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.
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.