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Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy.

We're coming up on the 25th anniversary of the 1972 Watergate break-in--mark your calendars: June 17!--and we're sure to face another round of that journalistic staple: a visit with the villains of Watergate and an ironic comment upon their boomeranging fortunes. Ron Ziegler, we're regularly reminded, went from Nixonian mouthpiece to CEO of the National Association of Chain Drugstores. Chuck Colson, erstwhile White House tough guy, now pops up in The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal op-ed pages. And, most famously, G. Gordon Liddy, after 52 months in the pen, became a popular lecturer and radio-show host, regaling listeners with his withering attacks on Democrats and his technical mastery of guns and weaponry. The re-acceptance of these felons and rogues, we're frequently told, must mean the public has a short memory. Or maybe it has simply forgiven them. How else to explain, for example, Richard Nixon's funeral three years ago, at which pundits and politicians hailed the disgraced president's return to respectability? A great hatchet has been buried, it is suggested; we have declared a Watergate truce.

But who signed it? Did you? The hoopla that greeted the post-resignation Nixon whenever he published a new book, visited the White House, or stopped at a Burger King marked not, I believe, an exculpatory embrace of the former president, but simply a continuing fascination with him. As Nixon himself said of the crowds that came to hear him: "They're here because they want to hear what I have to say, but they're [also] here because they say, `What makes this guy tick?'" Nixon and his sordid cast of henchmen repel us even as they rivet our attention, like scenes of carnage by the side of the road.

This, I assume, is the reason St. Martin's Press has reissued Gordon Liddy's 1980 autobiography, Will. Liddy commands a wide listenership, and if Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh can top the best-seller charts, why not the G-Man? Indeed when Will first appeared, it was a best-seller, horrifying and fascinating readers with now-legendary tales of Liddy charbroiling his own flesh over an open flame so as to inure himself to pain. (Saturday Night Live memorably satirized the scene with an ersatz Liddy barbecuing his sauce-slathered hand over a grill, then biting into it.) It's not that we forgive Liddy; we just want to slice away the hard exterior and see what's cooking underneath.

Reading Will should chasten the petty scribes who today scream scandal over every piddling political flap that rears its head. With chilling sangfroid and mephistophelean delight, Liddy details the Nixon administration's shockingly criminal plans, both consummated (the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office) and not (the loose but serious talk of having the columnist Jack Anderson assassinated). And these are just the episodes we remember. Will reminds us that as general counsel to the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP), Liddy dreamed up a voluminous and intricate set of illegal "dirty tricks"--only some of which were actually implemented. Liddy called the master plan "GEMSTONE," and each little scheme is truly a gem of ingenious lawbreaking: DIAMOND involved kidnapping and drugging antiwar leaders and whisking them, unawares, to Mexico. GARNET entailed staging phony left-wing demonstrations in order to alienate mainstream voters (one plan--to have hippies publicly urinate on the carpet of Georger McGovern's hotel suite--was scotched when CREEP boss John Mitchell learned he'd soon be moving into the very suite himself). And the racistly named COAL comprised plans to fund black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm's bid for the 1972 DemocratiC nomination, so as to rend the black community. The recently released Nixon tapes that disclosed a variant of this plan, involving Jesse Jackson, wouldn't have seemed like such news if we hadn't let our hardback copies of Will get dusty.

Besides reconnecting us to the enormity of the Watergate crimes, Will offers a tantalizing self-portrait of Liddy. My specialty is history and politics, but this book really ought to be turned over to a psychiatrist. Even a novice therapist would have a field day. Here is Liddy's earliest memory: "Lying on the floor as my paternal grandmother lashed me with a leather harness, shouting, `Bad! Bad!'" Elsewhere, in recounting his childhood, he writes, "Soon my every waking moment was ruled by that overriding emotion: fear" And all of this happens, incidentally, by the just second page.

It is only fitting that this personality, warped at such an early age, would converge with the grotesquerie of Watergate. No matter how surreal or outlandish Watergate became, Liddy always managed to rise to the occasion. When, after the failed June 17 break-in, Liddy volunteers to John Dean to have himself killed, we wonder which scenario is crazier: if Liddy is trying to impress the weak-stomached Dean with his bravado, or if he really means it.

One other point deserves mention. St. Martin's reissued Will once before, six years ago, with a postscript in which Liddy endorsed the 1991 book Silent Coup. That book, another St. Martin's publication, claimed that John Dean masterminded the Watergate break-in to gain information that implicated his wife in a call-girl ring. A few reviewers indulged these claims, the book sold well, and its veneer of legitimacy gave the conspiracy-minded Right--the "Who Killed Vince Foster?" crowd--fodder for its ongoing efforts to rewrite Watergate as the illegitimate overthrow of a Republican president by Democrats and the Liberal Media.

Most people, though, myself included, reject Silent Coup as spurious or unpersuasive, and Liddy's 1991 postscript adds no further reason to believe that book's claims. Rather, it seems designed to reconcile Liddy's own recollections set forth in Will with the seemingly contradictory claims of the later book, which Liddy perhaps wishes to believe because it scapegoats his archenemy, John Dean. After this postscript was published, Dean sued Liddy, St. Martin's, and Silent Coup's authors for libel, and the proceedings are still going on.

This year's reissue of Will contains an anodyne if humorous summary of Liddy's entry into show business--the debates on the lecture circuit with Timothy Leary, the appearances on Miami VIce, the radio career--and some macho bluster about parachuting with the Israeli Defense Forces. But it's notable mainly for its continued assault on Dean. Gone is the convoluted attempt to square Silent Coup with Liddy's own account of the Watergate burglary. Instead, Liddy sounds off about the Dean lawsuit, skewering Dean by quoting passages from the legal transcript in which the former presidential counsel claims to have "misspoken" during his Watergate testimony, or blames Taylor Branch, the ghostwriter of Dean's memoir Blind Ambition, for its apparent errors.

But the beauty of Will is that anyone who reads it cover to cover, even with the latest addendum, will surely come to the conclusion that the Silent Coup theory is, if not baseless, then certainly beside the point. Even if its central claim about the break-in were true, Watergate was not, as everyone now knows, simply a botched breakin. It was a Constitutional crisis of the first order, and it encompassed a long litany of crimes that have, for the sake of linguistic convenience, come to fall under a rubric that shares its name with an office complex. In Will, G. Gordon Liddy quite usefully reminds us of the number and the magnitude of these crimes, even as he seems still to revel, perversely, in their villainy.

DAVID GREENBERG, former Acting Editor of The New Republic, is a Richard Hofstadter Fellow in American History at Columbia University and an editor of the online magazine Slate.
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Author:Greenberg, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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