As co-leader of “the plumbers” unit in President Richard Nixon’s White House, G Gordon Liddy, who has died aged 90 of complications from Parkinson’s disease, was the instigator of the Watergate office burglary, the fallout from which eventually forced Nixon’s resignation in the face of impeachment.
Liddy’s refusal to testify against his bosses, presented as falling on his sword for his prince, saw him serve the longest sentence of any of the Watergate conspirators, but upon his release from prison he capitalised on his notoriety for a remarkable second career in the public eye.
Following Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, the secret study of the Vietnam war that revealed the government’s public versions of its causes and conduct to be lies, Liddy, a former FBI agent, and the former CIA agent E Howard Hunt were assigned to form a “special investigations unit” aimed at plugging leaks from the White House. Although Liddy codenamed the operation Odessa, they became known as “the plumbers”.
Liddy and Hunt personally led an operation to burgle the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, but found no information with which to smear him. In advance of the 1972 election, they moved to the Committee To Re-elect the President (aka Creep), where they plotted various dirty tricks. Liddy created extravagant plans: from sabotaging the air-conditioning at the Democratic National Convention in Miami and setting up honey-pot operations to blackmail leading Democrats, to assassinating the newspaper columnist Jack Anderson, a prominent name on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list”.
The simple task of bugging the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, in the Watergate office complex, was successful until some of the listening devices stopped working.
A second burglary, on 17 June 1972, was led by another ex-CIA agent, James McCord, and a team of anti-Castro operatives with CIA experience. Liddy and Hunt monitored them from a motel across the street; when the burglars’ sloppiness led to their being caught, the two men fled the motel room, leaving behind notebooks full of White House contacts. Testimony from the burglars led to convictions all the way up to the former attorney general John Mitchell, but Judge John Sirica gave the longest prison term, six to 20 years, to Liddy.
His mix of machismo bombast and operational inefficiency had its roots in his childhood. Born in Brooklyn to Sylvester Liddy, an attorney, and Maria (nee Abbaticchio), Liddy was named George Gordon Battle after a prominent Democrat and New York lawyer admired by his father. He was raised in a largely German neighbourhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, where as an asthmatic child weighing seven stone he was intrigued by Adolf Hitler’s efforts to return Germany to its former glory through the power of his will. Will became the title of his 1980 autobiography, in which he recalled focusing on his own will to become strong, including eating rats and holding his hand over a flame.
He followed his father in undergoing a Jesuit education at St Benedict’s prep school in Newark and then Fordham University, New York; after graduating in 1952 he joined the army to fight in Korea, but instead manned an anti-aircraft battery in Brooklyn. He went back to law school at Fordham and joined the FBI in 1957, the same year he married Frances Purcell, but only, allegedly, after having run an FBI background check on her Teutonic roots.
He served as a field agent, and although he had been arrested by local police on a black bag operation in Kansas City, his part l in the 1960 Denver capture of Ernest Tait, on the bureau’s most-wanted list, caught the eye of Cartha DeLoach, one of J Edgar Hoover’s top assistants. Liddy went to Washington as head of a crime records department; he became a speechwriter on Hoover’s personal staff.
Unable to crack the DC bar, he returned to New York and joined his father’s firm doing patent law. In 1966 he became an assistant district attorney in Dutchess county, based in his wife’s home town of Poughkeepsie, and soon put himself in the news for “leading” a drug raid on the mansion in Millbrook where the LSD guru Timothy Leary ran a commune. Another of his drug raids, at Bard College, New York state, led to his mention in the Steely Dan song My Old School, in which the singer warns a drug-using student against “Daddy G”.
His notoriety propelled him into a primary challenge to the sitting Republican congressman, the liberal aristocrat Hamilton Fish. He lost, but his strong showing led to his being made Hudson Valley chief for Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon won, and Liddy was rewarded with a job at the Treasury department, where his work on the sky marshal project to stop hijackers caught the notice of the Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh. He eventually became an assistant to Nixon’s domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman, to whom Nixon would assign creation of the plumbers. Liddy’s sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter; he served only four years and four months in prison. But he was disbarred and owed some $300,000 in legal fees.
Like other Watergate felons, he wrote a spy thriller, Out of Control (1979), and also formed a private security consultancy. The release of Will brought him back into the public eye, spawning a 1982 television film, starring Robert Conrad as Liddy. That year he and Leary went on tour in an unlikely double act; Alan Rudolph’s 1983 documentary about the tour Return Engagement became a small hit.
Liddy began acting on television, including a role as Sonny Crockett’s friend, William “Mr Real Estate” Maynard, in two episodes of Miami Vice, and cemented his celebrity with a gig as a “special judge” of a boxing match between Mr T and Rowdy Roddy Piper at Wrestlemania in 1986.
In 1992 he began a 20-year run as a syndicated radio host of an unabashedly rightwing show, once advising listeners to shoot agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “right between the eyes”. His gun collection was prominent in a 1994 British documentary about Watergate; as a felon, he explained, all were in his wife’s name.
He played the main villain in two seasons of the TV series 18 Wheels of Justice and demonstrated his fitness at the age of 75 by triumphing in two events on the game show Celebrity Fear Factor. As he wrote, “if any one component of man ought to be ... strengthened above all others, it is the will; and that must have one objective – to win.”
Frances died in 2010. Liddy is survived by his sons, Thomas, James and Raymond, and daughters, Alexandra and Grace.
• G Gordon Liddy (George Gordon Battle Liddy), lawyer and FBI agent, born 30 November 1930; died 30 March 2021