In reporting on Letterman appearance, media fail to note other aspects of Liddy's controversial past

››› ››› MATTHEW BIEDLINGMAIER & TOM ALLISON

In reporting on Sen. John McCain's October 16 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, several media outlets noted McCain's response to a question about his association with Watergate break-in figure G. Gordon Liddy that Liddy "paid his debt, he went to prison." However, none of these outlets noted other controversial actions by Liddy, which McCain did not mention, let alone denounce, on Letterman's show, including multiple instances of reportedly advising his radio show audience on the best way to shoot Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents -- statements that were reportedly made long after Liddy left prison.

Reporting on Sen. John McCain's October 16 appearance on CBS' The Late Show with David Letterman, NPR's Scott Horsley said on the October 17 edition of Morning Edition that "Letterman quizzed McCain about the economy, Sarah Palin, and another famous plumber, G. Gordon Liddy." Horsley continued: "The Watergate break-in figure once hosted a fundraiser for McCain, who told Letterman Liddy has paid his debt to society." But Horsley did not note other controversial actions by Liddy, which McCain did not mention, let alone denounce, on Letterman's show, including multiple instances of reportedly advising his radio show audience on the best way to shoot Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents -- statements that were reportedly made long after Liddy left prison.

Several other media outlets, including The New York Times' The Caucus blog, The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire blog, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press, reported McCain's response to Letterman that Liddy "paid his debt, he went to prison." Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported that Letterman "not[ed] McCain's relationship with Watergate operative G. Gordon Liddy," and USA Today reported McCain said Liddy "served his time." None mentioned other actions by Liddy.

Media Matters for America has previously noted McCain's ties to Liddy. Liddy served four and a half years in prison in connection with his conviction for his role in the Watergate break-in and the break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Liddy has acknowledged preparing to kill someone during the Ellsberg break-in "if necessary"; plotting to kill journalist Jack Anderson; plotting with a "gangland figure" to kill Howard Hunt to stop him from cooperating with investigators; plotting to firebomb the Brookings Institution; and plotting to kidnap "leftist guerillas" at the 1972 Republican National Convention -- a plan he outlined to the Nixon administration using terminology borrowed from the Nazis. (The murder, firebombing, and kidnapping plots were never carried out; the break-ins were.)

As Media Matters further noted, during the 1990s, Liddy reportedly instructed his radio audience on multiple occasions on how to shoot Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents. According to an April 26, 1995, CBS News transcript (retrieved from Nexis), Liddy said on his August 26, 1994, radio show:

LIDDY: Well, if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes to disarm you and they are bearing arms, resist them with arms. Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests.

Reporting on Liddy's October 19, 1994, radio show, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz recounted in an October 24, 1994, article:

Ursula from Millerton, Pa., tells Liddy she's afraid the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is coming after her gun-owning friend. Liddy calls the bureau "bottom-dwelling slugs ... a pack of nitwits out to make war on those Americans who take seriously the Second Amendment." Liddy allows that calls to "hunt down and kill" such agents is "going too far." But, he says, "shooting back is reasonable... . I have counseled shooting them in the head."

According to Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, on September 15, 1994, Liddy stated:

If the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms insists upon a firefight, give them a firefight. Just remember, they're wearing flak jackets and you're better off shooting for the head.

According to FAIR, Liddy said to a caller later in the show:

When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms thugs come to kill your wife and children, to try to disarm you and they open fire on you. When they come at the point of a gun, force and violence, when you're going to defend yourself, use that Gerand [sic] [M-1 rifle]. That thing is 30-06, and it'll take 'em right out.

According to an April 25, 1995, Associated Press article:

Talk show host G. Gordon Liddy said Tuesday he gave listeners bad advice when he told them to shoot for the head if attacked by federal agents. Instead, he said, go twice for the body and then the groin.

[...]

Last August, Liddy counseled "head shots" to respond to an encounter with agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, because, "They've got a vest underneath."

On Tuesday, he told a news conference held as part of his WJFK program that people should cooperate if authorities come to their homes with search warrants. But they should shoot back if agents shoot their way in, he said.

He said experts have told him shooting for the head was a bad idea because heads are hard to hit.

"So you shoot twice to the body, center of mass, and if that does not work, then shoot to the groin area," he said.

"They cannot move their hips fast enough and you'll probably get a femoral artery and you'll knock them down at any rate."

Asked about his ATF comments by right-wing blogger John Hawkins in December 2003, Liddy said they had been misinterpreted:

LIDDY: [A]s usual, people remember part of what I said, but not all of what I said. What I did was restate the law. I was talking about a situation in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes smashing into a house, doesn't say who they are, and their guns are out, they're shooting, and they're in the wrong place. This has happened time and time again. The ATF has gone in and gotten the wrong guy in the wrong place. The law is that if somebody is shooting at you, using deadly force, the mere fact that they are a law enforcement officer, if they are in the wrong, does not mean you are obliged to allow yourself to be killed so your kinfolk can have a wrongful death action. You are legally entitled to defend yourself and I was speaking of exactly those kind of situations. If you're going to do that, you should know that they're wearing body armor so you should use a head shot. Now all I'm doing is stating the law, but all the nuances in there got left out when the story got repeated.

In addition, according to the April 25, 1995, edition of NPR's All Things Considered (retrieved from Nexis), during a press conference, Liddy admitted that he named shooting targets after then-President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton. From the press conference, as aired by NPR:

LIDDY: I did relate that on the 4th of July of last year, when I and my family and some friends were out firing away at a properly-constructed rifle range and we ran out of targets, and so we -- I drew some stick figure targets and I thought we ought to give them names. So I named them Bill and Hillary, thought it might improve my aim. It didn't. My aim is good anyway. Now, having said that, I accept no responsibility for somebody shooting up the White House.

From the October 17 edition of NPR's Morning Edition:

HORSLEY: From Pennsylvania, McCain dashed back to New York City aboard a helicopter to avoid missing a scheduled appearance on the David Letterman show. Letterman's been teasing McCain nonstop for the last three weeks, ever since the candidate abruptly cancelled on the talk show host, when he temporarily suspended his campaign. The jokes continued last night, even after McCain arrived on stage.

[begin video clip]

LETTERMAN: Can you stay?

McCAIN: Yes, sir. It depends on how bad it gets.

[end video clip]

HORSLEY: Letterman quizzed McCain about the economy, Sarah Palin, and another famous plumber, G. Gordon Liddy. The Watergate break-in figure once hosted a fundraiser for McCain, who told Letterman Liddy has paid his debt to society. As for [Sam Joe] Wurzelbacher ["Joe the Plumber"], McCain said during the Late Show taping, "Joe, if you're watching, I'm sorry -- about all the unexpected attention." Scott Horsley, NPR News, New York.

From the October 17 Los Angeles Times article:

Letterman spent most of the 20-minute conversation pressing McCain about his choice of a running mate, the tone of his campaign and his attacks on Democratic rival Barack Obama.

He questioned efforts to link Obama to former Weather Underground leader William Ayers, noting McCain's relationship with Watergate operative G. Gordon Liddy.

From The New York Times' The Caucus blog:

Then Mr. Letterman raised Mr. McCain's relationship with G. Gordon Liddy. "I've met him," Mr. McCain said. After a segment break, he followed up: "I know Gordon Liddy. He paid his debt, he went to prison, he paid his debt."

From The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire blog:

Mr. Letterman also raised Sen. McCain's relationship with one-time Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy. "I've met him," Sen. McCain said. After a segment break, he followed up: "I know Gordon Liddy. He paid his debt, he went to prison, he paid his debt." Democrats immediately circulated information documenting the relationship between the two men, including a Liddy-hosted McCain fund-raiser in 1998.

Sen. McCain was also asked about his running mate and whether she was his first choice for the job. Sen. McCain said "absolutely" she was. But he confessed, "I didn't know her well at all. I knew her reputation."

From the October 17 Associated Press article:

"Did you not have a relationship with Gordon Liddy?" Letterman asked about Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy.

McCain said he knew him. Then, after a commercial break, McCain said, "I know Gordon Liddy. He paid his debt, he went to prison ... I'm not in any way embarrassed to know Gordon Liddy."

"You understand the same case could be made of your relationship with him as is being made with William Ayers?" Letterman said.

McCain said he has been completely open about his relationship with Liddy.

From the October 17 Washington Post article:

After discussing Barack Obama's relationship with former Weather Underground member William Ayers, Letterman brought up McCain's relationship with G. Gordon Liddy, convicted in the Watergate scandal.

"I met him, you know, I mean," McCain said.

"Didn't you attend a fundraiser at his house?"

"Gordon Liddy's?" McCain asked.

They cut to commercial.

Coming back, McCain said, "I know Gordon Liddy. He paid his debt, he went to prison, he paid his debt. ... I'm not in any way embarrassed to know Gordon Liddy."

From the October 17 USA Today article:

He brought up McCain's attempt to link rival Barack Obama with '60s radical Bill Ayers and asked McCain about his attendance at fundraisers for Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy. ("He served his time," McCain said, visibly startled by the question.) And when asked about Palin's assertion that Obama "palled around" with terrorists, McCain replied: "There are millions of words said in a campaign. Come on!"

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.