The long, bitter feud between one Watergate figure who went to prison protecting Richard M. Nixon and another who helped topple the president came down yesterday to this point-blank question:
Does G. Gordon Liddy want John W. Dean III dead?
"I wouldn't consider him worth a quarter to buy the cartridge that would propel the bullet to kill him with," Liddy said in court. "He just isn't worth it."
Liddy's salty testimony came as he spent a second day on the witness stand in a $5.1 million defamation case against him in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Liddy faced a day of questioning by attorneys for Ida "Maxie" Wells, the former Democratic National Committee secretary who claims he hurt her reputation by saying she kept photos of call girls in her desk at DNC headquarters.
But it was the tense relationship between legendary Watergate figures Liddy and Dean that continued to dominate the case, which could go to the jury today.
During the Watergate scandal, Liddy stayed silent and received the harshest sentence of any conspirator, while Dean, who was Nixon's White House counsel, testified about the "cancer eating away at the presidency" and spent only four months in prison.
The resulting enmity between the two men is clear in Liddy's theory about the infamous break-in at Democratic headquarters, which holds that Dean directed the burglars to find photos in Wells' desk that could have linked his future wife, Maureen Biner, to a prostitution ring.
Yesterday, Wells' attorney David M. Dorsen bluntly asked Liddy: "Isn't it true that you have considered assassinating Mr. Dean?"
Liddy replied that he has said publicly it wouldn't be worth the price of the 9 mm ammunition needed for the job. "The little [SOB] isn't worth the 25 cents it would cost to shoot him," Liddy said on the witness stand.
"You despise him?" Dorsen asked.
"Oh, yes," Liddy said.
Dean has denounced the call-girl theory and described Liddy as "an unrepentant criminal who wants his revenge against the [Watergate prosecutors'] key witness." Dorsen had planned to call Dean to testify but changed his mind last week, saying he would prove too great a distraction.
Jurors got a brief break from the case's blend of history and conspiracy theories when Judge J. Frederick Motz stopped the proceedings to allow them to watch the Ravens parade outside the federal courthouse.
They returned to hear Liddy's most extensive public testimony about the scandal that remains one of the signature events of U.S. political history.
Liddy, who served as head of Nixon's political espionage team and organized the burglars who broke into the Watergate, testified yesterday about some of the dirty tricks planned by his team but never carried out.
Under one scheme, Liddy - in a rare sheepish moment on the stand - described a plan to have "scruffy looking" intruders urinate on the carpet at Sen. George S. McGovern's hotel suite during the 1972 Democratic presidential convention in Miami.
That plan was scrubbed, Liddy said, after Attorney General John N. Mitchell protested that he might end up in the same suite when the Republicans met in the hotel for their convention later that summer.
When Wells' attorneys tried to turn prostitution rumors back on Liddy's team, the 70-year-old radio host acknowledged that he wanted to hire prostitutes to gather information from unsuspecting Democratic convention-goers.
"But, of course, it never happened because that was supposed to happen at the convention," Liddy said. "And we never got to the convention because my men were arrested in the Watergate."
Liddy testified that after long believing the conventional Watergate theory, he came to believe in recent years that the DNC break-in was about sex, not politics.
To support his claims, he has pointed out that one of the burglars was carrying a key to Wells' desk when arrested. He has also relied on the claims of a former Washington attorney who linked the DNC to a sophisticated call-girl ring operating out of the nearby Columbia Plaza Apartments in the early 1970s.
Dorsen sharply questioned Liddy's prostitution theory, noting that no one has supported the claims of disbarred lawyer Phillip M. Bailley, a convicted felon with a history of mental illness.
Liddy acknowledged yesterday that Bailley never told him directly that Wells kept the photos of scantily clad women - only that an envelope holding such photos was kept in a desk in the DNC department where she worked.
But Liddy defended his statements that invoked Wells' name.
"I have said there were pictures kept in a desk at the DNC, and the desk was assigned to Maxie Wells," he testified. "If the desk had been assigned to Joan of Arc, I would have said it was Joan of Arc's desk."