Gordon Liddy's Strange Life Leaves His Family—Surprise—Healthy, Intact and Proud of Him

updated 05/05/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1980 01:00AM

For Gordon Liddy's five children in quiet, middle-class Oxon Hill, Md., life with Father is anything but dull. It is sometimes exasperating—like his prohibition against "unauthorized crying" after the family cat was buried, or his standing order to turn off the rock music whenever he enters a room. At times it is embarrassing—when Liddy went to prison, the family got to know the electric company bill collector so well he still sends Christmas cards. It is also occasionally surreal. Not long ago Liddy's 17-year-old son Tom was being threatened by an older boy near the school. Liddy sent ominous word that "I will settle things my way"—strong-arm style—if the trouble persisted. It stopped immediately.

Today Liddy's three sons and two daughters are intelligent, healthy and tough—after all, he selected their mother, an IBM computer whiz, for her genetic makeup—and they have grown up with a deep respect for the old man. "I think he's like other fathers," says 16-year-old Ray, allowing perhaps that he's "a little unusual as a person. Not everybody has a will like he does."

Precious few are so endowed. George Gordon Battle Liddy, 49, was recently described by one commentator as "the Darth Vader of the Nixon administration." The staunchly quiet man of the Watergate scandals, he had a great deal to be quiet about—his felonious activities as White House plumber and dirty trickster of the Nixon reelection campaign, which included his direction of the Watergate burglary. Through nearly five years in prison—and almost three more since his parole in September 1977—Liddy stonewalled. Now he has broken that silence with his own inevitable addition to the Watergate literature, a memoir titled simply Will.

It contains his singular admission that he once considered killing columnist Jack Anderson and Watergate coconspirator E. Howard Hunt—and suggested that he himself be killed—in the service of his President. Its autobiographical details are astounding and confirm long-standing questions about his mental state. He recalls eating a rat to overcome a childhood fear of rodents, and repeatedly searing his flesh over an open flame to strengthen his will.

Liddy's family was not wholly prepared for the man revealed in the book. "I didn't know much about him as a child," son Jim, 19, admits. "I was stunned that someone would eat a rat." Likewise Liddy's 72-year-old mother, Maria, does not recognize some of his memories: "I know he was a normal child." Liddy insists his childhood as a rich New Jersey lawyer's son was filled with personal fears. He remembers the family's German maid sitting in front of the old Emerson radio, listening to Hitler address Nazi rallies. Forty years later, at District of Columbia Jail, he courted the fury of black inmates by singing the Horst Wessel Lied—official marching song of the Nazi party—in the showers. "I had a hell of a good time in prison," he chortles.

Somehow, family loyalty remains intact. "He wasn't a harsh father," Jim says, "though if we were disgraceful we knew we would be punished. I don't think my father is eccentric. His justification for what he did is that he was a soldier." Today when Liddy sits down at the family piano the children propose, "Let's have Daddy sing his German songs." After reading his manuscript, Liddy's wife, Frances, 47, laughed: "Now everybody will know what I've had to put up with for 23 years." She said it with affection.

Perhaps the most surprising fact of Liddy's life is that a man so bizarre has produced a family that seems so normal. When she married Liddy, says Frances, "I knew he was interested in politics—I thought I might be a congressman's wife." He tried to oblige. After Fordham Law School he joined the FBI, served as an assistant DA in upstate New York and then ran as a Republican candidate for Congress. He lost, rebounded to Nixon's 1968 campaign staff and soon found himself on the Administration payroll, first as a bureaucrat in Treasury, then as a White House adviser on drug problems. Then came Watergate and the prison sentence, and Frances found herself supporting the children alone as a grammar school teacher.

She worked hard to keep the family together. The kids' only access to their father through the normal crises of adolescence was during prison visiting hours, and they took their share of hazing. "In the early years of Watergate," Jim remembers, "kids would say, 'Your father is a crook,' and I'd push them down until they apologized. Only as I got older did I understand what my dad was and what he stood for."

The Liddy children appear to have survived admirably. Daughter Sandy, 21, is now a nursing student in New York; Grace, 20, is at the University of Maryland; Jim, Ray and Tom all attend private high schools—and work to help pay their tuition. Frances is pleased that not one of them has ever tried drugs, and their father is properly boastful about them, "it doesn't escape me that during their formative years I was locked up," he says. "I'm prejudiced, but I think they've turned out very well."

Liddy seems to be enjoying the furor that publication of Will has set off. Neighbor James Gavin, an ex-Marine who led a petition drive for his release, is among those who believe Liddy is playing to his public image with some of the book's more exotic "revelations." Liddy's former attorney and law partner Peter Maroulis is another. "On the Good Morning, America show with Jack Anderson," says Maroulis, "I could just see a look in Gordon's eyes—he was virtually laughing." If so, he is no doubt hoping to continue all the way to the bank. Disbarred after his conviction, Liddy gets his only income from writing. His 1979 novel, Out of Control, was no great success, but is now being reissued to ride the coattails of Will. Liddy still owes more than $200,000 to his lawyers, and $34,500 of the $40,000 fine imposed by Watergate Judge John Sirica. "I'm looking forward to just being broke," says Liddy.

Meanwhile in his inimitable fashion he helps out around the house, for example loading the dishwasher ("The only time they come out spotless is when I do it"). He also tries to make up for lost time with his sons. Last winter he challenged Ray's entire wrestling team, coach included, to a push-up contest—and won. (He still does 100 push-ups every morning, as he did in prison.) "It was a little embarrassing," Ray allows, "but I was glad he was in such good shape."

The Liddy house is an apparent island of tranquillity. Grace amiably dismisses Father's rock-music ban as "just bad taste on his part," the electric company has long since been appeased, and it is too late for Frances to worry that Gordon was more interested in her genes than in her. ("I downplayed that part during the courtship," Liddy admits. "It's not very romantic") Frances says of her husband today, "He is still the most fascinating man I have ever met." As for his criminal acts, "He's an idealistic man," Sandy believes. "He'll do anything to meet his ideals." That determination seems undiminished. "I have lived life on the edge of a razor," he says. "I think it was necessary." Wrongheaded as he may be, his family cannot disagree. "If I was pleased with him," as son Tom puts it, "I wouldn't care if everybody else hated him."

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