That’s nowhere more evident than in the novel’s discerning portrayal of Richard Nixon, who limps through these pages with his eyes fixed on the future. Baffled by the animus of his critics, pained to hurt anyone’s feelings, and haunted by the ghost of his dead brother, the president struggles to maintain his “madly dissociative smile” while hoping that the transcripts of his genius eventually place him in the pantheon of American leaders. It’s a brilliant presentation, subtle and sympathetic but spiked with satire that captures the man in all his crippling self-consciousness, his boundless capacity for self-pity and re-invention. Clinging to “the power of Dr. Peale’s positive thinking,” he sometimes sees himself as Christ crucified, sometimes as Eichmann in a glass cage. Mallon peers deep into “this darkest of dark horses, this misanthrope in a flesh-presser’s profession, able to succeed from cunning and a talent for denying reality at close range.” By the end, this Nixon is no Macbeth; he’s more King Lear, penniless and raving on the wild heath of political disgrace.
But no matter how perceptive his portrayal of Nixon, LaRue, Howard Hunt or Elliot Richardson, to a great extent Mallon has turned the story of Watergate into a story of the women involved. Nowhere is he more discerning than in his depiction of Martha Mitchell, the erratic wife of the attorney general; Rose Mary Woods, the president’s ferociously loyal secretary; and Dorothy Hunt, who blackmails the “plumbers” while her husband mingles old stories of his CIA days with plots for his spy novels. They’re all captivatingly powerful “gals,” trapped in their own chauvinistic ideals, fighting to defend their men past all reason. Pat Nixon, especially, becomes the novel’s tragic heroine. She’s exhausted by the struggles of politics, disgusted by journalists’ casual meanness, desperate for a life of kindness and romance she once briefly enjoyed.