By Mike Kinosian
WASHINGTON, DC — At approximately the same time as William Jefferson Clinton was methodically engineering one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory, a national radio network hired a colorful, complex intellectual – if not totally eccentric – character to host a daily talk show.
That was part of the shape of our landscape just over 29 years ago (February 1992).
In the swing of it
Twelve years later in 2004, a toned G. Gordon Liddy was still behind the Westwood One microphone when he recalled with infinite energy to Inside Radio’s then Special Features editor Mike Kinosian, “I hope I’ve changed for the better and have [improved] at what I do. It’s like playing golf: The more you do something, the better you get at it. If I spend as many hours playing golf each day as I do with the radio show, I might have a fair game.”
Utilizing sound effects of a 1930s-type shortwave radio, Liddy joked, “I was trying to penetrate the fog and called what I was doing ‘Radio Free DC.’ That was the approach that I took. When I first went on the air, Washington, DC was totally in the hands of liberal Democrats. That no longer pertains today – the situation is reversed and I try to reflect that.”
The path leading to the platform on which Liddy addressed the country on some 200 Westwood One affiliates (10:00 am – 2:00 pm, ET) began in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
NBC-TV had just launched its Cable News & Business Channel (CNBC) and hired Liddy to do a nighttime interview show. “Their studios are across the George Washington Bridge,” explained George Gordon Liddy. “My mother was still alive at the time and lived 13 miles away. I stayed with her and it was nice work.”
Veteran New York radio host Bob Grant was at WABC-AM at that time and about to start a two-week vacation.
Management executives at the then ABC Radio-owned talk station were aware Liddy was working in town at CNBC and asked if he’d consider sitting in for Grant.
CNBC didn’t sense a conflict of interest and gave him the go-ahead to do double-duty at WABC.
Great fate – part one
Enter fate in the form of Mel Karmazin, doing what he typically did. “Mel was in his car listening to the competition and heard me on WABC,” Liddy remarked. “Infinity had just purchased this beat up, old rock and roll station in Washington, DC [WJFK-FM] and needed a midday guy.”
Viacom president/COO Karmazin was running Infinity at the time and called then-WJFK-FM general manager Ken Stevens. “Mel [informed] him to give me a shot [at WJFK-FM],” Liddy cited. “Stevens told Mel that Liddy doesn’t do radio and Karmazin answered, `I’m listening to him on radio right now and he’s doing very well.’
A one-week trial resulted in Liddy getting a fulltime slot and being with Karmazin in one capacity or another for many years. “Right now, it’s with Westwood One, which is another Viacom property. Mel is still kind enough to take my calls, but I’m very careful not to bother him.”
Great fate – part two
Early on in his WABC stint, Liddy contracted a horrible case of laryngitis.
As is customary, station programming was pumped through the overhead speakers.
Another air personality had just finished his shift in another studio. As he walked down the hallway, he could hear on the speakers that Liddy was in trouble. “I was croaking like a frog,” Liddy acknowledged with a broad smile. “I still had an hour to go when this man whom I’d never met just breezed into the studio and pretended he was a scheduled guest. I croaked out one question and he carried me for the final hour. He saved my life.”
Enter fate in the form of … Rush Limbaugh. “He’s a nice guy and I’ve been grateful to him ever since that day,” commented Liddy, who – when in the Nixon administration – reportedly wrote the memo that led to the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “By the next day, my throat was fine and everything was cool; there were no more problems.”
Sympathetic to Limbaugh’s medical and subsequent legal travails, Liddy depicted what happened to him in a U.S. Army hospital. “I had a hole in me and just came out of surgery. A nurse would come around with a certain degree of regularity to give me a shot of morphine. She was not, by the way, a particularly good-looking woman.”
After a while, Liddy noticed that he was constantly gazing at the clock, anticipating the nurse’s arrival. “When she showed up, she [became] the most beautiful-looking woman in the world,” Liddy quipped in mock exaggeration. “I suddenly realized that I was getting hooked on this stuff. When she [appeared] the next time, as much as I wanted that morphine, I told myself I wasn’t in pain and didn’t [desire] the drug anymore.”
Victorious of World Boxing titles in three different weight classes, Barney Ross developed a physical problem and – as Liddy noted – got hooked on morphine. “I said that’s not going to happen to me. But for the grace of God, the same thing could’ve happened to me that happened to Barney [who died at the age 57] and Rush [who succumbed to lung cancer last month].”
Skeptics were easy to find when Liddy first entered the national radio scene in 1992. Many imagined it was purely a publicity stunt and he wouldn’t last.
After a dozen years under his belt though, Liddy became a legitimate dean of the talk radio circuit and a mentor. “I remember when Ollie North came to me,” he recounted.
It was 1994 and North had just been defeated in his bid for the U.S. Senate by Virginia Democrat Chuck Robb. “He was looking for something to do,” Liddy states. “He’s an articulate guy and I told him he should try talk radio. He said he didn’t want to compete against me because we’re friends. I’d raised money for his campaign. I explained to him that there are very few of us on this side of the fence. We need all the help we can get. I showed him what he needed to have in a contract. He took my advice and became quite successful. He, of course, moved up to television and we’re still very good friends to this day.”
Another who fell in that category is Sean Hannity. “I think he’s a very talented guy and is a good friend of mine,” the “G-Man” underscored back in that 2004 interview. “I admire his success.”
It’s rare when someone can be accused of being too smart for his or her own good; however, Liddy conceded his lofty credentials and vast knowledge sometimes wound up being a detriment. “My executive producer can be very critical and will say that I spend too much time with my answers. She thinks my analysis goes in far too much depth. I’ve been told that’s not needed and I should run through the calls very fast.”
Nonetheless, when someone posed what he perceived to be a good question, Liddy had a tendency to respond in kind. “I call upon all my education, which is considerable,” boasted Liddy. “I don’t think there are many [other radio talk show hosts who have] a Doctor of Law degree and have studied German anti-trust laws. From time to time, I’ll get into it and start using German and my executive producer just has a fit.”
Regardless what topic was being discussed on-air – and there was a diverse mix – even Liddy’s staunchest critics conceded he was seldom closed-minded. “I treat a caller as a guest,” he asserted with great pride. “I’m courteous, unless I’m given a specific reason why I ought not be. That means I’m going to hear a person out.”
If there were disagreements, he would ask that the person explain why they believed something was true. “I’ll then attempt to demonstrate what I believe is the incorrectness, lack of logic or error in fact base of the person’s argument. That’s just the way that I approach things. I’m not instantly hostile and don’t kick people off the air. No one learns anything from that.”
While the bulk of Liddy’s listeners tended to be conservatives, he pointed out, “I also have a surprising number of liberals. They probably listen, because I give them a chance if they want to call.”
Common wisdom back then was that Liddy was among many newcomers who discovered radio as a way to make a buck.
The truth, however, is that he pre-dated the vast majority of those working in the business when he did, which is why he entered the Westwood One job with so much confidence. The national broadcast Liddy fronted relocated to Radio America in 2003; its final airing was in late-July 2012.
Albeit limited, Liddy’s on-air experience came in the late-1940s. “One of the sins of my misspent youth was that I worked at [Fordham University’s] WFUV-FM. Fordham is on Rose Hill in the Bronx – the highest point in New York. The school was given a 50,000-watt FM station. We had this fabulous station, but there were probably three FM radios in all of New York. There I was broadcasting on a 50,000-watt FM station in New York City and no one was listening.”
Not surprisingly, it was a young lady who sparked Liddy’s interest in the medium. “She worked at WFUV and I was enamored of her,” he readily admitted. “She got me to go over there. I started writing scripts and then went behind the microphone. I’ve done this before and knew I could do it [again on a national level].”
Strange days indeed
Whereas WFUV was a part of Liddy’s life few knew about, the aspect of his career most people are cognizant about, of course, involved Watergate.
Decades after the fact, he wasn’t reluctant to talk about the bizarre and fabled situation. “I told the story about what actually happened, got sued and won.”
The majority of the nearly five years Liddy served in prison because of the Watergate break-in was in maximum security – 106 days were spent in solitary confinement.
Sometimes misplaced in recollections about this chapter of American history was that Democrat Jimmy Carter was the President who came to Liddy’s aid. “He was kind enough to reduce my sentence, which then made me eligible to be released about four or five months thereafter. I wrote him a sincerely-felt letter of thanks.”
Of villains & vice
Some of Liddy’s listeners weren’t old enough to associate him with the Watergate affair. “An older person will come up to me in an airport and say they remember me from the Watergate days – someone a little younger will take a little longer and say, ‘Miami Vice.’”
Not only did he appear as a shady character on that Don Johnson television series, but Liddy confirmed it opened the floodgates for him to play a villain on just about every other program. “You name it and I was the villain. It’s only partly tongue-in-cheek, but I tell people that I always played the villain because I didn’t have to act. I do a lot of talking-head television punditry, so people also recognize me from that. It’s astonishing and depends on a person’s age group.”
Keeping things in perspective
Sporting the Michael Jordan-shaved head look, Liddy wasn’t hard to spot in a crowd.
Contrary to his gruff appearance though, he was actually one of the most approachable, accessible and pleasant people in the public eye. “There’s no reason that I shouldn’t be,” he quite matter-of-factly declared. “One of the problems with people who become celebrities – like these teenage heartthrobs – is you start believing that crap about yourself. I became very well-known through an accident of history. I was in my 40s and knew damn well that I was nothing special. So when someone approaches me in a friendly way, [that’s also how] I’m going to react. I don’t think that I’m better than other people. That’s a huge mistake that many [other] celebrities make. They suddenly think that, since people are nice to them and recognize them, they’re the fourth person in the Blessed Trinity or something.”
In addition to maintaining his golf game, Liddy spent considerable time working out. “I’m pretty fit and try to stay that way,” he insisted. “I had an operation a while back and discovered that, when you get out of shape, it’s hard to get back. My cardiologist says that biologically I’m 20 – 22 years younger than my [chronological] age.”
His fifth book dealt with health and physical fitness. “I thought I’d share a few things that I learned along the way and think it’s going to be a good topic for me [although] I’m notoriously tardy on meeting my deadlines. I’ve learned my lesson and won’t take it to the publisher until it’s completed.”
Fountain of youth
Often times neither looking nor acting his age, Liddy maintained it proved to be a curse. “It was also one of my problems when I first ran for congress. It’s sort of the [former North Carolina Senator/John Kerry’s running mate ] John Edwards thing — some people thought I looked tooyoung.”
Having parachuted on multiple occasions with the Israeli Defense Force team, Liddy enthused with gusto, “It truly is a thrill. It’s 400 meters right out the side door of a C-130.”
Doer versus dreamer
An avid motorcyclist, he would ride his Harley 1,846 miles to Sturgis, South Dakota. “I have a very fast automobile, a modified ZR-1 Corvette with 520 horsepower. When I’m in Arizona [where he had a home], I can let it loose. I’ve done – and do – a lot of different things. Most of my competitors have read about stuff, but in so many different areas, I’ve ‘been there, done that, and got the T-Shirt.’ I’ve done things that most men only dream about. That distinguishes me from them. It gives my responses to my audience a verisimilitude. I’ll probably be [working in radio] until I drop dead – and I think that’s a long way off.”
The 90-year-old Liddy died yesterday (Tuesday, 3/30) in Mount Vernon, Virginia. His son Tom released a statement saying his father had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and had been in failing health.
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at firstname.lastname@example.org.