the DNC with prostitutes. Leave it to me.”
On a more serious note, the Liddy speech inspired me with a resolve. After graduation I would become an attorney, very possibly through the Marine Corp JAG (who I heard might pay my tuition), work for the CIA or the FBI (preferably the CIA), and enter politics. This resolve was very, very strong. I wanted adventure, intrigue and to touch power as Liddy had. I hoped to avoid jail time. When I bought Will I also bought a book on how to prepare for the law school admissions test (LSAT) as well as the various ins and outs of admission to the nation’s law schools. A few years later I served in the Army and attended law school, inspired by G. Gordon Liddy.
Steven Travers is a USC graduate and ex-pro baseball player who is the author of 20 books, including One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation and The Last Icon, Tom Seaver and His Times. His web page is http://redroom.com/member/steven-robert-travers and he can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism