Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

G. Gordon Liddy’s Fighting Ring

He kept his mouth shut about Watergate and went to prison. Then he kept his mouth running for two decades on talk radio.
March 31, 2021
Featured Image
Former White House aide G. Gordon Liddy is filmed by journalists as he leaves U. S. District Court, where he pleaded Not Guilty of breaking into Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

I was not a G. Gordon Liddy fan.

The “Darth Vader of the Nixon administration” could be a bully, was misogynistic, and his idea of patriotism was laughable to me.

On his radio show, which aired from 1992 to 1999, he bragged about how he could put a lighter to the palm of his hand and how he offered to take the blame for President Richard Nixon’s misdeeds. He picked on John Dean incessantly. He promoted what today would be called “toxic masculinity” and generally bowled over people he didn’t respect.

I did gain respect for him, though, and even liked him.

I first met Liddy at a news convention in 1995 and talked him into letting me interview him for Playboy magazine. He invited me to his radio studio, and as it turned out, he was everything I thought he was—and much more.

He did his homework on me, and as we sat down to talk he asked me how I came to go to jail for the First Amendment. I expected him to tell me I was a liberal idiot, but he didn’t. When he found out I had protected a confidential source, he congratulated me. “I hate snitches,” he explained.

Liddy had spent almost five years in prison for his activities in Watergate. After having served as an artillery officer in Korea, he worked for the FBI for a few years, and then as a prosecutor in Dutchess County, New York. In 1972, he joined the Nixon team—working first in the White House, then on the 1972 re-election effort—and started cooking up bizarre and illegal schemes, like breaking into the office of the psychiatrist who treated Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers. It was Liddy who supervised the Watergate break-in. As the investigations proceeded, he refused to testify, and was ultimately convicted of burglary, wiretapping, and conspiracy.

By the time I met him eighteen years after his release, his radio show was on more than 260 stations nationwide—his listeners called him “The G Man”—he was a frequent highly paid speaker, and he had just received a Freedom of Speech award from the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts. During the months it took me to convince him to sit down for an interview for Playboy, he often asked about Playboy bunnies and parties.

Though mercurial, he was exceedingly polite to those who disagreed with him on his radio show. He frequently summoned up his strongly held beliefs, but never denigrated liberals—and frequently had them on his show. Lanny Davis was often a featured guest. Liddy seemed to enjoy a good-natured, high-spirited debate without ever descending to the depths Rush Limbaugh would plumb—or, for that matter, former President Trump. As I wrote in the introduction to my interview with him, “He is disarmingly gracious and good-natured. He seems to hold malice toward no one—with the possible exception of John Dean. And he may be the only person in America who listens recreationally to the soundtrack of Victory at Sea in his car.”

Liddy and I got along because he could be gracious, and because he afforded me some respect for keeping my mouth shut and going to jail—as he had. “Did you get in any fights?” he asked me. I explained to him I had one dust-up in jail with a guy who thought the jailers were taking it easy on me: “I was told if challenged you had to fight. So I did.” “What happened?” he asked. “I hit the guy with a mop handle and tried to stuff his head in a toilet. After that everything was okay.”

With that Liddy laughed, called me his brother, and showed me a huge ring he wore on his finger. The story behind it was telling. The ring was silver and gold, but it wasn’t the original. When he first went to jail he got into a fight and got his nose cut, badly, and couldn’t understand why. A cellmate explained Liddy’s opponent had a “fighting ring” that had been fashioned by a trustee in the plumbing shop from steel pipe in the jail. It had all kinds of angles and sharp edges. “You could do a lot of damage with one, so I asked how much,” Liddy explained. He had one made for the cost of two cartons of cigarettes and fought with it for thirteen months before he shipped out to another prison. He couldn’t take it with him, so he gave it to his wife, who at the time taught school in the inner city. “She gained a lot of respect. She had kids she taught who knew what a fighting ring was,” he told me.

Liddy played tough guys and criminals on a few television shows, and he loved that image. When he left prison he quoted Nietzsche’s famous line, “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker” (What does not kill me makes me stronger).

But Liddy also had his maudlin side. I became an occasional guest on his radio show, and during his fifth-anniversary program, I was brought on to tease him and present him with an “Ode to Gordon Liddy.” It is worth repeating the last stanza:

But they’re all wrong about you Gordon Liddy. They have no idea what’s in your soul.
And I confess finding out the truth was a sad tale of woe.
For the Liberals can call you a violence freak, a sex fiend, a cad, but that isn’t the whole truth. No. It’s so sad.
That a tough guy, a gun aficionado and a man the liberals call a dink,
Can be a fan of the wimpy rock group ABBA—that’s what really stinks.

Liddy had a sense of humor, and didn’t mind when I made fun of anything he did; his main concern that I was accurate in telling the story. If he actually did it, and I called him on, he would own it.

And while he had a reputation as a violent man, he said sometimes it was justified. “What gets me angry very rapidly is to see someone in a superior social position degrade someone with a lesser social standing who cannot defend himself.”

Liddy was a convicted criminal. He was vilified by many, adored by some, and was complex, defying easy description. It excuses nothing that he did, but should give us all pause to look at who we are. Did he get what he deserved?

Perhaps. But I know that he didn’t die the way he wanted. When I asked him why he continuously flirted with women though he proclaimed himself happily married (he was married for 53 years until his wife died) He said there was no contradiction. “I’ve been flirting with girls ever since I can remember. And I will probably continue as long as my testosterone keeps flowing—until the unhappy day when I’m shot to death by a jealous husband.”

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.