How G. Gordon Liddy helped pave the way for Matt Gaetz

How G. Gordon Liddy helped pave the way for Matt Gaetz
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G. Gordon Liddy, one of the most infamous allies of President Richard Nixon and a key figure in the Watergate scandal, has died at the age of 90. Two Republicans who were prominent in the headlines on March 30, the day of his death, were Liddy and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida — and journalist Jonathan Bernstein, in an op-ed published by Bloomberg News the day after Liddy's death, argues that he helped pave the way for the far-right Florida congressman.

During the early 1970s, Liddy was the chief operative in the Plumbers — a covert group of Nixon loyalists who went after the president's enemies with a vengeance. And Liddy directed the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. in 1972. When the Watergate scandal went from bad to worse for Nixon, Liddy refused to "flip" on the president and ended up serving time in federal prison. But ironically, Liddy's sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter from 20 years to eight years in April 1977. Liddy was released from prison after four and one-half years.

"After leaving prison," Bernstein explains, "Liddy was welcomed back to the party — or at least to its media wing, which was in the process of becoming the dominant part. He was one of the first to jump into the conservative radio talk-show game after Rush Limbaugh's success, with a show that ran for 20 years, beginning in 1992."

Bernstein points out that Liddy "was among the first Republicans who had to do very little to rehabilitate themselves after scandals, even if it involved criminal conviction."

"He was eventually joined by Watergate figure Chuck Colson, Iran-Contra figure Ollie North, and many more — right up to President Donald Trump's grants of clemency for disgraced figures like Joe Arpaio, the ex-Arizona sheriff convicted of contempt of court; Dinesh D'Souza, the conspiracy theorist who pleaded guilty to campaign violations," Bernstein recalls.

Gaetz was in the headlines on March 30 because of reports that he may resign from the U.S. House of Representatives to work as a pundit at right-wing Newsmax TV — a Fox News competitor — and allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl in 2019. The congressman has vehemently denied that allegation, and Bernstein stresses, "It's way too early to know whether Gaetz is guilty of anything improper, let alone illegal. But thinking more broadly, there's little question that the Republican Party from Liddy on has had extremely low barriers for remaining in good standing."

Nonetheless, there were some major differences between how Gaetz uses the right-wing media and how Liddy used the right-wing media.

Gaetz, a staunch defender of former President Donald Trump, wholeheartedly embraces the snarky, endlessly combative "own the liberals" approach to Republican politics. In an article for the conservative website The Bulwark published the same day as Bernstein's op-ed, Brian Karem — senior White House correspondent for Playboy — notes that Liddy "was exceedingly polite to those who disagreed with him on his radio show" and "frequently summoned up his strongly held beliefs, but never denigrated liberals — and frequently had them on his show."

Karem writes, "Liddy seemed to enjoy a good-natured, high-spirited debate without ever descending to the depths Rush Limbaugh would plumb — or, for that matter, former President Trump."

Gaetz, during his appearances on Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, has favored an "own the liberals" approach all the way. But as Karem points out in the Bulwark, Liddy was quite capable of having polite conversations with liberals he disagreed with.

Bloomberg News' Bernstein, in his op-ed, writes, "Gaetz, of course, is no G. Gordon Liddy. We'll see whether he finishes his third term. But he's a living reminder that a party that treats Liddy's career path as a model is going to have all kinds of problems."

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