White House Plumbers is currently streaming on HBO. Photo courtesy of HBO.
The team behind HBO’s smash hit Veep have joined forces on yet another political comedy set within the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The new series, White House Plumbers, is a buddy-dramedy about the masterminds behind the infamous Watergate Scandal. With two episodes still yet to air, the show is already being hailed as a wacky companion to All the President’s Men.
The five-part series premiered on HBO earlier this month, 51 years after members of President Richard Nixon’s administration got caught trying to rig the 1972 presidential election. The show follows two of Nixon’s most zealous henchmen — E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy — in their clumsy attempts to undermine American democracy.
Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux bring the infamous crooks back to the screen in White House Plumbers. Photo by Phil Caruso, courtesy of HBO.
Between 1972 and 1974, Hunt and Liddy worked as Nixon’s fixers. Following the release of the Pentagon Papers, the pair assumed the task of plugging leaks to the press that could further damage the president’s reputation — a job that earned them the nickname “the plumbers.” Their efforts to keep Nixon in power culminated in June 1972, when they endeavored to burglarize and wiretap the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington.
In the show, Woody Harrelson plays the gruff and enigmatic Hunt alongside Justin Theroux as a comically mustached Liddy. Viewers of the show might suspect that its creators took liberties to portray the two men as more eccentric than they actually were. But the truth is, the real White House Plumbers were crazier, bolder, and more outlandish than any character dreamt up in a writers’ room.
Hunt’s career in public service was no less impressive than his stint as a criminal. In 1941, after attending Brown University and the United States Naval Academy, he reported for duty aboard the US Navy destroyer USS Mayo. He spent two years patrolling the sea around England before transferring to the US Army Air Corps. However, historians believe that his stint as an airman was really a cover for service with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.
Hunt also happened to be an immensely talented author. When his debut novel, East of Farewell, was published in 1942, the New York Times hailed it as the “best sea story of the war.” He went on to become a popular spy novelist, and, eventually, his life began to mirror those of his fictional characters. In 1947, he joined the CIA’s covert Office of Policy Coordination. The OPC later became the CIA’s infamous Special Activities Division.
Woody Harrelson as E. Howard Hunt. Photo by Phil Caruso, courtesy of HBO.
While working for the OPC, Hunt served as CIA station chief in both Mexico City and Uruguay. In that role, he was instrumental in the CIA’s clandestine efforts to reshape the political landscape of Latin America. His achievements included helping orchestrate the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Àrbenz. He was also tasked with building the Cuban administration that would have replaced Fidel Castro had the Bay of Pigs invasion been a success.
The Bay of Pigs debacle caused Hunt’s relationship with the White House to sour. He was openly critical of President John F. Kennedy’s handling of the situation — so critical, in fact, that he would later be accused by conspiracy theorists of playing a role in the president’s assassination. As evidence, some theorists point to a photograph taken of three individuals near the Texas School Book Depository on the day of the killing, which they claim depicts Hunt and two other CIA operatives disguised as homeless men. Another point of intrigue is the fact that Hunt was stationed in Mexico at the same time Lee Harvey Oswald was living in the country.
Richard Nixon's official presidential photograph. Photo by Oliver Atkins, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 2007, Hunt’s sons, Howard St. John and David, claimed their father confessed to having been involved in Kennedy’s assassination while on his deathbed. According to them, Hunt implicated former President Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as a slew of former CIA operatives. Their claims have never been proven.
Liddy’s story is no less bizarre. Like Hunt, he served in the military prior to becoming involved in politics. He was an Army artillery officer during the Korean War but was never deployed overseas.
Liddy graduated from Fordham University with a law degree in 1957, but instead of becoming a lawyer, he joined the FBI. Initially, at least, he seemed perfectly suited for the life of a G-man. Early in his career, he arrested one of America’s most-wanted fugitives — Ernest Tait. Then, at age 29, he became the youngest bureau supervisor at FBI headquarters in Washington. His reputation and accomplishments eventually earned him a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s personal detail. He also became Hoover’s ghostwriter.
Justin Theroux as G. Gordon Liddy in White House Plumbers. Photo by Phil Caruso, courtesy of HBO.
Yet for all his successes in enforcing the law, Liddy also had a knack for breaking it. He was arrested by Kansas City police after botching a black bag operation. Then, later, he got caught running an illegal background check on his future wife, Frances Purcell. Such shenanigans made Liddy unpopular with his FBI coworkers, as did his unnerving habit of describing how to kill people with a pencil. He left the agency after just five years of service.
Liddy’s propensity for erratic behavior didn’t subside after the FBI. In 1966, while serving as a New York City prosecutor, he fired a gun into the ceiling of a courtroom. He also caught, killed, and ate a rat in order to overcome his fear of rodents. To overcome his fear of lightning, he once sat at the top of a tall tree for the duration of a thunderstorm. Yet, despite these odd episodes, he remained on track professionally. After unsuccessful campaigns for district attorney and the House of Representatives, he managed to get a job with the Department of Treasury.
A photo of the Watergate Complex taken from a DC-9-80 inbound to Washington National Airport on Jan. 8, 2006. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
While at the Department of Treasury, Liddy helped establish the Air Marshal program. Then, in 1972, he joined Nixon’s staff and assumed charge of the president’s “plumbers.” Liddy’s original vision for the unit went beyond wiretapping. He advocated for extreme measures to silence the administration’s critics, such as kidnapping and shipping anti-war protesters to Mexico. He also proposed a plan to trick Democratic campaign members into boarding a boat in Miami and taking photographs of them with prostitutes, which could then be used for blackmail. According to his 1980 memoir, Will, he even offered to kill investigative reporter Jack Anderson for criticizing Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War.
Before the plot to kill Anderson was put into motion, Liddy and Hunt were arrested for their roles in the Watergate Scandal. The plumbers were found guilty of conspiracy, burglary, and illegal wiretapping. A two-year investigation revealed Nixon’s involvement in the scandal. The president was impeached, and resigned soon after.
Liddy and Hunt went to jail. Liddy served four and a half years in a low-security prison in Connecticut and was released in 1977, after President Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence. Hunt served less than three years.
Liddy and Hunt were both arrested for their roles in the Watergate scandal. Photo by Phil Caruso, courtesy of HBO.
After his release, Hunt moved to Mexico with his second wife. They lived there for several years before returning to the United States. He spent the rest of his days in Florida doing his best to avoid the spotlight. He died at age 88.
Liddy did the opposite. As an ex-con, he sought to capitalize on his infamy. He hosted a popular right-wing radio show from 1992 to 2012, and also enjoyed a small career as an actor, starring in several films and television shows. He appeared on WrestleMania and was a contestant on Fear Factor. He was 90 years old when he died in 2021.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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