As we approach the 40th anniversary of the third-rate burglary that launched the greatest of all American political scandals, it is worth remembering the sheer human breadth of Watergate. Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra shenanigans and Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky certainly had their notable characters, but they were one-act chamber pieces compared with the full-blown Shakespearean spectacle that took place in Washington in the early 1970s. From hunted, haunted King Richard to villains like G. Gordon Liddy to court jesters like Bebe Rebozo, it was a scandal that encompassed just about every human type.
It is therefore fitting that Thomas Mallon’s remarkable novel of the scandal is told from multiple points of view, mostly those of players who are now footnotes in the history books. There is Fred LaRue, the political operative who served as bag man during the long cover-up, and Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon’s secretary whose erasure of 18½ minutes of Oval Office tape shot her briefly to notoriety. Even someone as apparently marginal as the aged Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy’s daughter and Nixon's most unexpected confidante, is given unforgettable voice.
A few central players are also given their turn on stage, such as E. Howard Hunt, the novelist-turned-CIA-agent-turned-two-bit-burglar. Mallon poignantly dramatizes the inner life of woebegone Pat Nixon, namely her quasi-adulterous dalliance with a handsome New York lawyer. By book’s end, the reader will feel that no bit of testimony has been left out of the record.
There is more at work here than sheer narrative volume, however. The novel’s true brilliance rests upon Mallon’s ability to weave Watergate’s oft-told events into a moral tapestry that feels wholly new. Every public thread seems to be tugged by a private hand. Woods’s infamous erasure stems not from a desire to cover up the scandal, but rather to expunge a personally embarrassing reference to her. Elliot Richardson, the Boston Brahmin who became one of Watergate’s heroes when he resigned as attorney-general rather than carry out Nixon’s orders, proves to have motives that are not entirely selfless.
Hunt’s efforts to extract hush money from the Republican establishment leads to an appalling personal tragedy when he has his loyal wife carry a satchel of cash onto a flight that then crashes into a Chicago suburb. And attorney-general John Mitchell’s inability to stop the insane machinations of Liddy and his “plumbers” stems from his preoccupation with his alcoholic, uncontrollable wife, Martha.
The biggest secret of all belongs to LaRue, who may have inadvertently set the whole butterfly effect of scandal in motion by drunkenly confessing a painful incident from his past to another White House denizen. In Mallon’s universe, the personal is the political, and they can both drag you into the abyss.
Despite the attention lavished on lesser characters, the most memorable persona in Watergate is Nixon himself. Although the subject of fictional treatments by artists ranging from Robert Coover to Robert Altman, it is difficult to remember a more penetrating – or sympathetic – treatment of “this darkest of dark horses, this misanthrope in a flesh-presser’s profession, able to succeed from cunning and from a talent for denying reality at close range.”
Here, Nixon proves less a Machiavellian schemer than a blinkered, resentful outsider made careless by power and good luck. One curious side effect of the book is to remind the reader just how progressive many of his policies were, from his stewardship of the environment to his “opening” of communist China. “What really changes the world,” he realizes at one point, “is Tory men with liberal ideas. Churchill had been one of those, and so is he.”
Mallon’s coup is to show us how the smallest of differences – one less drink, one more cautionary word – just might have meant that Nixon’s legacy became that of a world historical leader, and not a petty crook.
Stephen Amidon’s history of the athlete, Something Like the Gods, will be published in June.
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