The Watergate miniseries Gaslit premiered in April with a chilling visual—a mustachioed man (Shea Whigham) preaching about strength and will while letting the flesh of his hand burn over an open flame. It was an ominous introduction, not just to Nixon’s political scandal, but to the dangerous figure who masterminded it: G. Gordon Liddy.
Sunday’s penultimate episode, “Year of the Rat,” further illustrates this notorious real-life figure—the lawyer turned Nixon loyalist who chose prison over testifying about his activities to the White House. (“My father didn’t raise a snitch or a rat,” he told the L.A. Times.) Even after prison—52 months of a commuted term, including over 100 days of solitary confinement—Liddy expressed no remorse for his involvement. In fact, he said, “I would do a Watergate again—but with a much better crew.”
The episode dramatizes Liddy’s prison years, as described in his wild 1980 memoir, Will—the brutally violent fights, the legal advice he offered his inmates, and the maddening hours spent in isolation. But G. Gordon Liddy’s real story—which defies the limits of any ensemble miniseries—is even more unbelievable.
Before joining Nixon’s White House, Liddy worked as an FBI agent, and was internally infamous for two reasons: running a background check on his wife before marrying her and being caught by police during an undercover “bag job” in Kansas City, according to J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. (He was released, rumor had it, after placing a call to a local police chief.)
Nixon’s White House hired Liddy to head its clandestine “plumbers” unit, and later work as a strategist for the president’s reelection campaign. While in these roles, Liddy helped hatch a host of often far-fetched plots to discredit Nixon’s opponents and foil the 1972 Democratic National Convention, according to The New York Times.
“The Watergate break-in was among Liddy’s group of plans he called Operation Gemstone, and believe it or not it wasn’t his craziest idea,” explains Gaslit co-executive producer Amelia Gray, who wrote Sunday’s episode. “He wanted to hire sex workers, put them on a houseboat off the coast of Miami during the Democratic National Convention, and capture them with Democrats.” The plot, which Liddy disclosed in Will, involved a king-sized bed “with a mirror on the ceiling above it.”
Other preposterous pitches, according to Gray, included “want[ing] to sabotage the A.C. units at the DNC, to astroturf counter-demonstrations in order to attract media attention and disgust regular Americans. He wanted to break into [Edmund] Muskie’s campaign office as well as [George] McGovern’s office on Capitol Hill. And weirdly, he wanted to fund Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign, to split the party in New York. So he claimed, anyway. His proposals added up to a budget of $1 million, $6.7 million today. I mean, it was nuts.”