G. Gordon Liddy, the mastermind of the Watergate break-in and one of former President Richard Nixon's most loyal lieutenants, is becoming the latest and unlikeliest folk hero on American college campuses.
Known as the "sphinx of Watergate" because he refused for six years to explain his role in the ill-fated 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, Liddy is now on the college lecture circuit reciting his version of history and his unique -- some would say bizarre -- personal philosophy.
"It's incredible," gushes Donny Epstein, Liddy's New York agent. "He goes to these college campuses and draws a full house. They start by hissing and booing and at the end, they give him a standing ovation. He turns them completely around. They love him."
During his speech, Liddy paces across the stage, coiling his microphone cord in one hand, unraveling it with the other. Dressed in a gray suit and wearing spit-shined black boots, he speaks in staccato style, interspersing his dialogue with Latin phrases and quotes from Julius Caesar.
Liddy has given 32 speeches since he began accepting bookings 42 days ago. He is scheduled to speak nearly every night this month and, Epstein claims, Liddy has a backlog of 200 speaking requests.
At George Washington University and colleges in Rhode Island, Kentucky, Illinois, Texas, New York and Nebraska, Liddy is besieged with questions from students who were only 9 and 10 years old when the bugging plan he supervised was bungled, setting the stage for Nixon's ultimate downfall.
He is asked about his willingness to kill for his country, his morals, his loyalty to Nixon, the four years he spent in eight prisons serving a commuted 20-year Watergate sentence, and his colorful childhood when he baked and ate a rat and strapped himself to a tree during a lightning storm to overcome his fears.
They also asked for his views on nuclear power, the environment, education, Iran and even about the Moral Majority.
For some, Liddy, is a guru.
"Mr. Liddy, a lot of people really don't like you, don't understand your motives or motivations or the things that you did," a GWU student said when Liddy began a question-and-answer session after his speech here. "But I think this country owes you everything and. . . ."
The audience applauded so loudly that the last part of the student's question could not be heard.
"I know you mean well," Liddy quickly responded, "but I disagree with you. This country owes me nothing. I owe the country every minute of the day, I owe this country. . . ."
Liddy too was engulfed by whistles, cheers and loud applause.
A few nights later in Omaha, a Creighton University student prefaced his question by saying: "I'm one of the people who admire and like you."
The crowd of about 500, most of them students, clapped and cheered.
"He's just so intelligent," said Jane Kopp, a sophomore at Creighton, a Jesuit-run school with 5,600 students.
"Before I heard him, I figured he was a psycho," Amy Jurcyk, another Creighton sophomore, said, "but he is really fascinating and he expresses himself so well."
"He is just so pro-American, such a super-patriot, that you have to admire him even if you disagree," Aaron DeWald, who was with Kopp and Jurcyk, interjected.
One Creighton student described Liddy as a "modern John Wayne."
When Liddy first walked onto the stage at the Omaha Civic Center Music Hall about a dozen people booed and a student, wearing a Richard Nixon mask, called Liddy an obscenity.
Outside, three students protested Liddy's appearance. They were angry because part of their school fees were used to pay Liddy's $3,250 fee. They carried placards which said: "Don't support crooks." The university also was not happy about Liddy. The student-faculty administrator committee that chooses speakers had rejected Liddy's appearance, so the student government decided on its own to sponsor Liddy at the downtown arena the same night as the Carter-Reagan presidential debate. About 70 nonstudents paid $2 a person to hear Liddy.
Despite that cool reception from Creighton officials and some hecklers, the audience applauded loudly when Liddy finished his performance and about 40 students gave him a standing ovation.
"His reception here [GWU] really surprised me," Will Schladt, editor of the law school's newspaper, said. "I grew up in Washington, read what was going on [during Watergate] and followed Liddy's career.
"I just can't believe he was so warmly received and applauded," Schladt said. "Maybe the students really don't know what he did."
In his standard hour-long speech, entitled "Government in America, the People's Perception Versus Reality," Liddy claims Americans see life through rose-colored glasses and live in a make-believe world where "used cars are called previously owned vehicles and prisons are correctional institutions."
The world in reality, Liddy proclaims, "is a bad neighborhood at 2:30 in the morning and if you're a little old lady out walking, then the least that will happen is your purse will be stolen."
But, Liddy continues, "If you are a linesman from the Alabama football team with a club in one hand and a submachine gun in the other, then nobody's going to mess with you."
"The United States," Liddy told the Omaha students, "is becoming a little old lady."
A military draft, Liddy said, is inevitable because today's volunteers are not bright enough [laughter] to operate sophisticated weapons. "We should draft everyone. That's the only fair way," Liddy declared.
One or two persons applauded.
The real problem in the country, however, Liddy said, is Americans' attitude -- symbolized by the Iranian crisis.
"You and I can argue about whether there were enough helicopters or whether or not the equipment was good [during the attempt to free American hostages in Iran], but the reason they failed was because failure to built in. At every step there was a plan for aborting the mission. Abort, abort, abort," Liddy told the Creighton students.
"That's not the mind-set for a successful mission. You must be like the conquistadors who burned their ships after landing here. There ain't going to be any abort baby," Liddy said.
Thunderous applause and cheers.
Near the end of his speech, Liddy mentions Watergate. He admits he helped plan the illegal break-in and says he would have used force, if he had to, to make the "mission" work.
"I broke the law," he said in Omaha. "I took a risk and I lost. But then I accepted my punishment. I went to prison. What I can't understand are these people who break the law and then cry about it and whine and play their violins."
"John Dean," says Liddy, "is the sort of person who takes life preservers from women and children when the ship is going down."
Laughter and more applause.
"As Nietzsche said, there is but one sin -- cowardice."
Liddy's justification for killing draws the most questions. The Ten Commandments do not say, "Thou shall not kill," Liddy tells the students. He says they have been misinterpreted and that actually the commandment is "Thou shall not murder." And murder is different from justifiable homicide, explains Liddy, a former prosecuting attorney.
"Would you kill your own son if he were hurting the country?" a student asks.
"Yes," Liddy responds. "I would not want him to suffer. I would do it quickly."
"Wasn't Watergate wrong?" another student asks.
"I answer to my conscience, in the end, all men do," Liddy responds. "I have never committed mala in se (a moral wrong, like child molestation) but have committed mala prohibita (a legal wrong, like ignoring a stop sign)," Liddy explains. "I know of no president who has committed mala in se, but nearly all have committed mala prohibita. "
At GWU, a student asked whether Nixon had acted immorally when dealing with antiwar protesters. "When you go back to the 1960s, people see it through rose-colored glasses. They come up with a vision of little girls in granny dresses with daisies in their hands," Liddy said.
"They were there, but there also were people who blew up colleges and killed police officers just because they were police officers.
"They announced they were going to shut down the government and they were viewed by me and those for whom I was working as just an undeclared civil war. I remember walking into the Department of Justice building and finding infantry troops in uniform deployed with automatic weapons. If those people [protesters] would have pushed past the guards, they would have been machine gunned because they were not going to stop the government of the U.S.," Liddy said.
The students applauded loudly. A few cheered.
The end justified the means, Liddy explained.
"What do you think of Richard Nixon?" another GWU student asked.
"He was a good leader as far as I was concerned and I was one of his followers and I would follow him again."
"I admire loyalty," said Liddy, who received the stiffest Watergate-related jail sentence because he refused to talk about his involvement in the break in. "There is not enough of it in this country."
"I think he stuns them by saying what he really thinks without apologizing for some unorthodox views," Linda Wells, an Omaha high school teacher said after Liddy's Creighton speech. "Kids nowadays don't have many leaders to look up to and when someone comes along who is so strong and so sure of his own ideas, well, they are not used to that."
"I'm not ambiguous," Liddy says. "I tell them what I believe and they know I mean what I say because I live by my principles."