G. Gordon Liddy
G. Gordon Liddy; drawing by David Levine

Among all the Watergate confessional literature this book is far and away the best. It is the only entertaining one, the only funny one, although it isn’t always clear when the jokes are intended. By the end, you may still not have formed a settled opinion on whether G. Gordon Liddy is a Nazi sociopath or a case of arrested development, an eleven-year-old boy in a grown man’s body.

Can anyone over the age of eleven write the following lines with any but mirthful intent? “It was no good wishing I had more German and fewer Italian genes; I knew perfectly well that with a powerful enough will I could be as eiskalt as any Teuton. I must train myself so that the more dangerous the situation, the more kaltblütig I became.”

This then is the tale of G. Gordon Liddy’s quest to remake himself into his own 10 by achieving what a juvenile would see as strength of character or will. This he thought to attain and to demonstrate to others by turning himself into a beef flambé from time to time. By his own account he is always getting people to put flaming matches to his hand or arm and then, of course, when they shrink back from his sicko acrobatics, he enjoys himself with a laugh and a snort of superiority:

“Strike a match,” I said to Tex, and locked my eyes into his. He struck it and held it out…I put the unburned outside of my left forearm directly over the flame. As the fire burned through my flesh and melted it back into a blackened depression, a look of horror came over Tex; but he stayed with it. The match burned down and scorched his fingers before he dropped it. I grinned at him as he looked at the burn unbelievingly, then looked ill, got up and left.

Anyone who has ever got to know the kind of adolescent who is ga-ga over martial arts mumbo-jumbo, the Bruce Lee stuff with gongs, mysterious silk curtains, and the warrior-monk wisdom of sacred-secret Eastern brotherhoods will immediately recognize our boy G. Gordon when he describes an “Oriental” he met in prison:

He…told me that he had never imparted such knowledge to an Occidental [bong goes the gong] and…was not sure he ever should…. Finally he spoke. “You are a very violent man. I can see it in your eyes.”

“I control it.”

“You must. If you ever use what I teach you to take advantage of the weak, I’ll find you wherever you are and kill you myself.”

I knew he meant it…. As a child, both his thumbs had been broken deliberately by his father in two places, then tied back so that they grew into curving hooks that were nearly useless for gripping but rigid as steel and able to tear out a throat or disembowel a man with a single backward stroke.

This is a head stuffed with World War II comic books, Believe-it-or-not Ripley, and old issues of Popular Mechanics. The thoughts the head thinks are more exciting and fun-filled than the life the outward person leads growing up with an ordinary lawyer daddy, in a loving but not very exciting, and apparently not very repressive, Roman Catholic home in suburban New Jersey, and going on to Fordham College and an absolutely uneventful stint in the army during the Korean War, when he manned an anti-aircraft gun near Coney Island, and then to law school and the FBI.

Liddy seems to have spent much of his life trying to make his dreams become real. The Kung Fu Kid in This Man’s Army, an action-packed career of true life adventures which you don’t get sitting next to a rusting cannon in Brooklyn or as an FBI agent in the 1950s chasing around Indiana repossessing stolen cars. With all of that crazy stuff circling in his brain at ever increasing velocities, being a small-pay FBI bureaucrat might have driven a man with a less richly detailed imagination to the despair of boredom.

But wherever Liddy is, as far as Liddy is concerned, is the center of action. Nothing noteworthy occurred during his FBI years, but for him it was a high old time. He makes it sound like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, the one-man justice-vengeance storm. “I lived as I flew [airplanes],” as he puts it, “mixture full rich, throttle to the firewall.”

Liddy is one of those either-you-master-me-or-I’ll-master-you personalities and for him serving in, as he calls it, “the Schutzstaffel, the dread, black-uniformed SS,” would have been the perfect chance to give his boy-oh-boy-oh-gosh-almighty all to some intensely purposed sodality. Eleven-year-olds are not much for partial commitments or agreeing with reservations. The FBI or the SS or the Mafia, they all have the same attraction of being all-out, never-get-out brotherhoods where you strut and strike for the faith and the faithful.


Liddy tells of meeting a gangster in one of the nine jails he did time in who got him to sing at Christmas services,

At the party Bill [Bonanno] gave after midnight mass he threw his arm around me and announced: “I knew anyone whose mother’s name was Abbaticchio hadda be O.K.; right boys?” As they all laughed he added, “What I like about this guy, it’s the only kinda singing he knows.”

In tight with the boys, tough and ballsy and he’ll never squeal on you. What more can an eleven-year-old Wheaties-eating junior champion want except maybe a wrist radio?

There’s a lot of Nazi phantasmagoria doing fast circles inside the Liddy cranium, but it’s not anti-Semitic and it’s not anti-black. It is obvious that he liked the lower class, criminal blacks whom he spent so much time in jail with, coping with occasional outbursts of anti-white racism and enjoying it in his kooky-hokey way. This is his description of what he said he did when being loudly heckled by black prison mates:

I roared out into the chaos about me the anthem of the nation whose psychotic obsession with race sent millions of those believed inferior to their graves:

Die Fahne hoch!” I sang, “Die Reihen dicht geschlossen….”

A curious phenomenon occurred. The roaring noise started to abate.

By the time I reached the second verse of the “Horst Wessel Song,” my voice was the only one in the entire cellblock. I don’t believe there was a man there who understood one word of what I sang. But they got the message.

There is an arresting picture for you, Gordon Liddy naked as a newborn babe—this vocalizing took place in the shower—taming the savage breasts of two hundred Negroes by crooning Nazi lieder to them.

To judge from the tone of the prison chapters, Liddy appears to have spent some of the happiest days of his life as a member of that nearly all-black fraternity waging guerrilla warfare against the guards and wardens. It was in the big house that our superannuated kid was seen as the manly hero he knew himself to be. He quotes a fellow prisoner, ” ‘Don’t fuck with ol’ G. Gordon, man, he knows somethin’!’—’Knows somethin” meant ‘possesses fighting skills,’ ” Ol G. Gordon wants us to be certain, don’t misunderstand, although his cellmates also understood that knowledge is power too: “To the impoverished and semiliterate, an education such as mine was viewed as godlike because of the power it represented. I could take on ‘The System’ on its own terms and best ‘The Man’ at his own game.”

Indeed he conveys a hint of taking on the system when he was part of the system. The obstreperous, restless boy, he only seems to get along well when he is a member of what he takes to be a blood-oath, clandestine brotherhood—the FBI, the federal pen, or the Nixon White House. By his own description he liked the idea of the army but not the army he served in where he didn’t get along too well with his superiors, nor did he work out as a junior in his father’s law practice. Nor was he successful as a minor political appointee at the Treasury Department, where, before his transfer to the White House Spook Department, he quarreled constantly with those above him. At CREEP Headquarters, he fights with his boss and only feels close to and works well with those involved in after-hours insanities. General counsel for the President’s Reelection Committee by day, second-story man and wiretapper by night, his nocturnal activities were the ones that gave him his kicks.

He also gets his kicks out of threatening people and talking about murdering them. He collects guns and guns and guns. He sees himself as the gun fighter:

I took the twelve-gauge, loaded it with .00 buck shot, and faced the row of targets. At a signal I jammed the cutdown weapon into my hip and, working the pump action like a machine while pivoting on the balls of my feet, blasted one target after another to pieces in seconds. A moment before I finished I heard a voice behind me say, ‘You Kinda sudden, boy’…and Sudden became my new nickname.

And who gives him the nickname? Why it is the old gun fighter in the FBI office who certifies to the world that Gee Gee is the fastest draw in the Bureau since Melvin Purvis hung up his spikes. The summer afternoon reveries of eleven-year-old boys.

But the talk and the concentration on violence aren’t always eleven-year-olds’ play, not when Liddy sounds like this:


I was furious with myself—not because I’d caused the pain, though I regretted that, but because I hadn’t been able to kill without emotion…. I got better at it, and over a period of time I killed and killed and killed, getting less and less bloody, swifter and swifter, surer and surer with my ax stroke until, finally, I could kill efficiently and without emotion or thought…. I could kill as I could run—like a machine.

What he’s talking about, though, isn’t killing people but squirrels and chickens, and that is about as far as his outward acts of violence extend. The rest is talk, of murdering Jack Anderson, of offing E. Howard Hunt, an interesting choice of targets at that, but all these lethal mutterings come to nothing. There is a ten-second prison scuffle and that’s all the violence there is. The other acts of violence which he describes are directed at himself. Those terrible mutilations he does on his body by making himself his own auto-da-fé. The only person Gordon Liddy maims and injures is Gordon Liddy and him he repeatedly attacks:

By 1967 the exposures [to the flames] had become long enough to start leaving small permanent scars. Still I persisted, always using my left hand and forearm so as never to incapacitate my right—my gun hand. Then I made a mistake. I burned the underside of the second joint of my left index finger…. I had, it seemed, nearly cooked out the joint and lost a tendon.”

What is it with Gee Gory Kinky? A man so frightened by his anger he deflects it on himself because that is the only way he can control his propensity toward mayhem? Or is this self-mutilation penitential, a perpetual self-flagellation for a condition of guilt inside the inner cosmos of the soul? There are hypotheses to be spun here. Liddy’s failure to equal his father in school or professionally. He dwells upon that, comes back to it frequently. It fits in with the idea of Gordon trying to attract attention to himself, not by accomplishment, but first by making gangster threats around his white-collar colleagues at CREEP and then by the long theatrical silence when he alone refused to talk.

Somebody who thinks so little of his own gene pool has a low opinion of himself, perhaps low enough to have a stream of self-destruction running in him. For one who says he puts such great store in hard work and getting somewhere by will and diligence, he does fret a lot about chromosomes. The story of his marriage is positively Mendelian.

First there was the decision to find his Eve:

I would find the woman I wanted to bear my children: a highly intelligent, tall, fair, powerfully-built Teuton, whose mind worked like the latest scientific wonder, the electronic computer…. I believed I had earned the right to seek my mate from among the finest genetic material available.

Next he finds his Toot:

When I learned that…she did calculus problems for recreation, the way I did crossword puzzles, I knew she was the woman I wanted to bear my children. A Teuton/Celt of high intelligence…she had it all.

She made a wonderful wife. On his twenty-eighth birthday she gave him “the finest .357 magnum revolver made,” but there is a point past which even the biggest, blondest Toot can’t make it. After having three kids in as many years and living on a G-man’s modest salary things began to come apart: “…she always managed a smile for me…until I came in one day to find her in a doorway, gripping the molding on both sides of the wall and crying as she smashed her head repeatedly against the door frame…. Although one of the reasons I had chosen Frances to be the mother of my children was her size and strength, which should have enabled her to bear half a dozen high-performance children, I certainly had not intended to risk damage by pushing her to design limit.”

Gee Gee’s simple-minded eugenics is a part of the Nazi parcel he carries around so conspicuously. But is he more than a white-collar Hell’s Angel as he heads down the highway on his big bore, 10-liter Honda? There’s much psychological and myth content to his Nazi infatuations, as there is with others in our society who go to fascist costume balls where they can pretend there once was a race of Ubermenschen (Gee Gee loves that word) whom they can be put in touch with by wearing the uniforms of dead storm troopers. With Liddy, who describes himself as frightened of everything from lightning to high places, who must devote so much of his energy to finding the will to overcome his fears, these legendary super people seem to provide a sort of totemic comfort and protection.

Some people feel immune to danger if they know they are members in good standing of the wolf clan, others rely on guardian angels. G. Gordon has entrusted his safety to the shade of an SS man. When some of the other Executive Office staff boasted of the big rallies they’d put on for Nixon during the 1968 campaign, the newly assigned Liddy arranges for them to enjoy a White House screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. If he was born with rather modest limits, he has submitted himself to pain so as to initiate himself into the lodge wherein omnipotent, jackbooted spirits do the work of giants.

Liddy’s Naziphilia seems to have no political content. As he tells it, the people who hired him for one position or another in the Treasury, the White House, and CREEP had no idea that swastikas were dancing behind his eyeballs. Nor does he depict himself as a man in government to bring about the nazification of America. His law breaking, the burglaries and buggings, aren’t justified as something Himmler would have done under similar circumstances; to the contrary, he relies on the precedent that the FBI had been committing these sorts of illegalities ever since Hoover was installed in the directorship during World War I and the Wilson Administration. In so far as Liddy thinks about politics at all, it is conventional stuff—no controls on the police, stop the drug menace, if we fight a war, we should fight to win. We have here a lover of the uniforms, a verbal tough guy, but not a proponent of National Socialism.

The fact that Liddy was silent so long and the theatrical way he was silent have encouraged the hope that in his bosom there was the revealing, central secret of Watergate, the one that would illuminate, explain, or organize what the hell happened. (A dramatically pedestrian John Mitchell, now the only unbooked major figure, excites no such anticipations.) Liddy, as it turns out, had emotional palpitations in his bosom but no very exciting secrets.

What he says suggests that Watergate evolved out of a flap-doodle ineptitude. Or blame it on J. Edgar Hoover. For reasons no one has yet been able to conjecture, the Director declined to provide Nixon and his people with the peek-and-spook services he provided previous presidents. Hence they decided to do it on their own and here the rough sounding Liddy, the former FBI agent, who talked such a good game about “intelligence,” “missions,” “covers,” all the paralanguage of spies, bureaucrats, army officers, and eleven-year-old boys, seemed well suited.

He would know how to set up a peek-and-spook operation on the Democrats. In fact, Liddy had no more idea of how to do such things than you or I. The only place he knew where to look for a “key man” (don’t you love the lingo?) to open other people’s doors was in the Yellow Pages. If he hadn’t bumped into Hunt, who still kept in touch with the nearly over-the-hill Cubans from years ago in the Kennedy period, they would have had no one to go a-burglaring with.

The first reason the Watergate escapade was traced back to CREEP was because a CREEP employee, James McCord, the man who was to plant the bugs, was arrested in the building with the Cubans. McCord, a former CIA employee, was supposed to be an expert in these matters, but even so, no prudent person would have used a man who was so directly connected with the reelection committee. Liddy, as he tells us, had to because he didn’t know anyone else in that line of work. When he himself had been in the FBI years before, he’d never had anything to do with the famous black bag jobs. He was about as well equipped to recruit and run such an undertaking as your run-of-the-mill associate professor in the romance language department.

That they could hire Liddy, that Mitchell and the others could listen and get sucked part way into Liddy’s fantasy life, demonstrates that you don’t need to smoke opium to have pipe dreams. John Mitchell kept saying Gee Gee’s schemes to listen to McGovern’s conversations by following him across the country in “a chase plane” were too expensive. What he didn’t say was get that ding-a-ling outta here.

About then the ding-a-ling’s Halloween imagination was taken up with plots to run the badger game on Democratic politicos by enticing them away from the 1972 Miami convention hall onto a yacht loaded with prostitutes. But where to get the girls? Middle-class Liddy doesn’t know, so it’s up to Hunt’s over-the-hill Cubanos to find some over-the-hill whores. Brunette ladies! Gee Gee realizes; but they are not blonds, he complains. Super gals for super guys.

It only remains to wonder if Liddy is a one-of-a-kind specimen. They sell a lot of iron crosses and swastikas and lugers in those funny little stores located in fringy, run-down shopping centers. Nazis in Toyland: how many more are there?

This Issue

July 17, 1980