They came in cocktail dresses, blue jeans and business suits to spend "An Evening With G. Gordon Liddy" at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium last Wednesday. They were middle-aged business owners, white-haired couples and teen-agers too young to recall why anybody ever made a fuss over this aggressively mustachioed man with the distinctive pate.
The erstwhile Army artillery officer, FBI man and Watergate burglar rolled in a little after the appointed hour, as the coastal fog was curling up around the auditorium sign, with Liddy's name just above that of Johnny Cash (who'll be appearing May 14). The fog provided a fitting atmosphere for a man who years ago preferred to shroud himself in a cloak of secrecy.
No longer. Since his early release from prison 10 years ago, this intense, intelligent but often reviled individual has made a career of spouting off, advancing a good case for the notion that crime does pay.
When he goes before groups in hamlets and cities across the country, as he does many times a year, he pulls down respectable sums. The Oxnard event, which filled most of the 1,600-seat auditorium and was sponsored by Ventura County National Bancorp, was worth a tidy $7,000.
Author of two best sellers, Liddy also heads an industrial security company that freely capitalizes on the notoriety he gained in plotting the break-in of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.
How the lowly have risen.
After glowing introductory remarks by a bank company official, Liddy immediately evoked a laugh from the Oxnard crowd: "I'm pleased with that introduction because for so many years it was, 'Will the defendant please rise?' I got tired of that."
Those days behind him, Liddy is a high flyer again. He was the most popular speaker last year on the lecture circuit managed by American Program Bureau in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and "was, therefore, a natural candidate" for the Ventura County bank holding company's annual event, according to publicity materials. (Last year's speaker was New York industrialist J. Peter Grace, who drew a larger crowd to hear about waste in government.)
Holding a microphone and pacing the Oxnard stage in a conservative brown suit during his hourlong talk, Liddy clearly got a kick out of making light of his prison days. ("I was in nine prisons, but none were called that. Some were called penitentiaries, although I never found anyone there who was penitent, least of all me.")
His well-honed speech on "Surviving or Prevailing: The Choice Is Up to You" was a hybrid of reminiscence and pep talk that drew frequent applause and laughter. "It is from failure that we learn," he said, adding later: "The greatest failure I ever had was Watergate."
Maybe so. But just look at him now.