Flipping His Liddy

Watergate burglar (turned talk show host) G. Gordon Liddy refused to testify in court or in Congress a quarter-century ago, but he was a garrulous witness in a Baltimore courtroom last week. The lawsuit grew out of the revisionist Watergate book Silent Coup: The Removal of a President (1991), by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin. Silent Coup suggests that President Nixon’s counsel, John Dean, ordered the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate and that he did so in search of information about a call-girl ring run by the roommate of his girlfriend (and future wife), Maureen Biener.

Liddy endorsed the call-girl theory in interviews and speeches. (He was no fan of Dean, who broke the White House omerta to testify against Nixon and the other Watergate conspirators.) Going beyond the findings of Silent Coup, Liddy said that a secretary at the DNC kept photos of prostitutes, including Maureen Biner, who were available to entertain visiting pols. In Liddy’s account, the burglars were after these incriminating pictures in the secretary’s desk. Such remarks prompted the secretary, Ida “Maxie” Wells, to sue Liddy for defamation, seeking $5.1 million in damages.

During the trial last week, Wells’ attorney asked Liddy, “Isn’t it true that you have considered assassinating Mr. Dean?”

“I wouldn’t consider him worth a quarter to buy the cartridge that would propel the bullet to kill him with,” Liddy replied.

Admittedly, Liddy may be the kind of guy you just naturally suspect of wanting to bump off his enemies–but there’s more to it. The question probably originated in an unexpected 1974 encounter between Dean and Liddy, an encounter narrated in both men’s memoirs with Rashomon-like disparities.

The place: Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s office suite. The time: fall 1974. Dean and Liddy both have been convicted and sent to jail. Cooperating witness Dean spends his days in the prosecutor’s office, helping Jaworski associate James Neal make sense of evidence. Adamantly uncooperating witness Liddy–cited for both contempt of court and contempt of Congress for refusing to testify–is summoned from prison for a meeting with Neal, who hopes to persuade him to talk.

In Blind Ambition: The White House Years (1976), Dean writes that he was about to leave Neal’s office on Sept. 12, 1974, when Liddy entered, flanked by two U.S. marshals. “Hello, Gordon. How are you?” said Dean, composed as ever. Liddy, writes Dean, “stopped and peered into my face. His eyes were so glazed that I suspected he was under sedation. After a long and blank stare, he shook his head jerkily as if to throw off a dream. ‘John!’ he exclaimed. ‘How are you? I didn’t even recognize you. I’m sorry.’ ” They exchanged small talk for a few minutes, and Liddy said in parting, “I’m really sorry about not recognizing you.”

In Will (1980), Liddy writes that he was leery of the Neal summons from the start. He had made clear that he would never rat on former allies, and he wondered “if there was some other, undisclosed reason” for his being hauled to the prosecutor’s headquarters on Oct. 12. (Dean has it on Sept. 12.) Directed to Neal’s office alone–no marshals dogging him in this version–he entered and closed the door. Behind the desk, to his astonishment, sat quisling Dean.

“I stood stock-still, trying to figure out this development,” writes Liddy. “Here was the perfect opportunity to kill Dean. A pencil was lying on the desk. In a second I could drive it up through the underside of his jaw, through the soft-palate and deep into his brain. Had someone set it up? If so, why now? President Nixon was out of office. I had received no orders to kill Dean and certainly wouldn’t be presumed so irresponsible as to do so on my own initiative. …” He concluded that it must be “an incredible error” rather than a setup for murder. Dean, meanwhile, “jumped up with a look of stark fear” on seeing him, according to Liddy. “There was no way out except through me. I let him suffer for a moment, then said: ‘John. I don’t think they knew you were still in here.’ Dean stammered in relief. ‘Gee, uh, Gordon, uh, how are you?’ “

“[M]emory,” as the old unindicted co-conspirator points out in RN (1978), “is fallible.” So which felon should you credit, Dean or Liddy? Dean got into print first, giving Liddy a chance to concoct a macho explanation that’s partly consistent with Dean’s observations: Behind those glazed eyes lurked visions of guerrilla-style assassination. But Dean, in an earlier Silent Coup-spawned lawsuit in the mid-1990s, tried to distance himself from his own book. His ghostwriter had invented portions of Blind Ambition “out of whole cloth,” Dean testified, and he himself never had “gone through this book cover to cover.” (When the galley proofs arrived, he testified, he was bedridden with a fever. His wife didn’t want him to get ink on the bedclothes, so he didn’t make corrections.) But Blind Ambition’s ghostwriter, Taylor Branch, denies inventing any of the book’s facts–and he went on to win the history Pulitzer for Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988).

Don’t look to Wells v. Liddy for resolution of the Dean-Liddy credibility question. To start with, the plaintiff’s attorney decided not to have Dean testify. More important, the jury deadlocked last Thursday. Most of the jurors deemed the call-girl scenario tenable, albeit with less than ringing endorsements–“I guess anything’s possible,” one of them told the Baltimore Sun–and the federal judge proceeded to dismiss the case rather than leave it open for retrial. Like many judicial outcomes, the resolution had more to do with burdens of proof than with absolute truth, but Liddy painted it as his total victory over not some lowly DNC secretary but the disloyal White House counsel. “John Dean just had a stake driven through his heart,” he said, “and I pounded it in, and how sweet it is.”

So, to the list of Watergate mysteries, add the DNC burglars’ true purpose and the Dean-Liddy encounter of Sept. 12, 1974. Or Oct. 12, 1974. In the words of historian Daniel Boorstin, quoted in the Silent Coup foreword, “Our past is only a little less uncertain than our future, and, like the future, it is always changing, always revealing and concealing.”