DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. G. Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who planned the Watergate burglary that led to President Richard Nixon's downfall, died Tuesday at his daughter's home in Virginia. He was 90.
Known for his dark, bushy mustache and fierce loyalty to the president, Liddy was among the most colorful of the Watergate figures. Working for Nixon and his reelection campaign, Liddy developed many bizarre plots to neutralize Nixon's adversaries, including kidnappings, sting operations, using prostitutes, even the proposed assassination of newspaper columnist Jack Anderson. Most were never acted upon.
Liddy never pleaded guilty to his Watergate crimes or testified to Congress about his activities, as many others did. Convicted of burglary and conspiracy, he served more than four years in prison before his sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. After Watergate, Liddy wrote books, gave college speeches, dabbled in acting and had a long-running syndicated radio talk show. Terry Gross interviewed Gordon Liddy in 1980, when FRESH AIR was a local radio program in Philadelphia. Liddy was touring to promote his memoir, called "Will."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: When do you believe that a person is above the law? Is a person ever above the law?
G GORDON LIDDY: No, a person is never above the law so long as one understands what the law is and certain maxims about the law. First of all, I believe that what Cicero said is correct. The good of the people is the chief law. The question logically next to him is, well, who's to say what's the good of the people, you know - you, Gordon Liddy? Well, certainly not.
The person who is chargeable with that responsibility is the president because he's the one who is elected by the people. And if you disagree with him, well, then you elect somebody else the next time around. That's the way it works. That's why when I would have certain suggestions, they would be nothing but suggestions and would never be acted upon unless they were approved by my superiors in the White House 'cause I was not at that high level where I could arrogate to myself very serious decisions such as those I was involved with.
GROSS: So if a president says, yes, I think it's a good idea to bug Democratic National Committee headquarters, or, yes, I think it's a good idea to assassinate a person, then, in that case, it becomes as if it was legal because you've gotten the corroboration...
LIDDY: Well, no. It doesn't become - we've got to distinguish here because you're getting into a legal area and a technical area, and I think it's important for us to distinguish. I was engaged in two different kinds of work when I was at the White House. One was, in my judgment, legal. It involved national security and not politics, and that was the activities of the Odessa Group when we were, for example, trying to determine whether Daniel Ellsberg was a romantic loner of the left or whether he was an agent of the KGB.
Now, that, in my judgment at that time, the state of the law at the time was clearly legal. On the other hand, when I was no longer with the Odessa Group and we were engaging in a political campaign and seeking political intelligence, clearly what was done was illegal but not wrong - morally wrong.
GROSS: What do you think you could have gotten if the Watergate break-in had worked?
LIDDY: Well, people misunderstood, I think, the purpose of it. They said, gee whiz, Larry O'Brien wasn't there half the time. You know, what's the point? Also, they said, you know, McGovern was the candidate, and McGovern wasn't going anywhere. What's the point? Well, first of all, when all these plans were laid, nobody knew who the candidate was going to be. And indeed, the prime candidate at the time was Muskie, who was considered to be a potentially formidable candidate. And there was always in the back of the minds of those high in the Nixon White House that at any time Teddy Kennedy said, I want it, he could get it. And he was considered someone who would have been potentially a very formidable opponent.
But when we went in there to put in, one, a room transmitter and a telephone transmitter, the idea was not so much just to get what O'Brien might say in there when he was in there. But we knew that whoever the Democratic candidate would end up being from their convention, he would undoubtedly come back. Instead of his little headquarters that he'd been operating out of as a potential candidate, he would move into the DNC headquarters, his vast system of offices. And with our stuff already in place, we'd be able to read them from the word go.
And also, bear in mind that once a person is the candidate, they'd be surrounded by the Secret Service. It'd be a lot harder to get in there and do the job. So it made very good sense for us to do what we did when we did it.
GROSS: I'd like to get back to the separation that you made between what's legally and what's morally wrong and what's legally and morally OK. One of the things that you were considering doing when you were trying to monitor Daniel Ellsberg was to put LSD in his soup before a speech that he had to give.
LIDDY: Right. That had been approved from above as a technique to disorient him. Right.
GROSS: Now, where does it fit into in the spectrum of...
LIDDY: Well, elsewhere...
GROSS: ...Legality and morality?
LIDDY: Yeah, no problem with that either because had Ellsberg been a political opponent, I would say that that would have been wrong. Ellsberg was not a political opponent. Ellsberg was someone who was stealing and had stolen highly classified information. And when one does that, when one puts oneself in the posture of an enemy or an antagonist of the state, one really ought not to be surprised when the state strikes back. It's the same situation as the thing we had in the '60s. When you, you know, riot and burn and things of that sort, you ought not to be surprised when the National Guard is called out, and you get yourself shot. You're asking for it. And I don't have any problems with that at all.
GROSS: When you, G. Gordon Liddy, put acid in someone's soup, or when you consider attempting to assassinate someone, that is different than a person who has had a fair trial, which is the demands in this country. It's something we cherish. In one case, you're taking the law in your hands, and you are being the arbiter of what's right and what's wrong and what's legally correct, what's morally correct.
LIDDY: No. You see; the difference is...
GROSS: In another, it's an organized system with checks and balances in it and either a jury or a judge. Is that correct for you to be...
LIDDY: No. If I were a gas station attendant, your argument would make sense. But I was working for the president of the United States. And the difference is, as I think I may have mentioned - Cicero said the chief law is to go to the people. And laws are inoperative in war. And when we look back on the '60s through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, we are inclined to conjure up visions of, oh, young lady such as yourself in a long granny dress. Maybe instead of wearing horn-rimmed glasses...
GROSS: Begging your pardon, I never wore a long granny dress.
LIDDY: I say such as yourself.
LIDDY: But in any event - and holding daisies in her hand. But what actually occurred was 125 cities went up. We had the National Guard and paratroopers called out to restore order, bombing of the Capitol of the United States. I mean, it just went on and on. That is, in my judgment, a state of civil war. And it certainly was permissible, as far as I'm concerned, for us to take what in other circumstances would have been extralegal means in order to restore order.
GROSS: OK. I'd like to hear a little bit about some of the things that you did to strengthen your will, which you describe in the book. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
LIDDY: Yeah, for strengthening my will, primarily, I did - I used fire because I had a twofold effect. When I was a child, a little child, I happened by accident - because I didn't know what it was - to pick up a hot coal. And it burned me, and it scared me. And I was afraid of pain, and I was afraid of fire for that reason. And at first, what I wanted to do was get rid of the fear of pain and fire. And so I used fire and pain to overcome that. And then I simply used that as the same technique one would use when trying to strengthen physically an arm to increase the weights that one would lift. I increased the amount and duration of the fire until I reached the point of diminishing returns, which is where serious injury would set in. And that seemed to me to be unreasonable. And so I didn't do it.
GROSS: You also tell a story about how you overcame your fear of rats. Could you tell us that?
LIDDY: Yeah. First thing I did was, again, when I was a child, I would go down underneath the piers on the waterfront and try to confront the rats. And this didn't work very well because, first of all, rats swim very well, and they would just jump off and swim away. And I remained fearful of them less and less, to be sure. But still, I had residual dread. And finally, when my sister's cat killed one freshly, I recalled the fact that certain American Indian tribes used to consume the heart of an enemy that they consider to be courageous to overcome the fear of that tribe. And so I can cooked and consume part of the rat. And thereafter, I had no fear of rats.
GROSS: So that worked.
GROSS: Gordon Liddy, how do you measure yourself to other people in history? Is there someone who you compare yourself to?
LIDDY: No, I don't think I would rate status as an historical figure.
GROSS: Do you feel at some point, Americans will appreciate what you did when you were with the White House?
LIDDY: I don't know that I'm all that significant. I think that at some point, Americans will realize that, you know, Watergate was a tempest in a teapot, and the judgment of history on the Nixon administration and Richard Nixon in particular will be very close to what it is now in Europe, Asia and Africa, and that is that he was a very competent president.
DAVIES: Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1980. Liddy died Tuesday at the age of 90. On Monday's show, Terry talks with Brandi Carlile. She won three Grammys in 2019, including best Americana album. Her new memoir opens with her as a very sick child in a coma and near death. The book ends with Carlisle, her wife and their two children living in a compound with their extended family in the state of Washington. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WASN'T ME")
BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) Hang on. Just hang on for a minute. I've got something to say. I'm not asking you to move on or forget it, but these are better days. To be wrong all along and admit it is not amazing grace.
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, and Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WASN'T ME")
CARLILE: (Singing) Did I go on a tangent? Did I lie through my teeth? Did I cause you to stumble on your feet? Did I bring shame on my family? Did it show when I was weak? Whatever you see, that wasn't me. That wasn't me. Oh, that wasn't me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.