Liddy's still on his high horse

Watergate figure undeterred in court

Essay

July 02, 2002|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

In this new age of heightened jeopardy to the United States, it seemed instructive to see first-hand the visage of the threat to the country from the not-too-distant past.

It was there for the viewing yesterday in Courtroom 3A of the federal courthouse on Lombard Street. The head is now shaven and missile-shaped, but that only makes the familiar, Teutonic mustache seem all the more aggressive. The swagger is exactly the same. In case you were wondering, at age 71, G. Gordon Liddy is as unrepentant as ever, still standing forthrightly for the idea of misplaced loyalty, unapologetic about his part in covert operations against fellow Americans and an attempt to undermine a democratic election. And all the while wearing an American flag pin on the lapel of his dark suit.

You wonder if his act works on this jury, some of whom look like they were barely toddlers during the thick of Watergate. Liddy's chest practically swelled as he detailed his biography: Korean War veteran, FBI agent, prosecutor, now radio talk show host, lecturer and "an actor in films and episodic television shows."

He peppered his testimony with the language of the professional operative, referring to the Watergate burglars as "assets" and patiently explaining to the jurors how electronic bugging devices work. He turned himself into a Tom Clancy hero, a patriot who was not going to allow the niceties of civil protections get in the way of the truly important task of saving his country. Or, in his words, "I wanted to preserve the Nixon presidency as long as possible."

And, the presidency was in his hands, he made clear yesterday. "If I had talked, I would have brought the Nixon presidency down in 24 hours."

In Liddy's world, his silence before the congressional committees and at his own criminal trial in 1973 were the acts of a principled man. "I wasn't going to give them anything against the FBI or CIA," he said, as though he had thrown himself on a grenade to save his squad. Only when the statutes of limitations had run out did he give his version of Watergate in his autobiography, Will, a work he modestly described to the jury as "kind of a classic."

It was always hard to say who was the worst of Nixon's henchmen. Arrogance, malice and malevolence emanated from so many of them, from Mitchell and Haldeman and Ehrlichman. Liddy was small potatoes by comparison, but his refusal to talk was a departure from the rest. It did not imbue him with nobility, as he clearly thought, but helped dramatize the true perversion of the Nixon administration. If Liddy was protecting anyone - other than himself - it was only criminals who, like himself, had placed loyalty to an administration above loyalty to country. His silence wasn't heroic; it was traitorous.

To this day, Liddy expresses no remorse. Did he make mistakes? Well, just one that he admitted to yesterday. On the night of June 17, 1972, he probably shouldn't have sent the burglars back into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, but only because the cleaning crew had already left the building. When the security guard saw the tape on the door jam a second time that night, he understood that the cleaners couldn't have left it this time. Someone else was there.

The tape was used to hold in the spring-action lock on the door. Liddy is vain enough to bristle at the idea that his men should have placed the tape vertically and not horizontally, which made it more likely the guard would see it. "It won't hold if you put it vertically," he explained to the jurors, aggrieved that anyone would consider him a nincompoop.

If you haven't been following the $5.1 million lawsuit at the federal courthouse, it was brought by a former DNC secretary who says Liddy has damaged her reputation with his revised version of why the break-ins occurred. Liddy now believes that the burglars were not sent in after political intelligence, but to retrieve photos of call girls allegedly held in the woman's desk.

Liddy's lawyers aren't likely to raise one of his strongest possible defenses in the case: Who would care what Liddy believes?

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