AUGUSTA – A bungled break-in nearly 29 years ago at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington has been back in the news, thanks to a defamation lawsuit against Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy.
The trial brought back more than old memories for Severin Beliveau.
In 1972, Beliveau was chairman of the Maine Democratic Party and president of the Democratic Party state chairmen’s association.
“The burglary occurred and three months later we learned that our telephone – the state chairs’ telephone – had in fact been tapped,” Beliveau says.
The Augusta lawyer’s role with the DNC at the time was resurrected recently when Beliveau went to Baltimore to testify at the Liddy trial.
“Our offices were located at the Watergate, in the DNC offices at the Watergate,” Beliveau recalls, referring to a Washington office building and luxury apartment complex. “And my office specifically was, like, three doors away from Larry O’Brien, who was then chairman of the party.”
In his post, Beliveau attended political strategy sessions and served on a DNC site selection committee for the convention in Florida that year.
Then 32, Beliveau knew Washington well from his years as an undergraduate and law student at Georgetown University. Politically, he had been promoting the candidacy of Maine’s Edmund Muskie for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.
Beliveau and other party strategists from the Northeast were continuing to push for Muskie, even after George McGovern began to gain an edge. There were three camps among Democratic Party chairmen, favoring Muskie, McGovern and Terry Sanford of North Carolina.
“And those were the discussions that were going on among the party chairs during that time period,” Beliveau said. “That’s what I testified to the other day.”
Beliveau delivered his testimony two weeks ago during the trial of a $5.1 million suit against Liddy, now a 70-year-old conservative radio talk show host. The suit was brought by Ida “Maxie” Wells, a former DNC secretary who worked with the state chairmen’s group.
At issue was a theory espoused by Liddy that the Watergate burglars were looking not for political intelligence, but instead for pictures of prostitutes.
Wells sued Liddy for publicly saying the burglars were searching her desk for a package of call-girl photos believed to include a picture of the future wife of John Dean, who served as a Nixon White House counsel.
Liddy, who did not testify during his 1973 trial and received the longest sentence of any of the Watergate break-in conspirators, said Dean organized the burglary to retrieve the photos.
John and Maureen Dean repeatedly have denied Liddy’s theory and sued him for libel. Their lawsuit was dismissed last year but can be refiled.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz dismissed the Wells suit after the jury could not reach a verdict.
Beliveau said Liddy’s theory is preposterous. Beliveau also remains an unreconstructed critic of Liddy’s one-time boss, Richard Nixon.
“We all knew that he would do whatever was necessary to be elected,” said Beliveau, still highly active in Democratic politics. “And it was all coming out about that time.”
Nonetheless, he added, even partisans most suspicious of the Republican president would be surprised by subsequent developments.
“I don’t think we recognized – or appreciated, I should say – the implications of the break-in, and how it would ultimately be instrumental in Nixon’s resignation, in bringing down his government,” Beliveau said.
Conceding now that Nixon’s re-election in 1972 would have been a foregone conclusion no matter whom the Democrats had put up, Beliveau maintains Muskie would have done better than McGovern, who won only one state.
“He would have carried probably, maybe, two states,” Beliveau joked, “but he would have carried Massachusetts and Maine.”