Thomas Mallon's historical novel, Watergate, is now out in paperback, so I'm re-posting my review from last June.
His mother was a saint. About to be former President Richard M. Nixon delivering his farewell address to his staff, August 9, 1974. His daughter Julie and her husband David Eisenhower are to his immediate right. His wife Pat and his other daughter Tricia and her husband Ed Cox are far off to his left. Author Thomas Mallon has put that large empty space between Nixon and his wife to symbolic and psychological work in his novel Watergate.
In his compelling, believable, and surprisingly romantic and tender-hearted new novel, Watergate, Thomas Mallon tells the story of how that third-rate burglary led to the resignation of the 37th President of the United States through the eyes of characters who can't tell us what is going on. His main male characters are too distracted and his main female characters have no direct involvement with the break-in, the cover-up, or the political machinations and investigations that follow. The news comes to them as it did to the country, in snatches and echoes. They have pieces of a puzzle they each avoid putting together. None of the three wants to know the truth about the man they are devoted to, Richard M. Nixon.
The historical events we know as Watergate make their way into their thoughts like week old news from far away cities, registering but not immediately affecting their thinking or their feelings. The unfolding truth hangs at the backs of their minds, nagging at them from there, sometimes consciously ignored but unconsciously directing their decisions, sometimes dealt with intellectually but then having no influence on their actions---they pursue their own courses in spite of what they know is happening around them.
This is a useful narrative strategy. No one at the Committee to Re-Elect or at the Washington Post or in the Special Prosecutor’s office or on the Senate Watergate Committee was paying much attention to Nixon’s wife, his secretary Rose Mary Woods, or his friend and surrogate mother-figure, Alice Longworth, the eighty-nine year old daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. This allows Mallon to tell his story through moments that if they did occur were not taped, televised, or written into diaries, official records, trial transcripts, or reporters' notebooks. It's not just that there are things that can't be checked against the historical record. They can't be checked against the most comprehensive and obsessive memory. If you’re old enough and had been paying attention at the time, you'll be surprised by how much you do remember. There's enough Watergate lore, important and trivia pursuit level, to jog memories loose. But still things are done, things are said that won’t prompt a That didn’t happen or a That couldn’t have happened as much as an Is that made up or did I just forget about it?
So Mallon has given himself lots of room to make things up, to invent dialog, to read minds and attribute thoughts and motivations, to fiddle with chronologies and leave out narratively inconvenient facts, to “see” things that probably weren’t there and not bother with things that were, and imagine scenes and situations and even create and insert wholly fictional characters, some with invented names and backstories but many with the names and biographies of real people. And among the things he’s made up are a plausibly mundane explanation for the infamous eighteen and a half minute gap and a lover for Mrs Nixon.
You read that right.
Mallon has Pat cheating on Dick.
He leaves open the possibility that the affair was purely platonic and it’s been over for several years when the book begins but it's clear that it was deeply romantic and that Pat was and still is in love.
Ok. First the men:
Fred LaRue, a lawyer and consultant at the Committee to Re-Elect and the bagman who delivered bribe money to the Watergate burglars after they were caught to keep them quiet, is distracted by personal and romantic problems and, anyway, his voluntary and unofficial position and duties at the CREP are so nebulous that no one not even himself knows just what he’s supposed to be doing there and in fact his nominal bosses often seemed to forget about him for long stretches of time. When they remembered him, they didn’t tell him things because they assumed he already knew them. When the cover-up starts collapsing and the indictments start coming down, he's left half looking forward to being hauled in by the prosecutors so he can figure out from their questions where he fits into the whole scheme.
Howard Hunt, the former CIA agent turned novelist turned Plumber who supervised the break-in, is a romantic and a fabulist who starts off having a hard time distinguishing between his real life and the fantasy life he's concocted for himself in his spy novels and is then unhinged by a personal tragedy.
And Elliott Richardson, the Attorney General who was lionized for resigning rather than firing Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, although he has a pretty good idea of what happened and just how deep into it the President is, doesn’t let himself think much about the details. He’s focused on how he can use events to advance his career, which he sees as leading him to the Republican nomination for President in 1976.
It’s one of Mallon’s dark jokes that the man who came out of the scandal with a shining reputation for honesty and probity is an even more cynical and calculating political animal than Richard Nixon himself.
Which brings us to Nixon.
One of the things Mallon does not invent is an answer to the question What did the President know and when did he know it?
The only person who could ever have answered that was Nixon and he was never going to do that and his fictional counterpart doesn’t do it here.
Throughout Watergate, Nixon is always seen in company with people he can't confide in or alone where he refuses to confide in himself---he won't let himself think honestly about what happened. He deflects, rationalizes, explains things away, rehearsing in his head the story he wants everyone else to believe and testing it by how completely he can sell it to himself. With Mallon's Nixon, his first dupe is always himself.
The women are more clear-eyed and able to be more honest with themselves and about themselves. To a point. The point being where too much honesty would break their hearts.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth is the most clear-eyed and the expression brutally frank may have been coined with her in mind. But she's removed from key events by her age and by being only a friend of the Nixons, although a friend who can make quasi-secret visits to the White House whenever she likes and feels up to it. But her affection for Nixon is based on what he did to help her with a family tragedy almost twenty years ago that she still can't bear to think about. She knows he's in trouble. She has a pretty good idea of how he got himself in that trouble. She knows him well enough to guess how he's likely making it worse for himself. I don’t mean she knows the specific details of the dirty tricks and the step by step path of the cover up. But she knows how his mind works and understands that self- destruction is wired into him. She has what it takes to figure it all out for herself (and therefore for the readers of the novel) just from what she sees on television or reads in the papers or overhears at dinner parties. The trouble is that if she lets herself think about Nixon too long she ends up having to thing about what happened back then and she's determined to avoid that.
And she's old. She tires out quickly. And while she's far from senile, her mind isn't as sharp as it used to be. When she lets her thoughts turn towards the past, they often turn towards the very distant past, and the President she winds up thinking about, when it's not her cousin Eleanor's husband, is her father.
Rose Woods decided a long time ago that she was going to accommodate certain aspects of her boss' personality and ignore what she couldn't accommodate, which is how she manages not to blame him for hiring people she can’t stand, like H.R. Haldeman, who were clearly hired for the reasons she can’t stand them. It’s also how she can transcribe the tapes without actually hearing what's on them or, more to the point, hearing what they reveal about Richard Nixon.
Rose is a great character, a tough cookie and a creampuff, a realist and a romantic, nobody's fool but her own, with a passion for dancing and a longstanding habit of attaching herself to unobtainable men, of which her boss is only the most obvious. Rose lost the love of her life in World War II but she has steadfastly remained faithful to his memory not by perpetual morning but by searching out and then embracing, cheerfully and vivaciously, pieces of her understandably idealized fallen soldier in those unobtainable men. For instance, she is smitten by Alexander Haig the second he comes on the scene as Haldeman's replacement as chief of staff because he’s the kind of career officer and gentleman she imagines her lost Billy would have been had he survived the war. She doesn't delude herself into thinking that any of these men are Billy or could qualify as his replacement. She has just found a way to continue to love him by loving the pieces of him she finds in these men.
But this means she tends to see men in pieces. And that goes for her boss. She doesn’t see what’s right before her eyes because she only sees the pieces of him that are like Billy, which means she only sees the best in him. And not seeing the worst in him or even what's just not the best means not seeing Watergate for what it was, the ultimate expression of Nixon's instinct for self-destruction. She thinks of the scandal as something being done to him and not something he might have brought on himself.
Pat Nixon has carefully and determinedly created spaces, psychological and physical, into which she can retreat and politics cant follow her. And she expects---needs---her husband to respect those spaces and to know when not leave her alone inside them and to not bring politics in with him when he does enter. Of course Nixon being Nixon, one of Pat's great frustrations is that he keeps forgetting what's expected of him. He's constantly blundering in when he's not wanted and dragging politics in with him.
Pat has another reason for maintaining these spaces besides as refuges for her peace of mind. Within them she can protect her memories of one of the happiest times in her life, the years in New York City before Nixon became President and she was having that affair with a lawyer who numbered among his attractions being entirely without political ambitions. She also needs the spaces to keep open the possibility of reviving the affair.
Pat's affair is the most effective, affecting, and believable part of the novel. Not believable in the limited and literal sense of being something that might actually have happened. Believable in the sense that it feels true to life while you're reading it. The real Pat Nixon didn’t do this but this woman if she was real would have and would have felt and thought the same way. Pat's affair is the big reminder that Watergate is fiction, both by calling attention to the fact that Mallon has license to invent and to the skill by which the invention is accomplished---history, even the best narrative type, can’t be as well written.
Seeing Pat Nixon as a woman in love means seeing her as someone different than the stiff, pinched, and worrisomely too thin figure in the now very old photographs and news clips. It means seeing her as a character and that means seeing her the way we tend to see characters in books, which for most readers is as looking like people they know from real life or movies and television. I saw her looking like Michelle Pfeiffer, believe it or not. Pfeiffer’'s getting to be the right age and with a well-sprayed bouffant and a good Republican cloth coat...
I also saw Tom Hanks as Nixon.
The point is not to see them as the real Nixons, because they aren't and aren't meant to be.
They are Nixons that might have been.
As I said, Mallon’s decision to tell the story of Watergate through the eyes of people who don’t know the whole story because they weren’t really part of it is useful to him as a storyteller because he’s free---free-er---to make things up. But it’s good for us as readers because it keeps Watergate from turning into a political melodrama and from being a too historical a historical novel. Shades of Alan Drury and Gore Vidal cross the page throughout Watergate, but Mallon doesn’t share Drury's and Vidal's romantized and aggrandizing views of politics or politicians. Mallon gives us ordinary human beings to care about instead of heroes and villains to root for or against.
Norman Rockwell painted the history out of Nixon by not showing the qualities that made Nixon his own worst enemy. He painted Nixon as he might have been, if he’d been a happier, more contented, more secure man, or as he might have been on his best days when all his demons were safely at bay.
Mallon doesn't paint all the history out of Nixon to create his Nixon. He leaves out the meanness or, rather, doesn’t bring it on stage. We never see this RN at a Nixonian worst. We do however see him at his weakest and it's a very Nixonian weakest and as with the real Nixon almost more unattractive than his worst. The way Mallon's Nixon is most like the real Nixon is in his bottomless capacity for self -pity. But what we also see is how this Nixon might have been on his best days and how he might have enough best days that people who were close to him would believe that the real Nixon was that Nixon and therefore be inclined to ignore or forgive him at his worst and indulge him at his weakest. This is a Nixon you can easily imagine good people loving.
There's a limit to the inventing Mallon can do and stay within the bounds of the kind of realistic and broadly accurate historical fiction he’s made his reputation writing. He can’t change any of his main characters’ fates. We know that Pat Nixon didn’t leave her husband for another man. We know Rosemary Woods didn’t quit. There wasn't much Alice Longworth could have done that would have made its way into the history books, unless she turned out to be Deep Throat and Mallon never raises that possibility as even a joke. But that doesn’t mean Watergate isn’t suspenseful.
The suspense is provided in two ways. The first is by Mallon's trick of keeping the big historical events offstage from where they can act as reminders of what it was like as the story unfolded and nobody knew how bad things would be or how they would end---a remembered suspense. The other is by making us take these characters so much to heart that we worry about how they will deal with their disappointment and heartbreak when they finally learn the truth about what kind of man they've devoted themselves to and dread the moment when they learn it.
Mallon has us almost rooting for Nixon to get away with it, even hoping that he didn't do it, in order to have these good women's feelings spared.
Photo courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library via Wikipedia.