G. Gordon Liddy's least favorite airport is Dallas-Fort Worth, he tells USA Today. His favorite airport clubs are the ones run by American Airlines. His favorite book on just ordinary crime, he tells U.S. News & World Report, is "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" and his recommendation for a book on special-tactics warfare is "Crossfire." Got any more questions?
Yes! Who is G. Gordon Liddy's favorite columnist? It used to be Jack Anderson, who, according to witnesses, he once set out to kill. Who is his favorite psychiatrist? It may be the one whose office he was convicted of burglarizing. What is his favorite office building? It just could be the Watergate, where his burglary team was caught.
You get little hint either from USA Today or U.S. News that Liddy is an adjudicated and unrepentant criminal. Neither publication pauses so much as to say that in furtherance of Richard Nixon's reelection, and using the cover of national security, G. Gordon Liddy did break and enter, burglarize and in other ways besmirch public office. His punishment, though, has not necessarily fit his crime. He was sentenced to 52 1/2 months in prison and signed to appear on "Miami Vice."
What is going on here? It is true, of course, that Liddy has paid his debt to society and that he is free, under the laws he used to flout, to make a living any way he can. But to USA Today and U.S. News, he is nothing but a celebrity. When the former published a special section on airports, Liddy was just one of the famous it turned to: O.J. Simpson loathes O'Hare. Ann Landers likes it because it means she's home. That's the way Nancy Kissinger feels about New York's John F. Kennedy. And Dr. Benjamin Spock has a soft spot in what Liddy would say is his bleeding heart for the airport in Kansas City. Each and every one of these people is given a title: sportscaster, columnist, pediatrician, "wife of Henry Kissinger" and, for Liddy, author. Yes, author.
Long ago someone observed that American life is turning into a parody of a television talk show -- a chat with a nuclear physicist, an actress, a volunteer at a hospice and a Nazi war criminal. Each gets a mug of coffee and each gets to call one another by their first names -- "What a nice suit, Fritz." They are all equally famous, and fame, after all, is what counts. It hardly matters anymore how you got there. What only matters is that you are famous.
Gordon Liddy is the personification of that ethic -- a barometer of the nation's hypocrisy. Mothers rail against obscenity in rock lyrics, but don't even think about Liddy appearing on "Miami Vice." The president's guardian of morality, Edwin Meese III, deputizes a posse to investigate the effects of pornography on everything from children to green plants, but doesn't ask the same kids what lesson they draw from the life and times of Gordon Liddy. (The only thing sillier than Meese's mission is the press asking a president who once played opposite a monkey what he thinks of his son appearing on television in his underwear.)
If Liddy had stolen cash he would never have been heard of again. We do not forgive crimes against property. But crimes against the Constitution are a different matter. That is politics, and politics, we obviously think, is some sort of joke. The real joke, though, is that Liddy himself knew better. For his politics, he was willing to steal, to burglarize, to plant recording devices and, according to witnesses, to kill or be killed -- although that may have been nothing but talk. At any rate, Liddy's politics was to rob you of yours.
A nation needs its scoundrels if only to remind it that it stands for something. Scoundrels personify a society's values -- what is permissible, what s not and what line cannot be crossed. Liddy, who crossed many of them, would be the perfect scoundrel -- the lawyer with contempt for the law, the public official who betrays the public trust, the man who, in his own little way, made the world worse for being in it.
But the demand for celebrities trivializes both the good and the bad -- the baby doctor and the crook from Watergate. O. J. Simpson hates O'Hare and Tony Randall says he can't tell one airport from another. Singer Dionne Warwick thinks "New Edition" may win a Grammy, Author Gordon Liddy has two crime books to recommend and Idi Amin, we may presume, has an unlisted number. He could be an author, too.