With the centennial of Richard Nixon’s birth coming up in 2013, it is fitting that a reevaluation of the most reviled Republican president of the 20th century is under way. Conrad Black started this process a few years ago, with his biography, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. Mad Men, the smart TV drama set in the early 1960s, recently showed protagonist Don Draper, the quintessential self-made man, talking politics at a cocktail party. He’s for Nixon, Draper explains, because Nixon is a self-made man, as opposed to that rich brat, Kennedy. If there has been another positive reference to Nixon in prime time over the past 40 years, I missed it.
Now comes political novelist Thomas Mallon, with an oddly fascinating, fictionalized version of the scandal known as Watergate, to revise and refresh our recollection of the event, its protagonist, and the supporting characters. Its plot generally follows the events, locations, and time line of the actual scandal. Mallon has a subtle wit, and this imposition of his political novel over the historic record suggests, provocatively, that there won’t be much daylight between history and this fiction. That is a daring gambit, when the central event looms so large in the memories of the political class.
The story works because it is structured as a plausible version of the private stories and interior thoughts of the well-known Watergate ensemble. We watch life and work unfold under the shadow of the growing scandal at a personal level for the Nixons and some of their aides and friends.
In a leading role, which he did not occupy in the historic version, is Fred LaRue, the enigmatic heir to a Mississippi oil fortune, who worked without pay in the White House and at the Committee for the Re-election of the President, as an operative and fixer. Perhaps because LaRue was the least known of the original “plumbers,” eccentric and camera-shy, his enigmatic persona can bear the weight of a more fully fictionalized version. In Mallon’s hands he is smart, wounded, and sensitive, with a complicated personal life, and a dark secret that gets tangled up with the break-in. That he ran the racially divisive Southern Strategy, yet finds it funny that his boss, Attorney General John Mitchell, had been responsible for the largest integration efforts to date, is a deft touch.
The book opens with LaRue in his apartment at the Watergate Hotel. It is May 1972 and George Wallace has just been shot — and thus forced to leave the presidential race. LaRue knows this means that the election in the coming fall will be a cakewalk for Nixon, who is lucky enough to be facing weak, liberal George McGovern. Despite the inevitability of Nixon’s second term, downstairs at the Watergate Hotel, crazy ex-spook E. Howard Hunt leads a cast of third-rate operatives, many of whom were dumped by the CIA after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in the fruitless, bungled break-in at Democratic-party headquarters.
Without whitewashing the break-in, Mallon presents it as it might have been seen from the inside — a badly planned dirty trick. Nixon, a political pro, chooses to deny the break-in, as he believes his predecessor, LBJ, who played a rough political game, would have done. Mallon’s Nixon, like the man himself, is playing on a bigger stage. He is preoccupied with the Soviets, the Red Chinese, and the Middle East. He is well on his way toward ending the Vietnam War, though both he and Kissinger are aware that the North Vietnamese would roll right in when the U.S. departed. Over the course of the novel, Nixon maintains the greatest sense of denial about what toll this “third-rate break-in” will take, and how his enemies will use it, believing all along that the importance of his work will shield him from consequences the bloodthirsty liberal elite wants.
The “plumbers” themselves didn’t have that luxury. They’d been caught, and needed cash to pay legal bills and support families. Mallon depicts the awkwardness as high-end lawyers, who are in there to serve the nation, are dragged into the payoff logistics. LaRue was pretty smooth at it, dealing with Hunt, the squeaky wheel who kept demanding more, as panic set in about jail and his ability to support his children.