A proud conservative, Liddy never apologized for or seemed ashamed by what he had done, which included planning the botched Watergate break-in itself. He was imprisoned for his part in the affair, but after his release he used his righteous hard-man persona and powerful articulacy to become a successful public speaker and nationally syndicated radio talk-show host.
Liddy became involved in Watergate through his role in the “Plumbers,” a small group within the White House charged with stopping damaging leaks following the release of the Pentagon Papers. Liddy was already working in the White House and he was chosen for the Plumbers because of his experience in law enforcement; he had spent five years in the FBI before becoming an assistant district attorney in upstate New York.
He came to the attention of national Republican leaders in 1968 when he narrowly lost a New York congressional primary race against Hamilton Fish, Jr., a scion of a famous Republican family. After the defeat he took an active role in the Nixon campaign, for which he was rewarded with a job in the Treasury Department. However, he quickly fell out with his boss there and moved to the White House to work on “narcotics, bombings, and guns” under John Mitchell, the attorney general.
At the Plumbers, Liddy worked closely with E. Howard Hunt in organizing the September 1971 break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. However, their men botched the job, failing to find Ellsberg’s file and ransacking the office. Undeterred, Liddy and Hunt pushed for a second break-in at the psychiatrist’s home, but John Ehrlichman, who had been appalled by the damage done in the first operation, blocked it.
The Plumbers continued to push other plans for attacking Nixon’s enemy, including drugging Ellsberg with LSD and firebombing the Brookings Institution, until Liddy moved to the Campaign to Re-elect the President (CRP) in December 1971. There he worked as the general counsel while planning “dirty tricks” for the forthcoming election.
Throughout his career, Liddy unsettled many people who dealt with him because of his macho posturing, rampant conservatism, and gun advocacy. He also committed bizarre acts to show his strength and will, including holding his arm over a candle until it turned black.
At the CRP he terrified his immediate superior, Jeb Magruder, which afforded him a free hand in planning GEMSTONE, a program of espionage and sabotage for the 1972 presidential election. Liddy presented his plan to Mitchell, Magruder, and the president’s counsel, John Dean, in the attorney general’s office on 27 January 1972.
It was a James Bond fantasy of wiretaps, prostitutes, and spy planes, and while Mitchell later told the Senate Watergate Committee that he “should have thrown him [Liddy] out of the window,” he merely turned the proposal down politely. Liddy believed that it was merely a question of costs so he presented a second, cheaper plan on 4 February. However, this was also rejected and as no one (especially not Magruder) was prepared to tell Liddy that the whole thing was too much, he cut back even further.
Eventually a third plan, which consisted of a few wiretaps, prostitutes, and infiltrating opposition campaigns was finally approved. As a first step, Liddy’s men installed bugs in the Democrats’ offices in the Watergate building on 27 May. They failed to work properly, however, and when the team reentered the offices on 16 June to repair the bugs and photograph documents, they were arrested by the Washington police.
Liddy watched the arrests from a hotel room opposite the Watergate building and it soon became clear that he had made a number of mistakes. The most important was using James McCord, the CRP’s security consultant, as one of the burglars. McCord was quickly linked back to the campaign, which indirectly implicated the White House in the affair.
The day after the burglary Liddy started shredding papers, and even money, at the CRP and called Magruder in California, who started the “damage control” along with Mitchell, which snowballed into the Watergate cover-up. The same day, Liddy was also sent to meet the new attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, and to ask him to get McCord released from jail. Kleindienst refused.
After that, Liddy played little active role in the cover-up, as the White House kept him at arm’s length even before he was implicated. He told John Dean all that had happened on the Monday after the burglary (and even offered to be shot) but from then on he laid low. The FBI linked him to the crime in June through his White House phone number, which was in pocket books carried by the burglars. Liddy was questioned by agents but he refused to answer and was accordingly fired by the CRP.
On 15 September he was indicted along with the burglars and Hunt on criminal bugging charges. He refused to testify at his trial and his obstinate manner caused the judge, John Sirica, to sentence him to twenty years. Liddy later received a further eighteen months for contempt when he refused to testify before the Watergate grand jury after being granted immunity.
Liddy eventually spent fifty-two months in prison and after his release in 1977, he started a new career in the media. He wrote novels and also his autobiography, Will, giving his side of Watergate, but only after the statute of limitations had run out.
The book was made into a TV movie, and Liddy also began a lucrative speaking career including debates with the LSD guru, Timothy Leary. (As an assistant district attorney, Liddy had twice arrested Leary.) In 1990, he found another forum for his conservative politics and gun advocacy, a radio talk-show on WJFK in Washington, D.C., which soon achieved national syndication. He has also branched out into acting, playing “baddies” in TV shows like Miami Vice, McGyver, and Perry Mason.