This morning, when I woke up at an all-too-usual 3:00 am, I decided to reduce my carbon footprint and reheat yesterday’s leftover coffee before making a fresh pot. (I’ve no idea if such action actually reduces CO2 emissions—but just doing my part to be liked by climate change extremists.) Unfortunately, the mug I used for microwave reheating was not “safe” for that purpose. When I picked it up, it instantly burned my fingers.
In all likelihood, Liddy would not be able to launch a campus speaking tour today.
Instead of dropping the mug and creating a mess of shattered ceramic and spilled Starbucks, I calmly and steadily set the mug down on the counter and ran my burned fingers under cold water for relief. As I type, two of them are stinging and bright red.
There can be no more appropriate a state in which to be when writing an ode to a man known to the world as the Watergate mastermind, but who was, to me, an important role model who was introduced into my life at a formative time. That man is George Gordon Battle Liddy, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 90.
On my office desk, there is a faded newspaper clipping from very early in 1981 promoting a campus appearance of Liddy’s at Central Michigan University. Below it, taped and mounted, is a piece of scratch paper bearing Liddy’s autograph and something he wrote in Latin that I have never been able to decipher. I was 18 years old that night when I heard him speak and got his autograph. My parents, God rest their souls, drove me and a friend down from Sault Ste.Marie to Big Rapids just for the event.
This, by the way, was back in the day when someone like Liddy was still allowed to speak on a college campus without being shouted down by intolerant, militant, and pampered brats, unable to listen to anyone who offends their snowflake sensibilities. In all likelihood, Liddy would not be able to launch a campus speaking tour today.
I brought along a cassette recorder (Google that if you are under the age of 35). For years I had the tape of that evening’s lecture, and his words still resonate today. My relationship with Liddy, however, began before that evening.
During my senior year of high school (class of 1980), I was still a bit adrift and trying to set a course toward doing something with my life. I lacked clarity and resolve. As an only child and a bit of a “momma’s boy,” I was soft. I lacked courage and determination. I was frightened by a challenge. Then, I decided to read this new, much-discussed, and controversial autobiography by Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy. Aptly titled Will, the book told Liddy’s story up to that time, from boyhood through prison.
That book changed the entire course of my life.
Make no mistake, G. Gordon Liddy was what we used to call a “man’s man.” As a young boy, he had been sickly and weak. Much like me, he was able to tolerate this within himself. Unlike me, however, he set out to intentionally fix it. One story he shared (parodied by many, but admired by me), was how as a boy, he had a fear of rats. Having read that it had been some ancient culture’s tradition to eat part of their enemy as a form of respect, young Liddy captured, cooked, and ate part of a rat in order to conquer his fear.
[W]henever faced with the challenge of constructing a complex argument, I ask myself the question, “What would Liddy do?”
It worked, and he employed other similarly severe tactics for the purpose of overcoming fears throughout his childhood. He was discovering a way to not embrace who he was and his limitations, and to actively become who he wanted to be. In that, I found hope.
Liddy worked just as hard to develop his intellect and his rational, logical mind. My reading of his story was that he had wanted to become so mentally sound, a combination of both logic and knowledge, that he would never be caught, either by himself or by others, in a “trap” when making an argument. I decided that I wanted that quality for myself. To this day, whether in my writing or in my public speaking, whenever faced with the challenge of constructing a complex argument, I ask myself the question, “What would Liddy do?”
Having finished Will, my personal mission became clear. I was going to work relentlessly on both mind and body and become the best version of what I could be. A few years later, when I discovered the work of Ayn Rand and attempted to adopt the Objectivist ethical paradigm as my own, I found myself infused with Liddy’s determination. I blended the two together. I was on my way to becoming. Decades later, I am still a work in progress with many slips and falls along the way. That said, I’m generally satisfied, and I recognize the debt I owe and cannot pay to Liddy and his story.
Going back to that winter’s night in 1981, Liddy had much to say that has stayed with me right up through this early morning reflection, decades later. He was critical of the just-defeated Jimmy Carter, suggesting he was a weak man who countered the movement of Soviet tanks into Afghanistan by shutting out the lights on a Christmas tree. He said that Carter had been more fit to be parson than president.
He addressed the revolution in Iran and Carter’s unwillingness to support America’s ally, the Shah, by stating simply, “The Persians have been acting like Persians for thousands of years. The only question should be, whose Persians are they going to be? Ours or the Soviets.”
He warned us that evening of the impact of a leader with a naive view of the world.
He warned us that evening of the impact of a leader with a naive view of the world. “The world is a very bad neighborhood,” he said. “At about 2:30 in the morning.” Throughout the course of the lecture, he repeatedly would emphasize a point by saying, “and that is another fact, with which you must deal.” He was clear, he was on-point, he was logical, he was unrepentant. He was Liddy.
He also addressed life inside a federal prison where he had spent six years for his role in Watergate. Liddy was famously the only member of those arrested who refused to cooperate with the feds and “rat-out” those involved in the break-in. Because of his recalcitrance, he was dealt the most severe sentence, one that President Carter ultimately commuted.
Recalling this time, he spoke with disdain about prison culture and those in charge of the system. Of the relationship between guards and prisoners, he said that there were two kinds of people in prison. There were the inmates who had made some sort of mistake in the commission of a crime and, as a result, inadvertently landed in prison. Then there were the guards. They were people who chose to spend their time in prison. He asked (rhetorically) who we thought were the smarter of the two groups? His point being that prison guards did not necessarily represent America’s best and brightest, accounting for much of the chaos present in prison life.
The early announcements of Liddy’s death that came in through my newsfeed all read the same. “Watergate burglar/Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy dies at age 90.” In the days ahead, we are certain to see him again, mocked for things like his eating a rat as a boy. He will be vilified because he found himself inspired by the pageantry of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” (No. Liddy was not a Nazi.)
Gordon Liddy was a complex man, with the emphasis placed on “man.”
It is being recalled that he had, at one point, been willing to assassinate the journalist Jack Anderson if he had been tasked to do so by his superiors. What is less likely to be recalled is how he offered to allow himself to be killed during the Watergate investigation if it would benefit the President. “Tell me at what street corner to be standing and at what time,” was his offer. This is stoicism at a level the Ancient Greeks all the way through Marcus Aurelius would have found hard to have imagined.
Gordon Liddy was a complex man, with the emphasis placed on “man.” He embraced Nietzsche’s quote of “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” He was rational, cold, and deliberate in making decisions and unrepentant after having made them. He detested hypocrisy, disloyalty, and cowardice. I have no knowledge of his personal life or habits, but I suspect he would be more inclined to enjoy an episode of Jack Bauer facing difficult choices on 24 than he would to watch Oprah.
He held the qualities that were admired for much of human history, and that of late have slipped into disfavor. We now live in a Western world wherein masculinity is considered toxic and moral relativism is the preferred structure for informing thought and action. It is merciful that he has left this realm so he doesn’t have to continue to watch the West lose its “will.”
The man who would hold his hand over a lit flame to strengthen his determination and demonstrate his fortitude to others, the man who helped me navigate a burn to my own hand this morning, has passed. Rest in peace, G. Gordon Liddy. Be still now and know that you had a profound and life-altering impact on at least one weak and cowardly young man who was looking for direction over forty years ago.