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John Dean Recalled Gordon Liddy During UW-Madison Law School Speech

March 31, 2021

G Gordon Liddy in 1977 after his release from prison: he had served four years of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping CREDIT: FRED R CONRAD/NYTNS/REDUX/EYEVINE

As a Richard Nixon history buff, I would be remiss if not commenting about the death of G. Gordon Liddy. It was, after all, his character, or lack thereof, which dealt one of the harshest blows to the Nixon White House. He masterminded dirty tricks and created the upside-down burglary in the Watergate complex. Others were also more than complicit in a series of crimes and attempts to undermine the law, but Liddy holds a special place for being ruthless. I have always questioned if he had a moral anchor. He seemed to relish in the wildly absurd, without a care about the institutions of the nation that were being damaged.

As my mind flashed back over the decades of Nixon, Watergate, and the newly departed I landed on a memory from 2013. John Dean—yes, that one–spoke at the UW-Madison Law School. I attended and was really pleased to have first-hand proximity to a central figure from a chapter of history that simply enthralls me. He was White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973 and would be found guilty of a single felony of obstructing justice.

John Dean October 2013 at UW Madison Law School Credit: Gregory Humphrey

As John Dean started his presentation late that afternoon the lady introducing him had a typical-sized microphone that she was to hand over for his use.  Dean grinned, and said he had one attached to his jacket, and “my voice seems to be able to be picked up by small microphones.”

That set the tone for the time he was on stage. By being smart, agile with words, and comfortable in his own skin Dean held everyone’s attention.

Recounting Watergate to an audience that was largely older and informed made for some of the events in the mid-1970s seem almost a comedy routine.  If it all had not been so serious it might have made for a slap-stick movie.

Using a power-point style of presentation Dean showed a picture of the desk in the Watergate complex.  It was when he said this was the sight where the burglars were crouched while wearing suits and plastic gloves that made the audience break into laughter.  The fact they had large amounts of cash on them, and tell-tale signs that led them to people who worked in, or were connected with the White House, made it seem even more illogical.  No matter how many times the story is told it still seems utterly absurd.

No one could hold back, however, when Gordon Liddy was referred to by Dean as someone “not up to the Maxwell Smart test.”   

Dean concluded his remarks on a tougher and more biting topic. It was the fact that at least 21 lawyers were on the wrong side of the law in the Nixon Watergate mess that should be a prime lesson recalled about that entire episode. The reason for the high numbers of otherwise smart men being pulled so far astray, Dean noted, came down to incompetence, the arrogance of the law, and too much loyalty to President Nixon

Liddy was one of those lawyers.

I do wish to leave this post on a lighter note about Liddy. Wednesday morning on NPR someone quipped a person has to be over 60 to recall Liddy as the mastermind of the Watergate break-in, let alone that he held his hand over a flame. So the last memory from Liddy is that be made some of us feel old(er)!

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