The Strong, Silent, Psycho Type

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In 1966, Harvard researcher Timothy Leary would spend weekends with his students at a mansion in Dutchess County, New York where they’d smoke dope and drop acid. Now Dutchess county was and is one of the most right-wing counties in America, and the good burghers there didn’t take kindly to this at all.

So one night, there was a knock on the mansion door. Leary opened it and was met by a posse of officers, among them the local prosecutor wearing a trench-coat and moustache, who promptly arrested him.

G. Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary met a second time in the mid-70s when they were both serving time at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution south of Los Angeles. Leary was in for possession of marijuana and a previous prison escape, and Liddy was there for breaking into the Democratic Headquarters and sparking the Watergate Affair. Liddy, now a former FBI agent, had kept his mouth shut while the others ratted each other out, leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. 

By 1981 both Liddy and Leary were ex-cons (Liddy’s sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter, of all people),  and each had his own radio program and talk show. After they bumped into each other at a conference at the University of Texas in Austin, they decided to form a tag-team on the college lecture circuit, with Liddy taking the Right and Leary the Left.

Their debates were to intellectual sparring what pro wrestling is to street-fighting. No matter; the students loved these two masters of reinvention taking opposite sides in the cause du jour.

In 1982, director Alan Rudolph made a film about Liddy and Leary called ReturnEngagement, which premiered that September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I was on the board of TIFF back then and each year would host a “Stray Star” party to honour an actor or director whose film premiered as an orphan, i.e. without a studio and their publicity machines. 

Thus it was that 100 of us trooped off to see Return Engagement on a Saturday morning, followed by brunch at The Walrus and the Carpenter which burned down two years later. My guest was G. Gordon Liddy who was accompanied by his wife Frances.

Well, such a gentleman you never did see. 

Liddy was achingly polite, gracious and grateful, and he offered us a witty speech contrasting Canada and the US.  Ian Brown later profiled him in Saturday NightMagazine, using the party for some Brownsian opinions on the lure of infamy being much stronger than mere fame.

This was not what I expected at all.

Liddy’s entire life was an exercise of the will. His grandmother regularly beat him with a leather harness. His mother beat him to make him right-handed. Her shortwave radio introduced him to the oratory of Adolph Hitler who jolted his boyhood fantasies of omnipotence. He learned to overcome pain by putting his hand on a flame and watching his flesh sear. He once ate a rat to prove his manhood and regularly decapitated chickens so he could kill without feeling.

He chose Frances to be his wife because she had good genes so she could bear “half a dozen high-performance children.” When his talk-show callers asked how he was feeling, he would always reply: “virile, vigorous and potent.”

Last week, at home at age 90, Gordon Battle Liddy (yes, “Battle” is his middle name), died.

His many obituaries record the strange tumbling arcs of his life. A week after the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon had whispered to an aide: “He’s a little nuts, isn’t he?” Richard Nixon said that.

But most of these summing-ups move on to assess the countless Little Liddys who seem to be everywhere these days: Ted Cruz, Andrew Cuomo, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Rudy Giuliani, and of course Roger Stone, who was also involved with Liddy in the Watergate burglary which happened close to half a century before Stone was pardoned last December by Donald Trump.

Even with Liddy gone, I’m not sure America is ready for another Return Engagement.

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