Once this was the stuff of solemn Senate committee hearings, during which all the president's men were grilled under oath and in stentorian tones about that burglary of the Democratic Party's offices at the Watergate complex 20 years ago yesterday.
But this being the '90s, the case has shamelessly changed venues to the arena where truth, justice and the American way now apparently play themselves out: the radio talk show.
Which explains, admittedly only partially, why break-in mastermind G. Gordon Liddy, the three policemen who arrested the burglars and assorted other Watergate insiders and hangers-on found themselves literally back at the scene of the crime yesterday to remember -- not to mention, revise -- the scandal that riveted the world and ultimately brought down the Nixon presidency.
"It is 17 June of 1992, 20 years since I was last here at Watergate," deadpanned Mr. Liddy as he began yesterday's live broadcast of his regular midday radio show airing here and in Baltimore (on WJFK 1300-AM). "They greeted me last night and asked if I would refrain from picking and breaking their locks this time."
As some 50 reporters and fans crowded into a room at the Watergate hotel -- which adjoins the Watergate complex where the break-in actually occurred -- Mr. Liddy hosted a slightly raucous but mostly weird three-hour show that reunited him either in person or by phone to such cohorts and opponents as former White House aide Chuck Colson and a lawyer for the6Senate committee that he steadfastly had stonewalled.
Liddy: the tough one
At 61, he's a bit grayer and balder than during his Watergate days, but that only serves to make his bushy mustache and circumflex eyebrows even more startling. Even if you had trouble telling Haldeman from Ehrlichman or keeping your Kroghs straight from your Kalmbachs back then, there was never any mistaking which one was G. Gordon Liddy: He was the one who, to show how tough he was, held his hand over a flame until it charred black. The one who refused to sing and thus served the longest sentence -- 52 months -- of any of the Watergate figures.
He grooves and goofs, on the Watergate thing, turning it into a personal cottage industry of sorts: His Volvo bears the vanity plate, "H20GATE," his 5-month-old, Washington-based talk show has a weekly feature called "pop goes the weasel," in which he takes potshots at former Nixon counsel John Dean 3d.
In fact, Mr. Dean figures into much of Mr. Liddy's radio rantings. Yesterday, he devoted much of his show to a current and highly controversial theory put forth in a book, "Silent Coup," by Len Colodny, a private investigator, and Bob Gettlin, a Washington writer, and published last year by St. Martin's Press. Its thesis: The break-in was designed not to wiretap Democratic chief Larry O'Brien's office -- as Mr. Liddy said he believed -- but to recover vTC damaging evidence that would link Mr. Dean's then girlfriend and future wife Maureen "Mo" Biner to a call girl ring that operated in part out of the DNC offices. (The outraged Deans filed suit earlier this year against, among others, the writers and Mr. Liddy -- who regularly plugs the book on his show.)
Mr. Liddy's broadcast was, of course, just one event in the oddly festival-like markings of the 20th anniversary of the break-in. There was a reunion of the Senate Watergate committee staff last night, Howard Liebengood, assistant minority counsel to the committee, said during a telephone interview on Mr. Liddy's radio show.
"I'm having a party myself," Mr. Liddy noted.
And the various Watergate figures kept running into each other in Medialand, with various guests wishing Mr. Liddy good luck on "Crossfire" or "Nightline," or relating -- as Mr. Colson did -- how he ran into Washington Post antagonists Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee over at CBS. "Did you see me on 'Today?' " Mr. Liddy asked one guest.
Mr. Liddy, who lives over the Potomac River in suburban Maryland, said he is asked if he has been exploiting Watergate all these years.
"Yes I am," he declared. "I'm exploiting every member of the media here, but not for me, for the American people." (He argues that by publicizing the "Silent Coup" explanation of Watergate, he is correcting the "myth" of the widely held version that Americans have lived with all these years.)
His own radio show was either funny or slightly disturbing, depending on your bent, what with Mr. Liddy and company making jokes about arguably the most troubling scandal in the history of the presidency. Or the three now-retired policemen who had arrested the Watergate burglars presenting the man behind that crime with a T-shirt imprinted, "Silence of the Lamb," with "lamb" crossed out and replaced with "Liddy."
Still, it was riveting to hear live what those who were actually there had to say about something the rest of us learned of only after the fact and through the filter of news accounts and the seemingly endless string of books by various Watergaters.
"Everything got slow and fast at the same time," John Barrett, then a district police officer, said of his scary path through darkened cubicles of the DNC offices where he would ultimately find the five burglars.
'Where's the cavalry?'
He was leaning against one side of a partition to a cubicle that, cop's instinct told him, was his only separation from his quarry, and "wondering where's the cavalry [back-up officers]" when suddenly one of the burglars accidentally crashed against the other side of the wall.
Those next, adrenalin-fueled minutes were both blackly humorous -- the well-dressed burglars couldn't believe that the scraggly-haired and scraggly-dressed undercover officers were really the police -- and potentially deadly as at least one of the Cuban burglars didn't understand the English commands and nearly was shot as officers thought he was reaching for a weapon of his own, the former policemen said.
Mr. Liddy's guests, of course, were only those who appear to buy into his current pronouncements on Watergate. There wasn't a peep from Mr. Dean or Sam Dash, the chief counsel to the Senate committee who inevitably gets called "the hapless Sam Dash" on Mr. Liddy's show.
Rather, there were people like Robert Mardian, a John Mitchell aide with the Committee to Re-Elect the President (the woefully acronymed CREEP), who said Mr. Liddy was "the only one who leveled" with him in the aftermath of the break-in, and Benton Becker, a former assistant to Gerald Ford who wanted to "wish Gordon a happy break-in day."
The most philosophical anyone got during the show was when the former Nixon aide, Chuck Colson, who has since become a born-again Christian, had this reflection: "People are basically sinners.
"Just by throwing out the Nixon bunch, you don't solve anything," he added, citing the various -gates that have followed the original as proof.
Whether God has absolved Mr. Colson is unknown, but he did get a reassurance from Mr. Liddy.
"I just want to make it perfectly clear, to coin the phrase," Mr. Liddy said with a smirk, "you had nothing to do with Watergate."