G. Gordon Liddy: The Hollywood Years
The most interesting parts of G. Gordon Liddy’s career came after he botched the Watergate burglary. With his old lines of work no longer available to him, the former Nixon henchman—who died earlier this week—had to find new ways to make a living. Like playing a recurring villain on the gauzy cop show Miami Vice. Or holding a series of debates with the psychedelic celebrity Timothy Leary.
We have a pretty good sense of what the first Leary-Liddy debate tour was like, because one of Robert Altman’s protégés made a weirdly compelling documentary about it. The important thing to understand here is that Leary and Liddy weren’t just a symbol of the counterculture and a symbol of Richard Nixon’s presidency: They had once been direct antagonists, with Liddy participating in a 1966 raid on an estate where Leary had been conducting psychedelic experiments. Later they landed in the same prison, Leary on drug charges and Liddy on Watergate charges. By the early ’80s, the two old jailbirds clearly had a degree of affection for each other. That mutual respect comes through in Alan Rudolph’s 1983 film Return Engagement, which mixes excerpts from the duo’s stage show with interviews and other footage. In the process, Rudolph captures a disorienting moment in American history: a time after the convulsions of the 1960s and ’70 had ended but while most of the giant figures of that faded age were still around, trying to find a place for themselves in a changed world.
Don’t go into this film expecting a conventional left-vs.-right matchup. By this point in his life, Timothy Leary was a full-fledged libertarian. This becomes obvious a little more than 40 minutes into the movie, when he stands onstage singing the praises of voluntary organizations—”I believe in bridge clubs, I believe in families, I believe in friends, I believe in stock groups, I believe in collectives, I believe in corporations”—and damning the “one form of organization which is involuntary, and that’s the modern state.” He goes on to declare that every state in the world is a mafia, charging “extortion fees c
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