Son of Watergate

Can Tom Liddy use his father's notoriety to break into Congress?

One young guy with a hairbrush sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans pulls out a disposable camera and snaps a picture of a framed letter from then-President Nixon. An older gentleman sits on a sofa nearby, loudly telling two women the difference between laxatives and dietary fiber.

The Liddy men come down the stairs, glowing from the photographer's lights and the fact that the upstairs air conditioning unit is out. G. Gordon is formal in a too-big khaki suit and tie, smaller and more gracious in person than the reputation that precedes him. Tom wears a short-sleeved plaid sport shirt and his name tag on his back -- someone stuck it there so it wouldn't mess up the photos. They make their way through a standing-room-only crowd to the living room and stand beneath an enormous oil painting of G. Gordon in headphones, before a radio microphone.

Father introduces son.

Primary contenders: Clockwise, from top left, are Republicans Bert Tollefson, Jeff Flake, Susan Bitter Smith and Sal DiCiccio.
Paolo Vescia
Primary contenders: Clockwise, from top left, are Republicans Bert Tollefson, Jeff Flake, Susan Bitter Smith and Sal DiCiccio.
Star-spangled banter: Grant Woods moderates the Arizona Chamber of Commerce debate for CD1 candidates. From left, Tom Liddy, Sal DiCiccio, Susan Bitter Smith, David Mendoza, Bert Tollefson and Jeff Flake.
Paolo Vescia
Star-spangled banter: Grant Woods moderates the Arizona Chamber of Commerce debate for CD1 candidates. From left, Tom Liddy, Sal DiCiccio, Susan Bitter Smith, David Mendoza, Bert Tollefson and Jeff Flake.

"Fifty percent of what I say is because I am this man's father," G. Gordon admits up-front. He describes Tom as a "man of principle," a "natural-born leader," joking that credit for raising their kids goes to Frances, because "during their formative years I was locked up in prison where I couldn't do them any harm."

Gone but not forgotten. G. Gordon tells a story -- it's included in Will -- about a swim meet Tom attended as a kid in the '70s, while his dad was in prison. Tom's full name was on a roster, and folks started muttering, wondering if he was related to that Liddy. Tom overheard, and when he took his mark later that day, he had donned a tee shirt with the slogan, "Property of the Watergate Bugging Team."

G. Gordon beams as he retells the tale, then introduces Tom.

"I am so grateful that you all are here, giving me the bullets for the battle," the younger Liddy says. Then Tom abruptly stops sounding like his dad, who brags in his autobiography that he borrowed his uncle's loaded Colt Super auto at the age of 5.

"This is a special day," Tom says, "and not because it's June 17, but because tomorrow's Father's Day. And I'm just really happy -- (his voice cracks, he chokes back sobs) that I get to spend some time with my dad."

There's a collective, "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh," the cue for an emotion-wrought candidate to gracefully accept his applause and move on with the party.

But Tom Liddy keeps going. Around his sobs, he tells the crowd about how his father never got to see him win his baseball championship. About how G. Gordon Liddy never shirked his responsibility to his family.

"He taught me patience, gave me life and taught me about God," he says, still teary.

Tom Liddy brings down the house. Together, he and his dad bring in thousands of dollars.

Last week, they did it again -- this time in Tennessee, with a guest appearance by rock star and G. Gordon Liddy pal Ted Nugent.

Liddy for Congress headquarters is housed in a Southern Avenue strip mall on the Mesa/Tempe border, sandwiched between a do-it-yourself dog wash and a Christian Science reading room.

On a recent Saturday, a dozen or so volunteers gather to collect signatures for Tom Liddy. The young Republicans eating Fry's doughnuts accessorize their Liddy for Congress tee shirts with Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren clothing; they mix with the jean-shorted G. Gordon groupies, who switch out their Harley-Davidson tees for Liddy ones.

Some more established GOPers are supporting Liddy, too. Peggy Rubach, a former Mesa mayor and current public-transit crusader, heads out with her pile of petitions, excited about Liddy's prospects.

"The similarities to 1982 are eerie," she says.

Rubach is referring to the 1982 election, when John J. Rhodes retired from his CD1 seat after decades and a crowd duked it out in the Republican primary. From a field of experienced, tenured candidates emerged a well-spoken, charismatic guy who'd just moved to Arizona from Washington, D.C. with his pretty young wife and kids: John McCain. McCain used CD1 as a launching pad for the U.S. Senate and, ultimately but unsuccessfully (so far), the presidency.

This year, the seat is empty for the first time, with incumbent Matt Salmon politely keeping his term-limit pledge. Again, there's a crowded field of established Arizona Republicans who will compete in the September 12 primary: former Phoenix city councilman Sal DiCiccio, cable TV lobbyist Susan Bitter Smith, gadfly Bert Tollefson, and Jeff Flake, until recently the director of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank. (There's a Democrat in the race, too -- state employees' union director David Mendoza -- but with scant exception, this seat has always belonged to the GOP.)

And again, there's a guy who fits the McCain profile: Tom Liddy moved his family to Arizona a few years ago from Washington, D.C., and to CD1 less than a year ago. Prior to running for Congress, McCain had worked as the Navy's liaison to the U.S. Senate; Liddy was an officer in the Marines and counsel to the Republican National Committee. Both Liddy and McCain consider themselves conservatives -- pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, anti-tax -- and talk a lot about reforming government.

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