Gordon Liddy: Always a character

They didn’t lower any flags around here when word came last week of the passing of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. He was a local character two generations ago before the infamous break-in at Democratic Headquarters.

Liddy, who died at 90, was an assistant Dutchess County attorney in the late 60s with a flair for the dramatic, a man who relished a challenge.

This story begins with Liddy prosecuting a felony case involving gunshots in county court.  A witness, who had been in near proximity of the shooting, claimed he didn’t hear shots. An incredulous Liddy asked for a brief recess and upon return repeated the same question.

“Did you hear a gunshot?”

“I did not.”

At that, Liddy whipped out a starter pistol from his pocket and fired it at the ceiling. Everyone, including (and enraged) judge, jury and witness, jumped. Point made.

In early 1968, Liddy was a candidate for congress in a district that included Dutchess and Ulster counties. He lost a Republican primary to Hamilton Fish Jr. but retained the Conservative Party nomination. GOP bigwigs calculated that Fish, who had narrowly lost a contest against Joe Resnick of Ellenville in 1966, and was then running in a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, could not defeat John Dyson of Millbrook – he of the fabulously wealthy Dyson family – with Liddy as an active Conservative candidate. Deals were done and Liddy sat out the campaign. Fish won by barely two percentage points.

So, Liddy had time on his hands when in mid-October of that year, Ulster County Community College sponsored a symposium on the Vietnam war at its Stone Ridge campus.

It was late Friday afternoon in the newsroom. As I was edging toward the door, my phone rang. It was the college’s student coordinator of the Vietnam symposium begging for help. (I’d written a prevue story on the event, which is how the kid got my name.)

“Mr. Reynolds, we’ve got five or six people lined up to speak against the war tonight,” he said, “but we can’t get anybody to speak in support. It wouldn’t be a symposium if we only had one side. Do you have anybody?

Reporters really aren’t supposed to get involved with the things on the organization level, but I felt bad for the desperate kid.

“Call Joe Resnick’s office. He’s a Johnson hawk on the war,” I said.

“We tried Resnick. Several times. He won’t even return a phone call,” he pleaded.

 Hmm, I thought. Maybe Fightin’ Joe finally got the word on the war.

“This is a long shot“, I told the kid. “But there’s a guy over in Dutchess who’s a big supporter of escalated US involvement in the war. “Name’s Gordon Liddy.” Liddy’s idea of “escalation,” by the way, was to “nuke the bastards.” He had a thing for Douglas MacArthur. (History update: MacArthur favored using atomic weapons on the Chinese during the Korean War.)

“Please!”, the kid cried. “Can you call him? We’re on at 7.”

I said I’d try.

By then it was pushing 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. No public official worth his or her paycheck would be hanging around the office at that time, but I’d said I’d try.

To my surprise, “G. Gordon Liddy” answered the phone at the Dutchess DA’s office. We pretended we knew each other; I’d met him a couple of times on the campaign trail before he suspended his campaign. I explained the UCCC situation to him, apologized for the students’ short notice.

“Not a problem,” he said. “If you know the facts of any issue, you can take either side. I’ll be there.”

In one of the several decisions I will regret over a long career, I did not cover Liddy’s appearance. Young, single reporters do have their Friday night priorities, after all. Bright and early Monday morning, the student coordinator, now my new best friend, called with profuse thanks. I began to think this kid had a future, if he didn’t get drafted.

How’d it go? I asked.

“That Liddy guy was fantastic!” he said. “That Liddy guy” faced down a hostile audience of students and staff, the coordinator told me, not to mention being outnumbered four to one on the panel, “and never gave an inch.”

“I think some of us even learned a few things,” he said. How quaint, I thought, exposing young minds to conflicting points of view.

A few months later Liddy went to Washington. The rest is history.

Before closing the books on G. Gordon Liddy, let’s agree the man was more than a little nuts. Holding his hand over a lit candle was one thing, telling listeners on his radio show to use “head shots” on cops quite another. But he was loyal, suffering the full four+ years in federal prison for Watergated-related crimes without giving up a single cohort. Others involved would have turned in their mothers for a few months off their sentences.

And it all started here, right along the banks of our majestic Hudson.