Novelist Thomas Mallon puts fictional flesh on ‘Watergate’ bones

On Election Day in 1960, Thomas Mallon, who had just turned 9, proudly wore a Nixon/Lodge button — “Experience Counts!” — and was devastated when the presidency went to John F. Kennedy. During Richard Nixon’s re-bid for the White House in 1968, the 16-year-old Mallon experienced one of the greatest thrills of his life when he shook hands with the future president and first lady as they sat in an open car while campaigning on Long Island. Two years after that, as a freshman at Brown University, Mallon was still a Nixon man, voting against a student strike in response to the administration’s bombing of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings.

“I was much more conservative than my peers, so I was all for Nixon,” recalls Mallon, 60, now one of America’s leading historical novelists and director of the creative writing program at George Washington University. “His Vietnamization plan for winding down the war I thought was reasonable. But I felt woefully tested by the Cambodian campaign, and as time went on, even before Watergate, he made it very hard to be a supporter. But I always felt an oddly intimate involvement with him, because he always intrigued me on a personal level. He was the central public figure of my life.”

(William Bodenschatz/William Bodenschatz) - Thomas Mallon will appear at the National Press Club on March 2, and give a reading/book signing at Politics & Prose, 5015Connecticut Ave. NW, at 6 p.m. March 3.

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It was destiny, then, that Mallon would eventually write “Watergate” (Pantheon Books, $26.95), his kaleidoscopic new novel about the epoch-defining political scandal that brought down the flawed hero of his youth. The book, to be published Tuesday, puts fictional flesh on the bones of what we know about the gradual collapse of the Nixon administration after the bungled 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex. As a young man, Mallon watched with mounting dread as that debacle unfolded, and it haunts him still; a registered Republican to this day, he has a pang-producing view of the Watergate from his home in Foggy Bottom.

For the author — a former National Endowment for the Humanities executive whose seven previous novels include “Fellow Travelers” (2007), about a male couple in Washington during the McCarthy era, and “Dewey Defeats Truman” (1996) — fictionalizing the Watergate scandal involved several added levels of risk, including the fact that it’s still relatively recent. A number of its major and minor players are still alive. (Mallon even knew the late Howard Hunt, with whom he struck up an acquaintance several years ago after they met at a party.)

“The further back in history you go, the less the ordinary reader knows about the period, and the more remote everything is emotionally and morally, so as a novelist you can’t really do much damage,” Mallon says. “But anybody who’s 50 or older can’t be without an opinion of Richard Nixon.”

Still, in “Watergate”— dedicated to the critic and essayist Christopher Hitchens, who before his death in December pronounced the book “a splendid evocation of Washington”— the gang’s all here: Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, Chuck Colson and Jeb Magruder, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, John Dean and Elliot Richardson, John and Martha Mitchell. Several figures associated with this newspaper, including Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, make brief but memorable (and sometimes scabrous) appearances.

Mallon also elevates some less-remembered figures to fresh prominence, including Fred LaRue, deputy director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President; the D.C. dowager Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and widow of a former speaker of the House; and Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s executive assistant.

As he explains in a postscript, Mallon operates along “the always sliding scale of historical fiction,” which in his case means departing as minimally as possible from the historical record. When the author does imagine conversations or orchestrates plot developments, he never does so “counterfactually,” as he puts it, which is to say that such inventions must be generally in harmony with what’s known to be true. Still, he reserves the right to make things up.

“Nouns trump adjectives, and in the phrase ‘historical fiction,’ it’s important to remember which is which,” Mallon says. “Sometimes people tell me, ‘Oh, I learned so much history from your book,’ and I always think, ‘Oh, be careful.’ I tend to be more on the conservative side of historical fiction, but I don’t ever really abandon my license as a creative artist. The imaginative labors of the book were, in the end, more intensive than the research.”

Mallon’s juicy portrait of Woods — who claimed to be inadvertently responsible for the infamous 181 / 2-minute gap in a White House audiotape — best illustrates the author’s strategy of filling in gaps: applying complex layers of personality, motivation and foible to the stick figures from the headlines. An intensely private figure in life (she died in 2005), Woods is reanimated in “Watergate” as fiercely protective and even possessive of the man she had served for 17 years before he won the White House.

She’s also bitterly, at times wickedly, resentful of many of the president’s men. These include Haldeman (“HRH,” as she and her undersecretaries mock the chief of staff behind his back), who had usurped what she regarded as her rightful place as the president’s principal gatekeeper, and “all these good-looking dumb-bunnies like Magruder,” who provided Nixon “with a whole new cloud of insulation, like those little Styrofoam peanuts Rose’s mail-order knickknacks came packed in.” (Magruder is also the butt of several other mean-spirited jokes. “Jeb will just be mad he wasn’t out on the Sequoia with you,” Colson tells Nixon at one point. “He’s like a doll without batteries when he’s not wearing his White House cuff links.”)

Pat Nixon, that most wan and withdrawn of presidential wives in the national memory, is similarly filled out by the author, who posits her as a vivacious, even outgoing woman whose seeming introversion in public was a self-protective mask. “Although she was a nervous person, a chain smoker who didn’t like politics, there’s evidence in the historical record that she was a warmer person than we tend to think,” Mallon says. “I think it’s also likely that the Nixon marriage was warmer than is often thought.” Even so, his Pat Nixon harbors a secret passion; in a rare and risky side trip from the aforementioned historical record, the author gives her an extramarital affair.

Crouching at the center of the novel’s intricate web is Nixon himself, who receives a carefully nuanced treatment as a man whose darkest impulses were rendered all the more tragic by his capacity for greatness. “There’s a story about Nixon that as a child he got a briefcase for Christmas and was happy about it,” Mallon says with a hint of wonder. “There was always that striver aspect of Nixon, and it never went away, even at the end. If he’s going to be of any interest to a novelist, of course, it’s not going to be as a pasteboard villain who twirls his mustache and ties his victim to the railroad tracks. He’s a combination of positive and negative qualities — the good and the bad and the coexistence of those things.”

In one of the book’s most poignant (and obviously fictional) moments, Mallon shows Nixon staring out of a window at Bethesda Naval Hospital and deciding, finally, that he lacks the courage to destroy the incriminating White House tapes because doing so might trigger impeachment proceedings. “With a surprising sadness,” Mallon writes, “he realized that he also lacked, at least for now, whatever strange bravery it would take to leap from the window.”

“One of the seeds of this book is that I’ve long wanted Tom to write something about Richard Nixon,” says Dan Frank, Mallon’s longtime editor at Pantheon. “We share a perspective of Nixon as a tragic figure, a man with a great number of faults but in many ways a brilliant politician, foresighted in both domestic and foreign policy. I think Tom saw this as an opportunity to move beyond partisan views of Nixon and try to tell the story from a more humanistic perspective, rather than from ideological bias or whether it was Democrats pursuing Republicans or whatever.”

Of course, as Mallon points out, he’s not the first writer to present Nixon as a complicated figure. “I doubt the reaction to the book will break down very clearly along party lines,” he says. “On the other hand, obviously the true believers in Nixon are not going to be happy.”

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