A week after the break-in, Nixon said privately of Liddy: “He just isn’t well screwed-on, is he?”
Liddy may have died Tuesday at 90, but he lives on in any number of characters afflicting our politics with their theatrical machismo or numbskulled shenanigans. There’s a little Liddy in the Republican senators who dressed in safari gear to visit the border last week in armed riverboats. There’s a little Liddy in New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his hatchet men, who aren’t subtle about conducting loyalty tests or smearing opponents. TrumpWorld teemed with little Liddys trying to outdo one another with displays of bravado, running off cliffs like Wile E. Coyotes, rigging political bombs that detonated in their faces.
Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Rudolph Giuliani. Absent-minded masterminds, all of them, tripping on their own cloaks, daggering their own shanks.
Fixers who need fixing.
Liddy’s place in the Watergate Cinematic Universe was somewhere between villain and underling, jester and patsy. His origin story is rooted in “absolute, overwhelming fear,” as he wrote in his memoir. He was a sick child, breathing medicated steam in a tent in his bedroom, and he was made sicker by his upbringing: lashed with a leather harness by his grandmother, forced into right-handedness by his mother, terrified by his church’s suggestion of an omnipotent, vengeful God.
At age 5, he discovered the nexus of fear and power. He found his uncle’s loaded pistol, pulled the hammer back, and walked into a room full of relatives, who went quiet real quick.
Young Liddy was enraptured by Adolf Hitler’s oratory coming through his mother’s shortwave radio.
“Here was the very antithesis of fear — sheer animal confidence and power of will,” wrote Liddy, who soon realized that “to change myself from a puny, fearful boy to a strong, fearless man, I would have to face my fears, one by one, and overcome them.”
Did Liddy ever really change? He’d have you believe so. His memoir, titled “Will,” is a grandiose and gripping self-mythology of surmounting fear through recklessness. At 15, to overcome his fear of thunder, Liddy climbed 60 feet up an oak tree during a storm and shouted “Kill me!” at the sky, according to the memoir. In 1962 he fouled out of the FBI, whose officials called him a “wild man,” according to journalist J. Anthony Lukas. A decade later, out of abject loyalty to a paranoid leader, Liddy klutzed his country to a constitutional crisis. Nixon’s people were bothered by Liddy’s cloak-and-dagger mien, the looseness of his cannon. Here was an unserious man who took himself very, very seriously.
Sound familiar? In their hapless ploy to overturn a free and fair election, Donald Trump’s lawyers called themselves an “elite strike force team.” This is LiddySpeak. (When translated to English, “elite strike force team” becomes “posse of oopsy-poopsy nincompoops.”) There’s a lot of Liddy in Giuliani, whose servile work for Trump was the equivalent of dragging toilet paper through the White House on the heel of his loafer. Sidney Powell said she was fighting a second American Revolution by making loony claims about Dominion Voting Systems; she is now being sued by the company for $1.3 billion in damages, and her defense amounts to: “What serious person would’ve taken me seriously?”
Liddy doubled down all the way to the end. He prided himself on not ratting out his Watergate co-conspirators and argued that if everyone had just shut up about it Nixon would not have been deposed. Liddy served prison time for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping, then parlayed his “strong, fearless” masculinity into best-selling books and a talk-radio show that reached 10 million listeners.
Maybe achieving success in the face of felony, scandal and humiliation was one scheme that Liddy did execute successfully. The license plate on his black Volvo was “H20GATE.” Infamy, for a certain brand of wild man and super-klutz, is not something to avoid. It is something to advertise.
Not everyone can pull that off. When one of the men charged in connection with the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol was confronted by police at his home in Dallas, he was wearing a Trump T-shirt that said “I Was There, Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021.”
You know the type. Just not well screwed-on, are they?