Recently we’ve watched a couple of movies that keep percolating in the back of my mind. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” revisits the prosecution of a group of men arrested in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. “Da Five Bloods” takes us back into the jungle of Vietnam with four middle-aged veterans who hope to find and repatriate the remains of their company leader, who was killed in combat.
It’s interesting to me how one’s perspective changes over time. I was very young when these moments unfolded, and much of what I knew about them I learned a bit later from the pages of Rolling Stone, which at the time was as much about incisive reporting on current events as it was about rock music, or from the wire service reports in The Dothan Eagle, which I delivered every afternoon after school. Seeing the same photos and headlines 200 to 300 times as I rolled up each paper for delivery, it was inevitable that I’d stop and read the stories.
This framework explains my excitement as a college student over a piece I saw in the Auburn Plainsman advertising an upcoming event, “The Great Debate,” between Dr. Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy.
This should be something, I thought. Those guys may well be sworn enemies, I thought.
Liddy was Nixon’s go-to guy for dirty work. The former FBI agent orchestrated the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsworth’s psychiatrist in an effort to find out who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and was the architect of the ill-fated Democratic National Committee burglaries that bloomed into the Watergate scandal, leading to Nixon’s resignation.
Leary had been a Harvard psychology professor who became the poster boy for the “turn on, tune in, drop out” psychedelic drug movement. Liddy represented the establishment; Leary, the counterculture.
What I didn’t know, but should have, was that Liddy and Leary were longtime friends, at least in a tenuous way. Their paths had crossed years before when Liddy, as a district attorney in New York’s Duchess County, encountered Leary in a drug raid. All these years later, the two men teamed up for a speaking tour of U.S. universities, a sort of yin and yang of subversives. Both had been to prison; Liddy for his role in crimes in the Nixon administration; Leary for drug charges.
With great anticipation, I went to the event. It was, in the parlance, a real bummer. I expected edification, but they offered entertainment. It was theatre. It was clear that any real passion they had for their previous notions of social order had waned, and they were on the road to make a buck off their notoriety.
My enduring impression of the evening is that I was surprised how much they cursed. In an impromptu interview in his dressing room, Leary was relaxed dressed in chinos and a golf shirt with white sneakers. He looked like Gilligan, but dodged questions with cagey and provocative non-answers.
I encountered Liddy in a hallway. He wore a conservative suit with a GI haircut and his signature bushy mustache. As I approached, another student handed him a dollar bill. He signed his name on it and handed it back.
“Mr. Liddy, don’t you know defacing U.S. currency is a federal crime?” I asked jokingly.
He turned his steely gaze on me and held it for a moment.
“Yes,” he said sternly. “But I don’t give a #@*.”
He moved toward me, and I thought he might punch me. But he took a notebook from my hand, scrawled his name on it, and put it back in my hand, never breaking the icy stare.
Liddy died last week at 90, a full quarter-century after Leary floated off to an astral plane. I find it difficult to picture him as a frail old man. Instead I imagine a bald man with military bearing and a thick, bushy mustache turned white by time, an unrepentant bad guy with a piercing stare, greeting the Grim Reaper with an f-bomb.
Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at email@example.com or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.