To Understand America's Future, We Need To Look Back At Watergate
As the Trump Presidency fades into memory like a bad opium dream, Trump's minions are dutifully cashing in. Sean Spicer got a cushy Newsmax gig, while Kayleigh McEnany moved to Fox News. Mike Pence signed a two-book deal worth seven figures, despite doing so little of note that even a single picture book would need heavy padding. Vapid memoirs became a whole industry; if you ever shared a room with Trump, you can make good money with some amateur psychoanalysis in a book called Justice Patriot or Autocrat Yankee.
But it's the post-Trump careers of those indicted by the Russia probe that are the most predictable and depressing. Jailbirds George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates, and Michael Cohen all got book deals, and Gates and Cohen are looking to cash in as consultants. A few months after Roger Stone told the doofuses preparing to attack the Capitol that only they could prevent America from falling into "a thousand years of darkness" he made his acting debut in Roe v. Wade, because the advent of Biden's millenarian reign of terror is no excuse to not work on your sizzle reel. Michael Flynn is splitting time between his garish new home and QAnon conferences, because apparently the Deep State's nefarious web of control doesn't extend to Ramada reservations.
This will only get more ridiculous. A few years from now Paul Manafort will probably start a podcast with the MyPillow guy, Flynn will co-create Law and Order: Secret Government Pedophiles, and Stone's going to launch a weed company that somehow fails to use his name as a pun. If you're an American in a certain tax bracket, you can profit from the longstanding tradition of treating political crimes as wacky novelties.
This tradition stretches back to when the Confederacy's Vice President was welcomed back to politics after spending five whole months in prison like he was a Coca-Cola employee briefly tempted by the siren song of Pepsi, but to understand how the literal criminals who worked for Trump are probably going to make out like bandits with moronic opinions, we need to look at Watergate. A naked attempt to undermine the democratic process, Watergate set the modern precedent of America taking a hard look at bumbling criminals in the government and saying "You had better be ashamed of this for a whole year or two, mister!" And one of its architects was G. Gordon Liddy, who died in March after a long, long career of cashing in on his crimes.
An FBI agent turned Nixon loyalist, Liddy's work for Tricky Dick included breaking into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist to look for dirt; Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers, which proved that America had been less honest about the Vietnam War than your ex was about their "work trips." Liddy, the "weird" one on the team, suggested that Nixon fight his enemies with firebombings, kidnappings, and entrapment. When those ideas were shot down, he helped organize the attempted wiretapping of the Democratic National Convention, which was so comically inept that the lookout man got distracted by a bar TV playing Attack of the Puppet People. It's not a very good movie.
In 1973 Liddy began a 20-year prison sentence, but got out after serving four and a half. He soon dedicated the rest of his life to a lucrative career that boiled down to "Isn't it cool that I'm one of the Watergate guys? Hell yeah, crime!"
He started with an unrepentant autobiography, Will, that sold over a million copies (for context, Anthony Scaramucci's 2018 book Trump, the Blue-Collar President moved 36,325 copies to the world's most desperate and undiscriminating readers). Will was turned into a passable but morally vacuous 1982 TV movie that prompted the New York Times to warn against a growing "eagerness of certain entrepreneurs to sign assorted murderers, thieves and other criminals to exclusive story contracts." If only they'd known what was coming.
Will is exactly as weird as you'd expect a book by a man who said that the stern tones of Hitler's speeches brought him comfort in childhood to be. You can skip the movie unless you want to see The Shining's Danny Lloyd act out Liddy's claim of overcoming his youthful fear of rats by killing and eating one, but Liddy's new career was just getting started.
After Will, he took to the lecture circuit. For a while he joined Timothy Leary, whom he'd helped arrest in 1966, for a series of college campus "debates." Reviews dismissed the so-called discussions as shambolic circus acts where the supposed opponents mostly just plugged each other's books. One writer called it a "particularly garish example" of "the tendency of national pundits ... to behave like members of one big celebrity commentator's club," before warning that such chumminess between supposed foes would lead to further cynicism among voters. Apparently Liddy's work prompted a bulk deal on ominous prophecies.
During these performances, Liddy compared his crimes to the work of civil rights protestors. He didn't seem to really believe his analogy, but people were there to see him do outrageous things and he wasn't about to disappoint his customers. Watergate quickly became an empty punch line, the political equivalent of Young Sheldon reminding viewers that Vanilla Ice was a thing.
Speaking of TV, Liddy guest-starred on Miami Vice, Perry Mason, Airwolf, MacGyver, and goddamn Encyclopedia Brown, among many other, less recognizable shows (apologies to all the Super Force super fans out there). His IMDB page spans 23 years, including an appearance on Fear Factor when he was 75. He even headlined a drama, 18 Wheels of Justice, for two seasons. It wasn't exactly a hit, but imagine a 2051 where Jared Kushner stars as the villainous foil to a crime-solving K-Pop act because his irresistible screen presence is enough to make up for his contribution to America's unfathomable COVID death toll.
But it wasn't all competing against Betty White on Super Password and doing whatever people did on The Highwayman. What really kept Liddy afloat was his career as a pundit. He did The Late Show in 1982, where Letterman described him as "fascinating." He told stories about what a badass he was in prison, and got some sympathy for how going to jail (for crimes) must have been tough on his family, and joked about the kind of antics he and his associates got into when they were breaking into places (to do crimes).
Sometimes he went on Fox News to complain that liberals were ruining the country, and sometimes he went on Fox News to encourage viewers to buy gold. He wrote a couple of thrillers about badass Americans solving problems by shooting evil foreigners. He wrote multiple books about what was wrong with America that included warnings about the erosion of your personal liberties, because irony died some time around 1987. And from 1992 to 2012 he hosted a radio talk show, where he bragged about using cut-outs of Bill and Hillary Clinton as target practice and advised listeners to shoot nosy federal agents in the head.
So hey, remember how Trump bragged about committing sexual assault and repeatedly called for violence against protestors, then went on The Tonight Show to have his hair ruffled by Jimmy Fallon? In 1997, a couple of years after Liddy was accused of fueling the Oklahoma City bombing with his rhetoric, he yukked it up on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. He pitched his calendar of heavily armed, scantily clad women and pretended to strangle Don Rickles, who looked like he wanted to actually strangle his agent. His nasty side wasn't considered a problem as long as he had an entertaining side too.
Liddy told the same jokes that he told Letterman 15 years ago, because all the man really had to get by on were a few anecdotes. If seeing him joke about Watergate in 1982 is weird, seeing him do it in 1997 is almost pathetic. But it loses some of its pathos when you learn that Liddy also liked to tell a wacky anecdote about how he'd planned to murder a journalist.
Liddy became one of those celebrities who's famous for being famous, except instead of rocketing into headlines because a goat headbutted him in the balls he tried to sabotage the President's political opponents. His only qualification for punditry was "So bad at crime he got caught despite having the literal President on his side," but in America that was enough to not only give him the job, but to make pretending that he'd actually been great at crime a major component of it.
And unlike all the Trump bozos, Liddy at least had the balls to admit that he'd broken the law. He just ... didn't care. He was glad he did it, he would do it all over again, and he got a "H20GATE" license plate to celebrate how great it had been. Liddy was so proud of his role in Watergate that former Fox News creep James Rosen said he appeared at Rosen's Watergate-themed bachelor party, which sounds like a new circle of hell invented by Satan's forward-thinking interns. And America decided that that man needed to be locked in a pod of maggots on Fear Factor after a long day of telling his listeners to fear the government.
Liddy could be charismatic and quick-witted, and compared to the braying cacophony that is modern conservative media he was a downright mild-mannered gentleman, but he still pushed conspiratorial Watergate revisionists and told his listeners that Obama was secretly a radical Muslim. That he was an ex-con was, to his fans, a positive, because if Watergate happened today Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson would be celebrating it as the ultimate example of owning the libs. Liddy helped America reach the point where crimes don't really count as long as they're committed against people you don't like, where an unearned rehabilitation can be folded into a partisan media machine.
Nothing makes it easier to do something wrong than normalizing it, and less than a decade after getting out of prison Liddy was on WrestleMania. The time he spent bragging about Watergate set the stage for Trump and his coterie to insist that they never did anything wrong, and that anyone who says otherwise is out to get you. Liddy didn't create that culture, but he sure taught a master class in exploiting it. He was living proof that if you can take a slap on the wrist, you can spend the rest of your life using it to jerk off in public.
At the end of his Letterman interview, Liddy was asked how he thought Watergate will be remembered, and he just shrugged and said that it didn't matter because eventually we'll all be dead anyway. That's the kind of empty nihilism that gave us Trump dancing on SNL, that rewarded Sean Spicer for his blatant lies with a spot on Dancing With the Stars. Well, Liddy is dead now, but unless we do better this time around we'll spend the coming decades watching Donald Trump Jr. go on talk shows to brag about his groundbreaking work in collusion and voter suppression before shilling his new cryptocurrency that's somehow fueled by incinerating baby pandas.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.