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.)