Friday A/V Club

G. Gordon Liddy: The Hollywood Years

Friday A/V Club: How a Watergate burglar spent the '80s

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The most interesting parts of G. Gordon Liddy's career came after he botched the Watergate burglary. With his old lines of work no longer available to him, the former Nixon henchman—who died earlier this week—had to find new ways to make a living. Like playing a recurring villain on the gauzy cop show Miami Vice. Or holding a series of debates with the psychedelic celebrity Timothy Leary.

We have a pretty good sense of what the first Leary-Liddy debate tour was like, because one of Robert Altman's protégés made a weirdly compelling documentary about it. The important thing to understand here is that Leary and Liddy weren't just a symbol of the counterculture and a symbol of Richard Nixon's presidency: They had once been direct antagonists, with Liddy participating in a 1966 raid on an estate where Leary had been conducting psychedelic experiments. Later they landed in the same prison, Leary on drug charges and Liddy on Watergate charges. By the early '80s, the two old jailbirds clearly had a degree of affection for each other. That mutual respect comes through in Alan Rudolph's 1983 film Return Engagement, which mixes excerpts from the duo's stage show with interviews and other footage. In the process, Rudolph captures a disorienting moment in American history: a time after the convulsions of the 1960s and '70 had ended but while most of the giant figures of that faded age were still around, trying to find a place for themselves in a changed world.

Don't go into this film expecting a conventional left-vs.-right matchup. By this point in his life, Timothy Leary was a full-fledged libertarian. This becomes obvious a little more than 40 minutes into the movie, when he stands onstage singing the praises of voluntary organizations—"I believe in bridge clubs, I believe in families, I believe in friends, I believe in stock groups, I believe in collectives, I believe in corporations"—and damning the "one form of organization which is involuntary, and that's the modern state." He goes on to declare that every state in the world is a mafia, charging "extortion fees called taxes," but he allows that "I love America. America's the greatest mafia of them all." At another point, after Liddy offers a lengthy denunciation of gun control, Leary doesn't reply with a liberal argument for restricting firearms; he simply suggests that Liddy's arguments against gun laws work just as well as arguments against drug laws. In other moments, Leary avoids ordinary political issues altogether, instead singing the praises of personal computers and the baby boom generation. (His comments on the first topic are somewhat prescient. His comments on the second are pretty vapid.)

With Leary waxing anti-authoritarian, Liddy takes the more collectivist stance, issuing proclamations like "the common good transcends the individual good." But Liddy's willingness to defend traditional hierarchies had its limits: He also delivers a funny routine about his contempt for prison guards. ("Now just ask yourself: What kind of person would put himself in prison for 30 years?") Liddy, a man who got his fame by committing crimes on behalf of the state, spends the film in that hazy gray zone where the criminal life intersects with the world of law and order. In one scene he hangs out with outlaw bikers; in another he brags about an award he got from a police group.

The most interesting exchange comes just a few minutes before the final credits roll. By this time we've seen some uncomfortable moments between the film's stars and the public, as when a disabled audience member confronts Leary with his condition, declaring that drug users influenced by Leary's ideas had attacked him. Now, as the debaters enjoy a meal, Leary poses a question to his sparring partner. "Gordon," he asks, "why do you think that two intelligent, well-educated, dedicated, idealistic, romantic all-out guys like you and I are so unpopular?"

Liddy denies that many people hate him, pointing to that police award. Leary won't have it: "Between the two of us," he says, "we've locked up about 80 percent of the American people in mutual dislike."

It is Liddy's least self-aware moment in the movie. Leary's least self-aware moment comes much earlier, as he chats amiably with Liddy's wife at a party. Someone shouts, "Tim! Where did Bob go?" Leary replies that he doesn't know where Bob is but he sure would like to find him. Then he turns to Mrs. Liddy and guilelessly explains: "Bob's got the cocaine."

(The movie starts about 26 seconds into the video below.)

Liddy moved deeper into show biz after Return Engagement came out, playing a CIA operative turned heroin smuggler in a 1985 Miami Vice episode called "Back in the World." The show brought him back a year later for "Stone's War," in which his character turns out to be funneling private aid to Nicaragua's contra rebels.

If you think that sounds a lot like Oliver North's covert operations in Central America, you're right. You might even be grinning at the decision to cast a Watergate conspirator in an Iran-contra story, thus uniting the biggest political scandal of the '70s with the biggest political scandal of the '80s. But here's the wild part: "Stone's War" aired on October 3, 1986. That's exactly one month before the Lebanese news outlet Ash-Shiraa exposed the Iran-contra story. Any old cop show can rip something from the headlines, but how many manage to air their version of the tale first?

I've never really been a Miami Vice fan, and I can't say that "Stone's War" is better than the other episodes I've seen. Not by ordinary aesthetic standards, anyway. But between the ghost of Watergate and the apparition of Iran-contra, it achieves an eerie resonance that transcends the mediocre script. That's how G. Gordon Liddy spent the '80s: He wrote books, he did corporate speaking gigs, he ran a counterterrorism academy, he debated Dr. LSD, and in one strange moment he gave a cop show a touch of the uncanny.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another installment involving Miami Vice, go here.)

NEXT: An Elite Public High School Changed Its Admissions Standards To Reduce the Asian-American Student Population

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  1. Obama employed the Director of the FBI, the Deputy Director of the FBI, the Chief of the Counterespionage Section of the FBI, the Director of the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence, and members of the Justice Department and the State Department to gather dirt on members of the opposition political party.
    What he did was a hundred times worse than Watergate.

    It’s odd how Watergate, did not deter Obama whatsoever. In the least. Perhaps he knew that the media would cover for him.
    If only John Dean had used active duty CIA and FBI people to spy on Nixon’s political opponents instead of the retired Hunt and Liddy.

    Anyway, Liddy’s showbiz career isn’t extraordinary anymore. CNN and MSNBC are always having John Brennan, James Comey, and James Clapper pontificate about their criminal careers as if they were impartial experts.

    1. Obama employed the Director of the FBI, the Deputy Director of the FBI, the Chief of the Counterespionage Section of the FBI, the Director of the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence, and members of the Justice Department and the State Department to gather dirt on members of the opposition political party.
      What he did was a hundred times worse than Watergate.

      And the so-called “libertarians” of Reason have never acknowledged a word of any of this, and never will either. Firstly because they worship, adore, and venerate our third term Mofo-in-Chief, and secondly because they don’t want to run the risk of shutting the door on getting the job at the Times or the Post they all dream of getting some day.

  2. I’ve never really been a Miami Vice fan

    Crime Story was better.

  3. I’ve never really been a Miami Vice fan

    For lots of reasons I was a Miami Vice fanboy. Anyone with even a tiny knowledge of music is forced to agree that Miami Vice changed the way TV and movies created music. Jan Hammer was literally getting the script for Miami Vice shows and in a single week produced the background music using a Fairlight CMI which not only changed how background music for TV shows and movies was created but basically ended the careers of thousands of studio musicians. This would be one of the longest posts in reason history if I listed all the musicians Jan Hammer influenced, performed with, or wrote songs for.

    I grew up in Miami and lived through what I will call the Miami Vice period and the hey day of the show. It captured the feel of Miami at the time better than any other show or movie I know of. For a while the Federal Reserve Bank in Miami had more cash deposits than they knew what to do with; all due to the huge amount of drug money in Miami. The Treasury Department issued reports about how bad money laundering there was. One review of the movie “Cocaine Cowboys” said it portrayed sex parties and violence that made Scarface look tame.

    Miami Vice had too many guest stars to list and it seemed to be a requirement of the most popular movie stars, TV stars, musicians, and personalities to beg for a guest shot, G. Gordon Liddy included. This blurb from wiki is telling.

    It has been called one of the “Top 50 TV Shows”.[2][3][4][5] People magazine stated that Miami Vice was the “first show to look really new and different since color TV was invented”.[2]

  4. Any old cop show can rip something from the headlines, but how many manage to air their version of the tale first?

    You obviously did not watch “The Prodigal Son” parts 1&2.

  5. How about his radio show? Not great marks for believability, but way above most others for entertainment.

  6. Don’t forget his appearance in the “Airwolf” episode, “Day of Jeopardy!”

  7. I would guess by the 1980s, almost no one even knew who Liddy or Leary was. Former hippies, maybe. But the average public?

    In history class in ’87 or , we were asked about which living historical figure you admired the most. I picked Liddy simply because I had just seen a Penn & Teller thing on HBO (or Showtime or something) called The Invisible Thread that had him in it. But highlighting how he turned around his life as something admirable.

    I was literally the only one in class who had ever heard of him. Except the teacher, who was bemused by my selection.

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