There’s a certain Dickensian quality to Thomas Mallon’s always inventive novel, Watergate: a large cast of characters from widely different backgrounds and classes, some tragic, others comic; varied back stories and tag-lines (mostly personality quirks); a carefully plotted narrative that brings most of the main characters back into the story after many years for a curtain call. The rub, of course, is that except for some minor characters, totally invented by the author, the others are based on real historical figures—or so they seem today, decades later, after events that began in 1972. I suspect that those of us who lived through the incidents depicted will have a significantly different reaction to Watergate than those born afterwards, though both groups of readers will find the story mesmerizing, difficult to put aside, in true Dickensian form.
One example will suffice: the Saturday Night Massacre, October 20, 1973. When Archibald Cox refused to accept summaries of the disputed tape recordings, Nixon ordered Elliot Richardson, the Attorney General, to fire special prosecutor Cox. Richardson (according to Mallon) had apparently agreed but then quickly reneged, and resigned instead. So did William D. Ruckelshaus, his first deputy. The department’s number three man implemented the firing. Mallon writes, “Then the rumors arrived: that the FBI had gone to the special prosecutor’s office on K Street—perhaps to seize files; perhaps to protect them. Or the files [what Cox already had on Nixon] had already been hidden by the special prosecutor’s staff, who—rumor also had it—were rushing from their homes to the office.”
Richardson’s refusal to fire Cox and his resignation were all over the news that evening. Those of us who worked in Washington knew that the city was rife with rumors. Nixon was going to suspend the constitution. Martial Law would be instigated—anything so that he could stay in office, as the wagons circled the White House. The news of Cox’s firing spread like wild fire through a party my wife and I were attending in the city that Saturday night. As we drove home hours later along Western Avenue (the street that separates the District of Columbia from Maryland) and approached Connecticut Avenue (which passes near the White House several miles further into the city), police cars blocked entry to the city on that major route. Driving the rest of the way home, we were convinced that Nixon had, indeed, hijacked the constitution and the country was doomed.
My point is that if Nixon and his cronies who implemented the Watergate burglary were paranoid that others were out to get them, so were many of us who lived and worked in Washington during those crazy days. Later, when Woodward and Bernstein were reporting on the White House’s dastardly duties, most of us were incredulous. How much longer was it going to take to cut this cancer out of the country politic? Stuff for a novel, a very good novel, like Thomas Mallon’s.
Mallon’s strength as a writer (he has published many other novels) is his characterization. And in Watergate, he is starting with known eccentric characters, fascinating characters. Although he chooses to give little space to G. Gordon Liddy (a true whacko) and Chuck Colson (who later retreated into religion)—these men who were the chief instigators of the botched Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Party)—there are plenty of others to give us a wild train ride of a story, including, Howard Hunt, Rosemary Woods, Fred LaRue, Elliot Richardson, both Dick and Pat Nixon, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Alice (Teddy Roosevelt’s granddaughter, who celebrates her 90th birthday during the course of the story), depicted as a woman who had great fondness for both Dick and Pat, has one of the best lines in the novel. In the
midst of the Saturday Night Massacre, she scribbles on a piece of paper for her nephew, the journalist Joseph Alsop, “The clock is dick-dick-dicking.” Which is to say that there is plenty of comic relief in Watergate—especially Alice but also Martha Mitchell, drunk most of the time but still quick-witted and an embarrassment for her husband, formerly the Attorney General.
We are in the minds of all of these people in a narrative that is almost always convincing. That means that Nixon himself talks in profanities (the tapes revealed all of that to a shocked nation). Or, more frequently, his self-pity, such as the following passage at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, in August of 1972, a couple of months after the Watergate break in is public knowledge, when the President is walking to the podium to accept his party’s nomination:
“The president wipes his right eye. No, it isn’t nostalgia causing the tears; it’s the goddamned Vietnam Veterans against the War, who even now are only blocks away on Collins Avenue, provoking the cops into firing the occasional canister of gas. He’s seen the news clips; half of them seem to be in wheelchairs, which he bets they need about as much as he does. Colson doubts that most of them have even been in the army, let alone over to Vietnam. If the Secret Service had let them get any closer as he came into the hall, he’d have flashed them the ‘V’ sign, which drives them nuts whenever he uses it in the old Churchillian sense of victory instead of peace.”
In this novel of power and its colossal abuse Mallon gets it exactly right. Everyone’s posturing, everyone’s trying to protect has own ass. Most of the President’s Men (Mitchell, Colson, Hunt, LaRue, Dean, Haldeman, Agnew, Eirchlman, Haig) are rank amateurs, way over their heads and giddy with power. Ordinary men caught up in the deception of an unordinary situation. As most of them stumble and end up indicted and in jail, Nixon feels increasingly isolated, alone. And everyone else is out to get him.
Then there’s his faithful secretary of many years, Rose Woods, whom Mallon speculates intentionally erased the tapes—not to protect her boss, but because
she’s been drinking too much and believes that a remark of one of the participants presents her in an unflattering context. This is probably as reasonable an explanation as we will ever have, providing her (as a character) with her own sense of vulnerability, more than loyalty to the president. Ditto Fred LaRue—special advisor to the President—who is given a back story about his father’s death that humanizes him, even if the story may be heavy on its Freudian implications.
Finally, Nixon himself, the most loathed President in modern times. Almost at the end, in July of 1974, after he returns to the United States after still another important (few would deny this) international trip, still working tireously for international diplomacy, though this time in Pat’s point-of-view, “Part of her husband, she felt certain, had hoped he would die in Cairo—in a more heroic version of what could have happened at the naval hospital last summer. That time history might have said he’d been hounded to death by his enemies; this time, if he’d collapsed in the limousine inside the tornado of sound—the clot having traveled from his leg to his heart—history would be forced to say he’d died pursuing peace for the world.” Thoughts of a First Lady who winces at what she’d been called (Plastic Pat), yet is capable of her own private life and hidden resources for survival.
Is the world ready for a humanized Richard Nixon? Substitute the name of any more recent American politician you’ve been cursing. And then ask yourself why it is that, with politics, Americans so often pick losers.
By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 432 pp., $26.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature, American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.