Welcome to POLI-TBT-ICS, a recurring column where we will take a look back at the weird political moments of our past that are still relevant to the present day.
G. Gordon Liddy, the FBI agent turned Nixon aide famous for spearheading the bungled break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972, was born fragile and fearful. He had respiratory issues as a child, and devoted himself to overcoming his softer human instincts, as detailed in his 1980 autobiography, Will.
Liddy—who served 52 months in federal prison, the longest sentence of any of the Watergate figures—is one of the most compelling characters of the Watergate scandal, not only for his deranged devotion to Richard Nixon, but for his intellect and viciousness. In 1991, he told columnist Jack Anderson that during the Watergate scandal he wanted to silence the journalist “through killing [him]” or secretly poisoning him with LSD, ideas that were ultimately shot down by the White House. ("Given their record, I was in no danger," Anderson quipped.)
Every scandal produces its own cast of strange characters. The Trump administration's sprawling controversies have spawned an expanded universe's worth of figures, from trash-talking Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti to Donald Trump's own crew of lawyer-fixers to Anthony Scaramucci to the very online Michael Flynn Jr.
But none of the current dramatis personae compare to Liddy, with his unwavering loyalty to his boss and macho quirks. Unlike most of Trump's cronies, Liddy's primary motivation for participating in the Watergate break-ins, which still remains murky, was definitely not self-interest, as demonstrated by the contempt of court sentence he was given for not answering questions before a grand jury. In the infamous “smoking gun” tape that ultimately brought Nixon down, the president said of Liddy, “He must be a little nuts… I mean he just isn’t well screwed on is he? Isn’t that the problem?”
Liddy is absolutely "a little nuts," to use Nixon's words, and his autobiography paints a good portrait of how and why he became one of Nixon's top "ratfuckers"—a term for someone who carried out Nixon's dirty political tricks. Liddy, born in 1930, described his childhood as suffering in "constant secret agony of fear and shame." Although he aspired to be a strong man like his uncle Ray, an FBI agent under J. Edgar Hoover, he was afraid of everything. One of his early heroes was Adolf Hitler, after his first nanny, a Nazi German national, told Liddy that the Führer had lifted her nation "out of weakness to extraordinary strength." (He later reversed his position on Hitler, after the 1939 invasion of Poland, and an explanation from his father on the meaning of intolerance: "unreasoning fear of the different and unfamiliar.")
To overcome his fears, Liddy decided to face them head on. "Suffering. That was the key. Whatever the consequences of what I do, I must accept and endure them—outlast suffering to achieve my goals," Liddy writes. To conquer his fear of rats, for instance, he picked up a dead rat his cat had left in the kitchen with bare hands, took it outside, and built a fire. From Will:
For the next hour, I roasted the dead rat. Then I removed the dead carcass with a stick and let it cool. With a scout knife, I skinned, then cut off and ate the roasted haunches of the rat. The meat was tasteless and stringy… I smiled as the thought occurred to me: from now on, rats could fear me as they feared cats; after all, I ate them too.
For Liddy, the key to success was triumphing over any and all emotional impulses—hence the rat-eating. Although he was clearly not opposed to acting out of malice, Liddy understood his fiery "temper was a grave threat to" him, as it represented "a surrender to ungovernable emotion."
Most famously, Liddy used what's generally referred to as his "candle trick" to totally conquer pain so he would no longer fear it. "I had begun using lighted cigarettes, then matches and candles, progressively increasing the time I exposed my body to pain as I built up my will, much as one might build muscles by lifting increasingly heavy weights," Liddy writes in Will. "Then I made a mistake. I burned the underside of the second joint of my left index finger so badly it required surgical attention… Since my will was so strong I could endure a long, deep, flesh-charring burn without a flicker of expression, I wasn't concerned… I was ready for anything."
In a 1980 interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Liddy said that resisting the pain of the flame helped him build the psychological strength to "resist all three branches of the federal government" during the Watergate investigation.
Trump's situation shares some similarities with Nixon's, and the two men even know people in common—Roger Stone, a young Nixonian ratfucker in the 70s, worked for the Trump campaign in 2015—but Trump doesn't have anyone on Liddy or Nixon's level of ruthlessness. Roy Cohn, the famously vicious lawyer who Trump worked with and idolized, died 30 years ago. Key Trump advisers like Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, and Paul Manafort have either broken with the president or been indicted already or both. Could anyone in the White House burn themselves like Liddy?
Liddy's life after prison, however, can give us insight into the future of the Trump cronies who may have an orange jumpsuit—or at least, a very public humiliation—rushing toward them. Liddy's later life should offer them hope: After his 1977 release, he toured colleges debating his buddy and LSD advocate Timothy Leary, eventually became an actor who appeared on Miami Vice and as himself in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. He did this all without much in the way of repentance; in 1997, he told the Associated Press that his only regret about the Watergate break-ins was getting caught. Still, he was rehabilitated into the modern conservative movement, becoming a FOX News contributor and hosting his own conservative radio program until his retirement in 2012. Apparently, no crime committed in the name of political corruption is too awful to bounce back from. Whoever said there were no second acts in America was a big fat liar.
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