Since it emerged that John McCain has a history of palling around with the Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, I have been thinking back to the time in 2005 when I met him in New York City. Here is the story of the strange few hours I spent with John McCain's fund-raiser and buddy...
G. Gordon Liddy is raving. "Environmentalism is a form of pagan fundamentalism. These green wackos are fanatics like al-Quaida. Just like them," he quivers. "Osama believes there are 72 virgins waiting for him. The environmentalist believes human beings cause global warming. They both want to wreak havoc because of their mad beliefs. What's the difference?" I am lying on a hotel bed in New York City listening to Liddy's radio show and trying to figure out how I can possibly interview this man in half an hour. "Why should we listen to these fulminating feminists, proselytizing poofters, the environmentally ill, these multilateralist UN one-world government worshippers and other politically correct castrati?" he is demanding. "Why?"
I look again at the e-mail from his publicist. "You must be waiting outside his radio studio with a taxi at 2pm EXACTLY. Mr Liddy has asked me to inform you that if you are even a minute late, he will leave without you and the interview will be OFF." I feel a shiver of anxiety. Thirty years ago - as one of Richard Nixon's henchmen - Liddy was contemplating the murder of a liberal columnist he regarded as a traitor. Somehow I don't think we'll get along. Rats used to irritate Liddy, so to overcome his rage he roasted and ate one. Will I be roasted within the hour?
So I am pacing sweatily outside his radio studio in downtown Manhattan at EXACTLY 2pm, begging an obese Puerto Rican taxi driver to wait just two more minutes. I scrutinize every person who emerges from the studios in a frantic attempt to spot Liddy. Finally a tall man struts out. I approach him with an open hand. "Mr Liddy? Johann Hari from the..." The man shoves me backwards. I almost fall. How can we have started so badly? "Do you think I look like that old crook?" the man snarls. "Screw you, pal."
A moment later, a tiny old man with a huge bushy moustache shuffles out of the studio wheeling one of those shopping-bags-with-wheels beloved of grannies everywhere. I don't notice him because the Puerto Rican has declared, "I ain't waiting for no Liddy no more!" Before I can disentangle this web of double negatives, the old man steps forward and says, "I am Liddy." I look closely. His bald head is dry; it looks as though he is developing scales.
And suddenly I am lifting the bag of G. Gordon Liddy - Nixon's rent-a-thug, the Watergate burglar, the far-right shock jock extraordinaire - into the boot of a taxi and reeling at his smallness. We are heading for Penn Station so Liddy can return to Washington DC; I am going to sit with him while he waits for his train. He turns to me and smiles. "So - where do we begin?" he says. I try to smile back and say as sweetly as I can, "How about with Adolf Hitler?"
The Fuhrer was G Gordon Liddy's first political hero. Liddy was a sickly, asthmatic child when he grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the 1930s. The town was full of ethnic Germans who idolized Hitler. Liddy was made to salute the Stars and Stripes Nazi-style by the nuns at his school; even now, he admits, "at assemblies where the national anthem is played, I must suppress the urge to snap out my right arm." His beloved German nanny taught him that Hitler had - through sheer will-power - "dragged Germany from weakness to strength."
This gave Liddy hope "for the first time in my life" that he too could overcome weakness. When he listened to Hitler on the radio, it "made me feel a strength inside I had never known before," he explains. "Hitler's sheer animal confidence and power of will [entranced me]. He sent an electric current through my body." He describes seeing the Nazis' doomed technological marvel the Hindenberg flying over New Jersey as an almost religious experience. "Ecstatic, I drank in its colossal power and felt myself grow. Fear evaporated and in its place came a sense of personal might and power."
A-ha. So, Mr Liddy, do you feel that your early, formative love for Hitler shaped your political behavior later in life? "Oh, no," he says somberly. He renounces Hitler's war against the Jews as "evil" and flaunts his support for Israel's hard right as evidence he is not an anti-Semite. "It was part of my childhood, that's all," he says.
Really? That doesn't seem to match the historical record. In his autobiography, Liddy admits that, after reading the writings of the notorious anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh, Liddy decided to pick his wife on eugenic grounds. He held out for "a tall, fair, powerfully built Teuton." Isn't that behavior at the very least in the shadow of Hitler? "Of course not. Genetics is accepted by everyone." A Teuton? My dictionary defines it as "descended from an ancient Germanic tribe. Often synonymous with Aryan." He waves his hand and says, "That's how we spoke then. This is political correctness."
Okay, so how about your fanatical Nietzschean emphasis on Will-power? He has written, "If any one component of man ought to be exercised, cultivated and strengthened above all others, it is the will; and that must have one objective - to win." He used to take his kids to see Leni Reifenstahl's Nazi propaganda movie 'The Triumph of the Will.' When he was a kid himself, he went to insane ends to test his will-power. He stood in front of approaching trains, telling himself he would not die because "I am a machine too." During lightning storms, in order to demonstrate to himself to power of his will, he would climb onto tall trees and yell, "Kill me! Kill me!" He even trained himself to kill animals in anticipation of becoming a brutal soldier. He describes beheading chickens with glee: "I killed and killed and killed, and finally I could kill efficiently and without emotion or thought. I was satisfied; when it came my turn to go to war, I would be ready. I could kill as I could run - like a machine."
It looks like a crazed rant on paper - but as we drive through the East Village, his tone is so reasonable, his voice so soft, he could be talking about the weather. "Yes, I believe the will is very important. It's how I have succeeded in life," he says. More important than, say, compassion or love? Before he can answer, the Puerto Rican yells, "Penn!" We get out and find a small coffee shop. It takes Liddy a while to negotiate his way onto the small stool; he seems like he is about to physically snap. He says that the US has shown insufficient Will (the way he says it, the word should always be capitalized) in its foreign policy too. While the Nixon administration was spraying tonnes of napalm and poison over Vietnam, he complained the policy was "too soft." He says now, "I wanted to bomb the Red River dykes. It would have drowned half the country and starved the other half. There would have been no way the Viet Cong could have operated if we had the will-power to do that."
But what about the millions of innocent people who would have been murdered? "Look at Dresden. Millions of people died there too." And it hits me: he just can't see them. They are un-people, specks of red dust on a distant map, obstacles to his Will. Their suffering is as irrelevant as that of the chickens he decapitated with such glee sixty years ago in New Jersey. "Once you start a war, you have to win," he continues. "Look at the time some of Julius Ceasar's emissaries were sent into Gaul, and they were killed by bandits. Caesar sent Roman troops to slaughter all the men who were left alive in Gaul. He sold all the women and children into slavery. From that point on, nobody touched a single one of Caesar's emissaries." I pause. Let me get this straight - you are advocating the selling of women and children into slavery as US policy?
"No. What I'm saying is we had better embrace the horror of war. If you aren't tough, if you don't pull out all the stops, you lose." So all of the conventions created in the wake of the Second World War - the Geneva Conventions, the very concept of war crimes - these are all just polite fictions to be crumpled? "Of course. The Seventh Infantry Division in 1945 used to drive their tanks around with the heads of defeated Japanese solders displayed proudly on the front. That's what we need to train our present-day soldiers to be." Returning to Vietnam, he adds that the French - the colonial power preceding the Americans - succeeded in Vietnam because "they were using the Foreign Legion, then manned almost completely by veterans from the most disciplined, ruthlessly efficient practitioners of all-out warfare in history: the Waffen SS."
And so we are back to Him, the dictator who hangs over Liddy's life like an old, angry ghost. Liddy's seems to believe - as his childhood icon did - that life is an eternal war against Absolute Enemies. There are no rules. There can be no restraint. Kill them or they kill you. This mindset is revealed neatly in the advice he gave to his children from the time they were toddlers. He told them to start fights or they would be beaten. When the kids' school explained that they had a strict non-violence policy, Liddy replied, "In the late 1930s French children were taught that philosophy while German kids were taught to be fierce in battle. Given the destruction of the numerically superior French armies by the Wehrmacht in about thirty days, I prefer the German approach. The school will just have to live with it."
This approach wasn't only for the Vietnamese and kids. Liddy extended it to Nixon's domestic political opponents too. He is famous in the US as the most fiercely loyal of Richard Nixon's "plumbers", one of the agents sent to illegally burgle, drug and libel the President's internal opponents. "The war in Vietnam was fought on the streets of America too," he says. "It was lost here at home, by people who didn't have the Will to win. We had to get the people who wanted America to lose." Including killing columnists? "If they were traitors as Jack Andersen was, directly helping the enemy, then yes."
This contempt for democracy and law led Liddy to the Watergate Hotel - and it changed the world. I received a second e-mail from his publicist that contained one line: "NO WATERGATE!!!!" I decide to plunge in anyway. Does he regret burgling the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and setting in chain the resignation of a President?
A vein twitches angrily on one of his scales, but he replies in a level voice, "No." He has a bizarre revisionist take on Watergate that places the blame for the disaster entirely on another Nixon henchman called John Dean. "The official version of Watergate is as wrong as a Flat Earth Society pamphlet," Liddy says, referring me to a conspiracy-theory book called 'Silent Coup: Removal of a President' by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin. Its thesis is stark. The Watergate burglars - including Liddy - believed they were breaking into the offices of the DNC to plant a bug so the Republicans could hear the election plans of George McGovern. They were duped. The book's authors claimed John Dean - Liddy's immediate superior and the man who gave the orders to commit the burglary - ordered the burglary for his own reasons, nothing to do with Nixon. The DNC had evidence that linked Dean's then-fiancee with a prostitution ring - and Dean wanted it back. So - hey presto! - Nixon was innocent, and the victim of a wicked coup d'etat. Liddy has convinced himself he served five years in jail for nothing.
I fetch Liddy another decaf coffee. I glance back at him from the counter, and begin to think Liddy's thought should be seen less as an ideology than as a pathology. In order to demonstrate the strength of his Will, Liddy has at various points in his life burned cigarettes and candles into his flesh. By 1967 this was already causing small, permanent scars. By the time he was jailed, it nearly destroyed the tendons in his left wrist. As I place a cup in his right hand, I ask if it has ever occurred to him that this was actually a form of self-harm, a way of channeling something - self-hate or fear, perhaps - onto his body. He looks at me as if I am the crazy one. "It was a way of testing myself. Of making myself strong."
Liddy urges his listeners to show similar 'strength' in their own lives. He was condemned even by most of the American right in 1994 when he advised his listeners to deal with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (a strange, obsessive focus of hate on the American right) with "head shots, head shots... Kill the sons of bitches... Shoot twice to the belly and if the does not work, shoot to the groin area. Arm yourself. Get instructed in how to shoot straight. And don't register [your weapons] either." His caller replied, "And I'm aiming between their eyes." Liddy replied, "There you go. That way their flak jackets won't protect them."
Liddy's philosophy is a strange mixture of an anarchistic hatred of Government in the abstract and a cult-like worship of government when it is in the hands of the right. How can he be so fanatically patriotic yet believe in killing the agents of his democratically elected government? He claims he was only advocating the killing of agents if they illegally broke into somebody's home. "All I was doing is stating the US law," he says. "I never counseled anybody to shoot a BATF agent or anybody else who did not need shooting." His fans don't hear his clauses. For example, J.J. Johnson, the head of the far-right Georgia Republic Militia, welcomed Liddy's comments, disagreeing only about the head-shots. "With the right kind of ammunition, it doesn't matter where you hit 'em." After the Oklahoma bombing, many Hate Radio hosts toned down their statements. Liddy stepped them up: he declared that he used a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton for target practice.
His rhetoric on global warming - the most important issue in the world - is similarly inflammatory. "Yes, there is such a thing as global warming," he admits. "And there is such a thing as global cooling too. They happen in great eons-long, periodic swings, and it has to do with the activity of the sun, not of humans." Really? You know better than 99 per cent of physicists and environmental scientists? "Environmentalists are like a guy who pisses into a river at bedtime and then blames himself for the flood the next day," he says mysteriously, before saying that we should embrace global warming as a Good Thing. "The effect of warming is to quintuple the yields of US crops and double our life expectancy! Bring it on!"
He boasts that he drives a massive SUV "which can carry three quarters of a ton, [has] 300-horsepower, and burns more gas than you could ever dream. If somebody in a little environmentally-friendly car crashes into me, it's all over. For him!" He also, for some reason, violently despises airbags, which he calls "killers." He brags he would like to "invite Ralph Nader over so I could serve him Spotted Owl Stew."
Despite his disgrace, one of Liddy's ideas is still at the heart of US policy today. He is one of the godfather of America's 'War on Drugs' - a wild rampage that continues to rip through the globe from Afghanistan to Colombia today. Liddy drafted the ideas for the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1971, and used it as an excuse to extend his gangster politics to Mexico and Turkey, amongst others. He describes him plans as "an exercise in international extortion, pure, simple and effective." The 'War on Drugs' continues in proud Liddy-style today. Only the last adjective - 'effective' - was never true. Predictably, he says the only problem with the 'War on Drugs' today is that it is too soft. "We have stopped prosecuting minor drug offences in the US." Really? The one million black men in jail or on parole for drug offences today might think differently. "No, we need to fight this war much harder," he says vaguely.
I realize I am becoming desensitized to his madness; I haven't even furrowed my brow for the past five minutes. Does he really mean this stuff? And what's better - if he is spewing all this hate for effect, or if he does mean it? This is how Hate Radio works in America. It numbs you to far right positions; it makes the most depraved politics banal and commonplace. So Ann Coulter talks affectionately of "the benefits of local fascism" and nobody blinks. Michael Savage describes Lindy England as "an American hero" and tells gay listeners, "I hope you get AIDS and die," and we simply avert our gaze. Even a mad criminal like G. Gordon Liddy is accepted as a normal part of the political furniture, embraced by the Republican nominee for President.
Liddy looks at his watch, gulps his coffee and begins slowly, carefully to get off his stool to catch his train. He looks so weak that I offer to carry his bag, and so I wander through Penn Station with an advocate of slaughtering millions of people, trying to make polite conversation. The last generation of Nixon warriors is about to pass into history, and Liddy is one of the few to remain politically active. I ask him how history will judge him. "Me? I hope it says G. Gordon Liddy was strong," he says, coughing slightly. "A strong man."