Gerry and Gordon

Shea Whigham is killing it in the role of G. Gordon Liddy on the Starz mini-series Gaslit.

Gaslit is a Watergate tale of the restraint and abuse of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, when she tried to tell the truth about law breaking and cover-up in the Nixon White House. For Boomers with long memories it’s a happy tale because so many of the Republican felons ended up in jail. It should only happen today.

Whigham’s spot-on portrayal of G. Gordon Liddy made me think of the time I espied the bungling burglar in the Palm Springs, California, airport.

It was circa 1979 and I was in Palm Springs for a meeting of the American Baptist General Staff Council, a mustering of the denomination’s national and regional staff leaders. In the winter this conscientious group favored warm venues with nearby golf courses and many of their decisions about how to spend the Lord’s money were hacked out on the links. I attended the meetings as director of communication for the Baptists. I was not a golfer so I spent most of my time hiking through the brush that surrounds Palm Springs. When the meeting was over most of the council members remained in town to golf and I took a cab to the airport.

I had plenty of time to wander around the airport because my flight was cancelled and I waited to see if I would be seated on the next flight.

As I wandered through the airport crowd I recognized the man walking beside me. It was G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon stalwart who planned the Watergate burglary so badly that it led to the arrest of the burglars, Nixon’s futile cover-up and, ultimately, Nixon’s resignation.

Liddy was shorter than I expected and his short strides and rapid gait were comically mechanical. His heavy black eyebrows knitted together as he stared straight ahead. The fierce expression on his face reminded me of a comment about Grant that was made by one of his contemporaries: “He always looked like he had resolved to ram his head into a stone wall and was about to do it.”

But Liddy passed by with a pitty-pat cadence. It did not appear he was eager to be recognized by anyone in the crowd.

I wandered around for several minutes before returning to the gate.

Soon the ground agent announced that the flight would be boarding soon and she asked everyone to remain seated. Three tall men stood – defiantly I thought, but with the obvious acquiescence of the agent – and walked through the door and down boarding ramp. The tallest of the three was former President Gerald Ford. I assumed the other two were secret service agents.

I was gob-smacked. Ford is on this flight! My first thought was to wonder what it must be like for an ex-president to fly on a small DC-9 after years of aeronautic luxury on Air Force One.

But wait, I said to myself. Was it coincidence that the 38th president of the United States was in the same airport as G. Gordon Liddy, whose ham-fisted scheming on behalf of Nixon led to the scandal that propelled Ford into the White House? Did the two men with such an involuntary historic connection notice each other in airport crowd? Did they divert their eyes, pretend not to notice each other?

Soon all other passengers boarded the aircraft and I was among the stand-by passengers who got a seat.

Ford, despite his long legs, was squeezed into a window seat. The Secret Service agents sat in the more comfortable aisle seats, one next to Ford and the other across the aisle. I could see how the arrangement made security sense. Ford sat reading some notes on a piece of bond paper. Occasionally a passenger in first class would stand to greet the former president and shake his hand. Ford would smile and nod. Throughout the flight passengers from the coach session would shyly slip through the curtains that led to first class to greet the president. The Secret Service agents would watch suspiciously. Ford would smile, nod, and reach across the agent’s face to shake each admirer’s hand.

The plane landed in Chicago late in the afternoon. The Secret Service agents stood up before the seatbelt sign was turned off to enable the president to deplane ahead of the crowd.
Ford stood up, hit his head on the overhead rack, and sat back down. He looked up at the rack, stood up more cautiously, and walked out of the plane.

Somehow Ford’s mishap with the rack made it a perfect flight. It was a Saturday Night Live anecdote I knew I would tell for years.

As I got off the plane I noticed the former president off to the side, talking with a small delegation of Chicago politicians. I began walking quickly to the gate where the flight to Philadelphia was waiting.

Out of the hundreds of flights I made as a Baptist bureaucrat, this is the one I remember the most vividly.

And I probably should be thankful to Shea Whigham and the late G. Gordon Liddy for bringing this memory to the front of my mind.

Thanks, Gordo. I hope you are smiling up at us.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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