G. Gordon Liddy is most famous for his role as mastermind of the 1972 Watergate break-in, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. But Liddy wound up having a colorful life following his conviction in the scandal, from his time as a jailhouse lawyer to a wildly successful career as a right-wing radio talk show host.
Liddy, a former FBI agent, was loyal to Nixon, the Republican president who resigned in 1974, refusing to cooperate with prosecutors or congressional investigators. “My father didn't raise a snitch or a rat,” he told the L.A. Times in 2001. He once even told John Dean, counsel to the president, “If someone wants to shoot me, just tell me what corner to stand on, and I will be there.”
The feelings didn’t appear to be mutual. Just a week after the break-in, Nixon asked his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, on a secretly recorded White House tape: “Is it Liddy? Is that the fellow? He must be a little nuts.”
“He is,” Haldeman replied.
“I mean, he just isn't well screwed on is he?” Nixon said. “Isn't that the problem?”
Jailhouse Legal Aide
Federal District Judge John J. Sirica in 1973 sentenced Liddy to up to 20 years in prison, and added 18 months for refusing to cooperate with prosecutors and a Senate committee. While in prison, Liddy helped inmates with their legal appeals. In a 1977 story for Connecticut Magazine, he wrote about providing legal advice to fellow prisoners, whom he said were ill served by their lawyers.
“I have found the quality of the legal services accorded to the poor to be disgraceful,” he wrote.
In Will The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy, he also wrote about Black prisoners hurling racial epithets his way. In response, he sang “Horst Wessel Lied,” an anthem of Nazi Germany. “I don’t believe there was a man there who understood one word of what I sang. But they got the message,” he wrote. Paradoxically, he also typed up kosher menus for Jewish inmates, after they won a court order allowing them to have a kosher kitchen and to prepare their own food.
“The kosher menu was more limited than the non-kosher, so I did my best to make up attractive adjectives for them,” he wrote. “When I substituted for ‘tomatoes’ ‘Delicious Kosher Tomato Surprise,’ the kosher cook came over to me and said, “Goddam Liddy, what the (hell) is that? I never heard of it!”
Carter Pardons Liddy
Liddy asked President Gerald Ford, who famously pardoned Nixon, to commute his sentence, but Ford didn’t act on it, so the request carried over to Ford’s successor, Democrat Jimmy Carter. On April 12, 1977—less than three months into Carter's term—the White House announced that the president was commuting the sentence “in the interest of equity and fairness, based on a comparison of Mr. Liddy's sentence with those of all others convicted in Watergate‐related prosecutions.”
Liddy was released in September 1977 of that year—the last of the original seven Watergate burglary defendants to be freed. He walked out of prison in Danbury Connecticut with a hand truck of three cartons, and refused to answer reporters’ questions about Watergate. He told them he was heading “East of the sun and west of the moon.” When a reporter asked, “Well, Mr. Liddy, here's an easy one for you: How do you feel?” he replied in German a quote from Nietzsche: “What does not destroy me makes me stronger.”
Liddy Takes Up Writing, Acting
After his release, he started writing books, including a 1979 spy thriller Out of Control. He followed the next year with his autobiography, in which he wrote that as a child, he killed and ate a rat to overcome his fear of the creatures; the book became a best-seller and was turned into a TV movie.
Liddy, who as a prosecutor in Poughkeepsie, New York, had helped arrest countercultural icon Timothy Leary in a 1960s drug bust, teamed up with his former target in college campus debates in the 1980s. Those debates became the basis for a documentary movie, Return Engagement.
Liddy’s reach into pop culture exploded in 1992 when he launched the G. Gordon Liddy Show, which was carried by hundreds of radio stations. He made some inflammatory comments, especially when it came to guns, such as telling his audience in 1995 that he used drawings of then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton for target practice. When callers asked how he was doing, he would reply, “Virile, vigorous and potent.”
Liddy also acted in several TV shows, including Miami Vice. As he told Playboy magazine in 1995, “I played only villains, and that way, as Mrs. Liddy says, I don’t have to act. I just go there and play myself.”
The trim, bald Liddy, who had a signature bushy mustache, stayed active by playing the piano, making parachute jumps, and taking motorcycle trips. And he never shrunk from his role in the Watergate scandal. In fact, he leaned into it—his Volvo’s personalized license plate read, “H2OGATE.”
Liddy died on March 30, 2021 at age 90.