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.
In a funny way, the most interesting thing about Watergate is that it is presented as a purely human drama, in which the characters all have a normal array of motives, goals, and emotions, far more personal than political. Glaringly absent is the overlay of hatred, vilification, and presumption of intent to upend the Constitution to support a war, along with all the other outsized evil fantasies of Nixon and his staff, as conjured by generations of liberals, activists, Yale Law School students, Weathermen, and folk singers. Mallon is sympathetic to his characters, including the smart, big-thinker president who remained awkward and socially insecure despite being elected twice by millions of his countrymen. Mallon shows the toll it took that no accomplishment in foreign or domestic policy kept the liberal establishment from showing their contempt for him.
As Pat dresses for the second inaugural, Dick is upset about the way the fashion press treats Pat. Always pretty, fashionably thin and dignified, she is considered — even in the most elegant of designer dresses — schoolmarmy, not glamorous, a judgment that makes Dick angry on her behalf. Similarly, there’s a moment of comic self-pity when Nixon contemplates why he is mocked for eating cottage cheese with ketchup for lunch, in his well-known effort to stay trim.
Since the plot mirrors the inexorable timeline, all of the surprises in this story are personal ones. Mallon does an exceptional job of fleshing out Pat Nixon’s character, getting beyond the clichés about her stoicism and plastic smiles. He shows her staunch supportiveness, and her impatience with her husband’s equivocation when he is unwilling to save himself. He weaves a captivating, not-implausible extramarital love affair into Pat’s New York years — with which a reader might easily sympathize.
For the first time ever, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s private secretary, comes off as a three-dimensional character. She too lives at the Watergate. She is as loyal as we think, but much fiercer. Her instincts are conservative, protective, and hardline — with enough ego to explain the famous 18.5-minute gap on the Oval Office tapes. Despite her status as an “old maid,” she always has a dashing escort. She despises H. R. Haldeman, and finds Al Haig comforting.
The legendary Alice Roosevelt Longworth makes an appearance as a friend, political sounding board, and grande dame living too long past her own era. She is dragged into currency by her nephew, Joe Alsop, a columnist sympathetic to Nixon. Mallon, a longtime Washingtonian, easily slips (non-fictional) gossip about the private lives of these figures into the narrative.
The only character who comes off less well in the novel than he did in life is Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who provides comic relief as a self-serving, priggish, pompous careerist. The too-often-sloshed Boston Brahmin seemed to accrue ever greater cabinet appointments, without actually accomplishing anything. Convinced he has a sure path to the presidency, the book’s Richardson is a world-class ass, whose blue-blooded, GOP-elite cachet Nixon was insecure enough to think he needed. Mallon seems to relish showing how being a hero to the New York Times carries a karmic backlash, when Richardson finally runs for office.
In the end, Watergate, the event, is a milestone that transforms the lives of the characters in Watergate, the novel. Catastrophic as it is politically, no one dies. The central actors go on to lead different, chastened, more thoughtful lives.
It is worth noting that Thomas Mallon’s uniquely humane take on the Nixon crew is undoubtedly related to the fact that he is that rare creature — a critically acclaimed fiction writer, and contributor to glossy magazines like GQ and The New Yorker, who is openly Republican. He calls himself “moderate, with a libertarian streak.” All of his previous books use real, if minor, historic figures, whose personal dramas were touched by larger historic events. Perhaps it is no surprise that it required a writer with GOP sympathies, who came of age during the Nixon years, to explore the human responses, personalities, and personal lives of the infamous cast of Watergate characters without layers of vitriol and contempt.
On balance, Watergate will leave a reader with the conviction that Watergate really was a “third-rate burglary” that was as substantively inconsequential as it was politically cataclysmic. Younger readers may wonder what, precisely, the hysteria was about. Those who did not experience the ferocity of the anti-Nixon media and culture will be forced to ask why he was so intensely and bitterly vilified and demonized.
– Lisa Schiffren is a writer living in New York.