What G. Gordon Liddy taught me about civil disagreement
The scene was surreal: It was in the early 1990s, and I was playing the piano in our living room for a room full of people after dinner and dessert.
Standing next to me, singing, was a person whom, in the post-Watergate years of the 1970s and ’80s, I considered to be evil incarnate, a criminal without remorse who committed crimes and dirty tricks to reelect Richard Nixon as president. It was G. Gordon Liddy, who died Tuesday after a long illness at the age of 90.
I was playing the song, “If I Loved You,” the beautiful ballad from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1950s Broadway musical, “Carousel.” Liddy shocked me and everyone in the room with a deep, mellifluous vibrato voice. At the end of the song, my wife joined in and provided harmony for the song’s dramatic ending. The reaction was an immediate standing ovation, all from a bunch of liberal Democrats who not too long before had thought they hated Liddy and what he did for Nixon.
If anyone had told me 20 years earlier that Gordon Liddy would be in my living room one day, singing “If I Loved You,” with my wife harmonizing and me playing the piano before joining in a standing ovation, I would have been, let us say, dubious. So how did this happen?
In the late 1980s, I was introduced to Liddy by his tax accountant (also mine) over lunch. Afterward, Liddy invited me to come on his new radio talk show to debate him on the issues. His show had quickly become popular and nationally syndicated, heard by millions. I made weekly appearances for the next 10 years in his Vienna, Va., studio, where we would debate the issues of the day.
I quickly realized the major positive impact our debates had on so many in his national audience. When I traveled on business, cab drivers in cities across the country would hear my voice, turn and say: “Are you Lanny Davis? I love listening to you and Liddy debate on the radio.”
We always had serious, respectful debates. But there was also good humor. After a year or so of doing these appearances, Liddy began one show by playing a song one of his listeners had written, recorded and sent to him. It began, I think, with the lyric: “Lanny … Lanny … the liberal’s liberal.” Then he would introduce me as “my good friend, Lanny Davis, the liberal’s liberal, defending the indefensible.” And off we would go each week — vigorously, strongly disagreeing most of the time, especially about guns (he was a strong NRA supporter), but never interrupting each other. Always respectful. No personal attacks.
It was this experience over many years with Liddy which taught me the truth of a comment that former President Bill Clinton made to then-President George W. Bush during a White House ceremony to unveil the official portraits of Mr. Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton. Clinton thanked Bush from the podium in the East Room for his gracious welcome. Then Clinton looked down at Bush and said that he wished everyone referred to “right vs. wrong” instead of “good vs. evil” when describing those with whom we disagree. Bush nodded in agreement, and the two did a virtual fist-pump.
When I heard about the passing of G. Gordon Liddy earlier this week, I remembered that bipartisan moment between Clinton and Bush, and all the similar moments between Liddy and me when we debated on-air. What Liddy proved about the ability to disagree agreeably could not be more important in the wake of Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency.
Liddy did a lot of bad things for Nixon. But he taught me that the politics of civil discourse and disagreement is still possible in this country. Joe Biden has already taught us that in the early days of his presidency. I suspect that Gordon Liddy, in his final years, would agree that Biden’s way is the better way.
Lanny Davis served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton (1996-1998) and a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is co-founder of the law firm of Davis Goldberg & Galper and the strategic media and crisis management firm Trident DMG. He authored “Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics and Life” (2013).
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