John V. Antinori is a graduate in English and a Tuesday columnist.
Last Tuesday Colloquoy hosted the Timothy Leary-Gordon Liddy traveling debate show, a tawdry blend of vaudeville, Crossfire and professional wrestling.
I attended with the determination not to get upset about anything that happened, since I expected the "debate" to be nothing more than an act, the two men as angry with one another as Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant were with each other a few years ago. But despite my determination to remain calm, I still left Eisenhower Auditorium angry.
The debate was a particularly garish example of a central problem in American political culture: the tendency of national pundits in the press and outside the government to behave like members of one big celebrity commentator's club.
There was Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy on stage, together, each lending credibility to the other by their mere presence on stage. Traveling debate shows have been an American tradition since at least the early 19th century. But typically the debaters displayed some amount of personal animosity towards one another because of their intellectual differences.
Not so in the Leary-Liddy "main event" where all the anger was staged. Here was G. Gordon Liddy, storm trooper of Richard Nixon's Amerika, and Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD, hamming it up on stage. Liddy's first act after his introduction was to move his chair forward so that the podium did not block his line of vision. "I like to keep the whole room covered," he explained.
Leary bordered on self-parody when he spoke of his acid-munching glory days. At the end of the "heated debate," Liddy reminded the audience that the 69-year-old Leary would soon celebrate a birthday. "What are you going to be, Tim? 34?" he kidded. Laughing, Leary took the microphone from Liddy and plugged Gordo's new book; after which the two shook hands like happy conspirators.
How is it that two men so diametrically opposite in their mentalities, motives, experiences, political beliefs, interpretations of history and taste in clothes can act so friendly toward each other? If Leary and Liddy both believe that the other's views are dangerous for the nation, shouldn't they display some traces of personal animosity?
Maybe I'm just being a spoilsport. If this is a circus act or a vaudeville, who cares? Fun is fun. Come to Eisenhower and root for the your favorite avatar of extremity. After all, how many chances do you get to boo Gordon Liddy as he draws moral equivalencies between his Watergate crimes and the behavior of civil rights protesters?
Unfortunately, several elements of the debate were too serious to be laughed off. The first element is Liddy himself. Leary should be embarrassed for granting this odious former Nixon plumber any stage on which to aggrandize himself.
Hearing G. Gordon Liddy cheered by a crowd of people for any reason whatsoever is scary. Either his young partisans in the audience were unaware of his criminal past, which is inexcusable, or they knew perfectly well who he is and what he has done and cheered for him anyhow, which is disturbing.
There are plenty of people capable of serving as conservative pundits, but Liddy is not one of them. He has never held office, never formulated public policy, and had never, prior to his debates with Leary, spoken widely on national politics. No one should take Gordon Liddy seriously as spokesman for anything other than totalitarianism and midnight knocks at the door.
The second disturbing element of the evening was the cynicism with which both men appropriated important political issues for the sake of their own incomes. They paid lip service to nearly every important issue in American politics: the fall elections, the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf, abortion, drugs.
While Liddy and Leary appropriated these issues as part of their act, the members of the audience sincerely cared. Both speakers were cheered and heckled as they spoke. Both faced outraged questioners during the question-and-answer session.
Unfortunately, all the audience received for its passion was a series of rehearsed one-liners, ad hominem ripostes and thoughtless rhetoric.
Obviously, Liddy and Leary are merely cashing in on their reputations, and that is fine. I respect anyone who can earn a living in a more or less honest fashion without working a nine-to-five day. But political rhetoric is too important to be abused for the sake of a few "experts" lining their pockets.
More disturbing is that what Leary and Liddy do is only slightly more insincere than the political discussions taking place every week on television where the left and right's best-known spokespeople pontificate and collect big checks. When George Will and Sam Donaldson quarrel on This Week with David Brinkley , the heat never exceeds that of a gentleman's disagreement. Michael Kinsley and Pat Buchanan differ as much as any two commentators can, and yet every week the two of them conspire to bring us an episode of Crossfire .
That the electorate continues to grow cynical about American politics is understandable when the representatives of the right and left are so chummy with one another. It is hard to take anything seriously when Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary can have kind words for one another.