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New papers were filed in court this spring, but there was a while there—about a month—when, for the first time in 10 years, G. Gordon Liddy stood in the free and clear. After serving a longer prison sentence than any other Watergate conspirator back in the ’70s, the Watergate-burglar-turned-radio-host spent the ’90s fending off two mammoth Watergate-related lawsuits, whose sheer scope and cost would surely have overwhelmed any ordinary burglar-turned-radio-host. The issues at the heart of this ceaseless litigation against Liddy are, moreover, the subject of a new book—albeit a novel—titled City of Shadows, and set—where else?—here in the District of Columbia.
In January 1992, almost 20 years after Liddy’s ill-starred adventures at the Watergate complex, former White House counsel John Dean, whose testimony about the ensuing coverups helped send President Richard Nixon’s top aides to prison, filed a defamation lawsuit against Liddy and others. Five years later, in April 1997, a former Democratic National Committee (DNC) secretary named Ida “Maxie” Wells, a woman whose desk and telephone conversations were targeted in the Watergate break-ins, also sued Liddy, charging that his public statements about her had damaged her job prospects as an aspiring professor.
Central to both lawsuits was identifying the purpose of history’s most calamitous black-bag job. By 1991, Liddy—out of prison and aggressively marketing himself as the break-in’s “mastermind” to TV shows such as Miami Vice and Scrabble—came to endorse a decidedly revisionist theory of Watergate, one that cast him as a dupe of his covert compatriots.
Influenced by two books—Jim Hougan’s groundbreaking 1984 Secret Agenda and the 1991 best seller Silent Coup, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin—Liddy began touting their claims that the Watergate operation had sought intelligence about alleged links between the DNC and a tony Washington call-girl ring, and between the ring’s madam and John Dean’s wife, Maureen Dean, who sued Liddy along with her husband.
The Deans’ case dragged on for more than seven years—a duration that ranks it among the lengthiest libel cases ever, and, given that the Watergate scandal itself lasted only two years (from the famous arrests of June 17, 1972, to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974), one that legitimates analogies to the Korean War and M*A*S*H. Its ending was bizarre by any standard. First, the Deans dropped a few defendants, including Secret Agenda’s Hougan and the publishers of Silent Coup’s audiocassette version. Next, they settled with Silent Coup publisher St. Martin’s Press on undisclosed terms. Ultimately, they dropped their claims against Liddy. The only other defendant, Silent Coup author Colodny, was, like the Deans, paid by Colodny’s insurance company to let the matter die.
Not often does an underwriting insurer have to pay off its own defendant as well as the plaintiffs. Moreover, not one word of Silent Coup had to be retracted. Finally, John Dean inked this deal less than a week after telling me in an August 1999 interview for Fox News that he “can’t wait to go to court” and “unpeel the story publicly for the first time.”
By contrast, Wells’ case—which sped by in only four years’ time—actually made it to trial, occasioning Liddy’s first public testimony about Watergate, 28 years after the failed 1972 break-in. Initially, however, in 1998, federal Judge J. Frederick Motz had summarily dismissed Wells’ suit. In this ruling, Motz found that “there are sufficient pieces of evidence…that can arguably be viewed as corroborating” the call-girl theory. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, sent the case back to Motz for trial, and the higher court also ruled that Wells was not a public figure—not even an “involuntary” one—thereby lowering the legal threshold Wells had to meet to prevail against Liddy (from proving “actual malice” to mere “negligence”).
Outside of her depositions for the Deans’ case and her own, Wells had never been questioned at length—except by me. I interviewed her twice in 1994, in connection with my work (since 1991, I’m ashamed to say) on a biography of Nixon’s first attorney general, John N. Mitchell. Our taped interviews filled 70 single-spaced pages. Subtle yet significant discrepancies between what Wells told me and what she’d told investigators in the ’70s offered one reason for Liddy’s lawyers to subpoena me to testify. The second was that my decade of immersion in Watergate enabled me to lead the jury through a presentation of some 60 slides detailing the evidentiary basis upon which the call-girl theory rests.
Like any rookie witness, I was apprehensive about testifying, as well as incredulous that my lengthy study of Watergate had finally, improbably, made me a part of its still-unfolding narrative. This doesn’t happen to antiquities scholars, I reckoned. I was also mindful that the attorney representing Wells was a former Senate Watergate Committee lawyer named David Dorsen. When I aired two reports about these matters for the Fox News Channel in August 1999, to mark the 25th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, it was Dorsen, then representing the Deans, who sent 30 pages of hate-fax about me to Fox News Managing Editor Brit Hume, threatening legal action. (Fox News stood by my reports; no actions were filed.) Sixteen months later, Dorsen would be cross-examining me on the stand.
During my four hours on the stand, Dorsen frequently posed more than one question to me at a time, prompting several sustained objections, bench conferences, and rebukes from Motz. Midway through an especially convoluted query, one juror leaned to another and exclaimed: “If there was a question in all that!” As well, Dorsen mounted no challenge to my credentials, allowed me to finish sentences that, had I been Wells’ lawyer, I would have sought to cut off at once, and pursued lines of inquiry I thought unhelpful to Wells.
In the end, the jurors deadlocked on votes of 7-2 and 8-1 in favor of Liddy, and Motz dismissed the case again, as a matter of law. Though Dorsen told Motz he could “drive a truck through” the call-girl theory, Motz remained unimpressed. “I was sitting in another courtroom if you drove a truck through this theory—or else I can’t see or hear,” he snapped at Dorsen. “I’m not saying the conventional theory is wrong, but certainly parts of it have been called into question by the evidence in this case.” (In March, Wells filed notice of her intent to appeal again.)
“[W]e do know what happened at Watergate—and it had nothing to do with prostitutes,” the Washington Post quickly harrumphed, ignoring Motz’s remarks and 60 slides of evidence. To the Post and its assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, the Watergate story remains central to an exalted status rich in prestige and profit. The headline on the newspaper’s post-verdict editorial read “The Courts and History,” but “The Empire Strikes Back” would have better captured its tone. After shamelessly equating Watergate revisionism with Holocaust revisionism, the Post opined: “The danger of such outcomes as this one is that this sort of thinking spreads.”
Indeed it does—for, just a few weeks before Liddy strode to the stand in his trial, Forge Books published City of Shadows. Written under a pseudonym, the book marks the first serious attempt at a historical novel set not merely in the Watergate era (as many a cheesy paperback has been, including some published by cash-desperate Watergate figures), but one set in Watergate itself—and in the call-girl version of the scandal, at that.
Critics will surely cry that Shadows’ anonymous author is engaged in the foul business of conspiracy theory. But conspiracy is precisely the crime for which many of the players in Watergate were sent to prison; surely no one thinks, as Hougan once reminded Time magazine’s Hays Gorey, that we are studying a “lone burglar”?
Thus, theorizing about Watergate’s numerous, cross-pollinating conspiracies, in which multiple individuals and forces played many different roles, should not be considered any less appropriate a field of inquiry for scholars than theorizing about the mix of factors that caused the Great Depression, the Allied victory in the Second World War, or any other complex watershed in history.
City of Shadows chronicles the late-’60s and early-’70s “wilderness of mirrors” where nothing is as it seems, and the book itself is a conundrum. Even the author’s name requires decoding. The pseudonym credited on the book’s cover, “James Dalton,” belongs to a veteran fiction writer whose real first novel was a best seller made by Hollywood years ago into a stylish, successful, and critically acclaimed espionage thriller.
Despite such cat-and-mouse games, City of Shadows deserves the attention of both casual readers in search of a crackerjack political thriller and serious historians seeking a greater understanding of the turbulent Nixon presidency. The novel is purportedly the result of a serious journalistic investigation conducted privately by “Dalton,” who actually was, as the dust jacket proclaims, an aide to a U.S. senator during the Watergate era.
The lines of revisionist thought about Nixon’s presidency pressed by “Dalton” owe their published origins, and widest dissemination, to Secret Agenda and Silent Coup; using fictionalized characters, “Dalton” nimbly dances around saying anything that might get him sued the way those books’ authors were. Like those books, City of Shadows advances the notion that the Watergate surveillance operation targeted the aforementioned prostitution ring run by D.C. mobsters and patronized by visitors to DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex. And “Dalton” illustrates how the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shut out of foreign policy by Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, executed a pervasive espionage program directed against Kissinger and his deputy, Alexander Haig (facts first disclosed in 1974, to little public outcry, by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times).
“Dalton” plots his fictional action largely against these two backdrops. Thus we meet John Quinn, an idealistic D.C. cop who takes on local mob chieftain Joseph Nezneck (a thinner veil for the real-life Joseph Nesline could not be imagined) and befriends a prostitute from the real-life Columbia Plaza prostitution ring, which lies at the heart of the revisionist theory. Marine Corps Capt. Nathan Holloway is the military mole assigned to Henry Kissinger’s staff, who, like the real-life Yeoman Charles Radford, begins rifling through Kissinger’s briefcase and sending the fruits back to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
To these, “Dalton” adds one other subplot, unveiled in grand fashion near the novel’s end and focused on Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro T. Agnew. (It would be mean-spirited to explain this twist here; suffice it to say that it proposes no radical revision in our understanding of Agnew’s ethics.)
In those individuals who have sued G. Gordon Liddy, and at the editorial board at the Washington Post, “Dalton”‘s book must inspire some fear, for its publication marks the debut of an unwelcome Watergate theory in the pages of mass-market fiction—and “this sort of thinking spreads.” For everyone else, however, City of Shadows offers a fast-paced read about a part of our history that remains as bitterly controversial now as in its own time. As historian John Lucaks has noted: “History, in the broad sense of the word, is revisionist. History involves multiple jeopardy that the law eschews: People and events are retried and retried again.” CP