Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly suggested that Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) is a character in the book. He is not. This version has been updated.
Early in Thomas Mallon’s new novel about the Watergate scandal, President Nixon’s secretary wonders when her boss will get his own marble temple on the Mall. It’s the sort of arresting moment of naivete that frequently punctuates this witty, surprisingly humane dramatization of that vaudevillian chapter in American politics.
Four decades have passed since five bungling burglars were arrested in the Democratic National Committee headquarters, indelibly contaminating a posh commercial-residential complex with the stink of our nation’s most bizarre political ordeal. Many of the participants have served their time (in prison and on television), written their best-selling memoirs, and passed into those great 181 / 2 minutes of oblivion. After Irangate, Whitewatergate, Monicagate and even Nipplegate, the scandal-infused suffix gets tossed around now by people who weren’t even born when the sweaty president looked into the TV cameras and claimed, “I’m not a crook.”
The time is right, then, for a novelist to bring us together again, and perhaps no one is better equipped than this Washington-based writer who has blended political history and speculation so effectively in such books as “Dewey Defeats Truman,” “Henry and Clara” and “Fellow Travelers.” Running up and down what he calls “the always sliding scale of historical fiction,” Mallon entices us back to those frenzied pre-Internet days of the Dictabelt, the smoking gun, the hush money, the Saturday Night Massacre, the Enemies List, Deep Throat, CREEP and “expletive deleted” — the whole, labyrinthine episode that newly sworn-in President Gerald Ford too expansively characterized as “an American tragedy in which we all have played a part.”
While staying close to the chronology of events, Mallon distinguishes his story from the library of books that have come before by shaping “Watergate” in his own inimitable way. Nixon’s the one, of course, and all the spiteful principals are here, too, caught by the author’s delectable humor, from H.R. Haldeman, “the castle’s ogre,” to Chuck Colson, “a kind of mad relative who needed to be kept out of sight.” But Mallon has rotated the cast of characters, pulling some stars out of the limelight and raising others into new prominence. Henry Kissinger just creeps around the edges of the story, “underlining his every offhand insight with some guttural profundity or toadying compliment.” Although you might expect G. Gordon Liddy to be the zany court jester in a comedy about Watergate, he’s mostly offstage here. And those of us suckled on the legend of Woodward and Bernstein will be surprised to find The Washington Post — “Kay’s rag” — reduced to a little footnote in this version of the tale.
Instead, Mallon’s “Watergate” places presidential aide Fred LaRue, “the bagman,” at the center, not as the instigator but as the troubled conscience of the novel. A wealthy, unflappably gracious Mississippi oilman, LaRue is the story’s Nick Carraway, always within and without. He conspires to protect the president even as he hopes to save his own soul, haunted because he shot his father during a hunting trip in Canada years earlier. History, Mallon suggests, is not a clash of titans but just the magnified effects of ordinary people’s secret longings and fears.
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.
And all these women are outshone by Mallon’s hilarious resurrection of Alice Longworth, the sharp-tongued daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, “a creature of motiveless mischief” whose needlepoint pillow admonishes guests, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” (Indeed, Longworth’s astringent tone flavors the narrative as a whole. Like the “old crone,” Mallon can deliver fatal shots to the base of the ego with just a single phrase.) Pulling generously from the record of Longworth’s quips and put-downs, the author uses her as an ironic gargoyle in a wide-brimmed hat peering down from Dupont Circle on the capital’s parade of vanity and intrigue. No one escapes her tongue. Florida Sen. Edward Gurney looks like “a tennis pro who had just retired to become the hotel gigolo.” In the wake of two prominent senators’ respective scandals — Chappaquiddick and psychotherapy — she dubs Ted Kennedy and Thomas Eagleton “Waterproof and Shockproof.” At Art Buchwald’s birthday party, she greets the popular humorist by saying, “If I’d ever read your column, I’d quote you a line or two from it.”
The novel expands creatively on Longworth’s friendship with Nixon and imagines him as her “kindred spirit,” the two of them sharing some of the story’s most poignant moments. Scores of people were eventually convicted, but “the little cloak and dagger foolishness of Watergate” doesn’t impress Longworth much; she remembers real crises, when “legless Civil War veterans [were] begging in the streets.” That long-range historical perspective combined with her acidic wit conveys the novel’s implicit argument that there’s something absurd about a country as freighted with responsibilities and challenges as ours tearing itself apart over this cheap crime.
But despite the investigative evidence available, Mallon’s reconstruction of events defuses blame — not to excuse anyone in particular but to convey the mad chaos that sweeps up all the president’s men. No matter how Machiavellian Haldeman pretends to be, there is no master plot, no puppeteer, no grand scheme behind all these shenanigans. In the constantly shifting perspectives of “Watergate,” we can see that no one knows where the idea for the break-in came from — Liddy? Jeb Magruder? One of Hunt’s spy thrillers? The coverup isn’t a conspiracy so much as a farce of misdirection and self-delusion, as everyone jockeys in the dark for advancement or plea bargains or book deals or positions in the next administration.
But beware: This novel is strictly BYOW (Bring Your Own Wikipedia). Unless you actually participated in the break-in, “Watergate” will challenge your memory of those internecine months before the president resigned. The author of seven previous novels, Mallon has never before taken on a subject so voluminously over-documented, and he expects his readers to have bloodied their fingertips in the archives. He has no more use for exposition than Haldeman had for alcohol (and if you don’t get that joke, consider yourself warned). Political references and allusions fall from these pages as thickly as confetti at the Republican convention; catch them if you can. Even by Washington standards, this is the name-droppiest novel I’ve ever read — like having lunch at Charlie Palmer’s with the most ambitious congressional aide in the District. The advent of e-readers will make it easy for Washington’s elder elite to search for themselves in these chapters, and Mallon may find himself on several new Enemies Lists. (He certainly won’t be getting Christmas cards from Patrick Buchanan or the senior George Bush.)
His decision to focus so intensely on the interior story of the Watergate participants saves Mallon the trouble of retelling the history that’s been told (and lied about) before. But it also produces a novel that’s daringly undramatic. Essentially everything here happens off-stage, from the break-in all the way to — spoiler alert! — the pardon. There’s no drama from the Senate hearings, no journalistic derring-do. The book remains compelling only because Mallon writes with such wit and psychological acuity as he spins this carousel of characters caught in a scandal that’s constantly fracturing into new crises.
Indeed, despite the country-shaking events constantly breaking in the background, this remains a novel of conversation and introspection, the dark fears of the famous and the humble. Mallon captures all the strange people who “made the Watergate a whole damned world unto itself,” but he also makes that world seem very small. It’s a dramatic reminder that, as Tip O’Neill was fond of saying, all politics is local.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Thomas Mallon
432 pp. $26.95