Personal Watergate-related memories? Sure, I can provide a couple of those, now that the topic is back in fashion.
I can’t reveal my sources, of course, but in late July 1986, while covering the now-defunct U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston, I came across a 25-year-old competitor in the rarely contested Modern Pentathlon named James Gordon Liddy. Then an ensign in the Navy, Liddy was the son of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy.
Jim Liddy told a story of being 11 years old at the time of the 1972 Watergate break-in. Shortly before his father was sent to prison for eight years—convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping at the Democratic headquarters’ Watergate complex in D.C.—“there was a lawsuit against my father,” he said, “and they made a mistake and put J. Gordon Liddy on the papers, and they wanted to come and get me and bring me to court. But they couldn’t. I was in school.”
Given current happenings, it might add a little irony to know that there was a Russian connection to that competition (though thoroughly devoid of collusion). The U.S. Olympic Festival, which was a grass-roots multi-sport event held in the three years between Summer Olympics from 1978 through 1995, had been modeled directly on a Soviet Union athletic affair called Spartakiade.
Anyway, there was Jim Liddy, who had been an elite swimmer and all-American water polo player at Fordham University. Sports, he said, helped him through the years when his father was in prison “because sports was a release. Because, financially, if you can excel in sports, you knew you could get a college scholarship [which he had], and because I enjoyed it for the character traits.”
He recalled that his father had challenged the family’s three boys to do pushups each night before bed. “He used to do 80 a night,” Jim said, “and one morning I came down and said, ‘I did 110 last night.’ He was pretty disappointed by that.”
Like fellow Americans of a certain age, I watched the televised Watergate hearings through the summer of 1973 and followed the startling news which eventually established that Richard Nixon, contrary to his assertions, in fact was a crook.
Then I was in D.C. on Aug. 8, 1974, just blocks from the White House, when Nixon delivered his nationally televised resignation speech from the Oval Office. I was in the midst of covering negotiations in a National Football League players’ strike, then in its 40th day, holed up with representatives of the owners and players in the basement at the Department of Labor. Federal mediator W.J. Usery, Jr.—who just died this past December—mostly spent his time moving from the owners’ room to the players’ room, rarely able to get them to talk face-to-face. But both sides recessed briefly to watch Nixon’s momentous farewell address.
And the next day, passing through the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, I watched televisions beam pictures of Nixon boarding his helicopter out of town. With arms thrust defiantly skyward, he flashed his incongruous “V” sign with both hands.
On to the summer of 2006. I was on a tennis assignment in D.C., staying at a hotel in the unincorporated suburb of Rosslyn, Va., just across the Potomac from Watergate, and with a terrific view of the Lincoln Memorial. On a late day walk through Rosslyn in search of a bite to eat, I passed a parking garage where one of those historic markers caught my eye.
WATERGATE INVESTIGATION, it announced, with this detail:
Mark Felt, second in command at the FBI, met Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward here in this parking garage to discuss the Watergate scandal. Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon Administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation. He chose this garage as an anonymous secure location. They met at this garage six times between October 1972 and November 1973. The Watergate scandal resulted in Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Woodward’s managing editor, Howard Simons, gave Felt the code name “Deep Throat.” Woodward’s promise not to reveal his source was kept until Felt announced his role as Deep Throat in 2005.”
I have long assumed that Nixon retired the trophy for presidential prevarication and obstruction of justice. I have no conclusive evidence otherwise. But, a year ago, when my wife and I were visiting D.C. during Cherry Blossom time, we passed that garage.
And those Watergate echoes keep hanging around.