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Book review: “Watergate” by Thomas Mallon

Well, Thomas Mallon’s “Watergate” is certainly a readable novel.

It’s an amazement, really, that he’s been able to take the tottering heap of jagged historical events, involving scores of politicians and suchlike, and weave them into a narrative about the fall of Richard Nixon that flows smoothly, steadily, inexorably.

That flow continues even as the end approaches. When I’d pick up the book, I’d find myself right back into the middle of the story. The thing is, as the conclusion neared, I wasn’t in a rush to pick it up. I knew — as any reader would know — where Nixon’s story was heading. It sort of sapped the suspense.

Mallon works to keep the reader reading through the use of a couple subplots: What will happen between Pat Nixon and her fictional lover Tom Garahan? And what will Fred LaRue and his fictional lover Clarine “Larrie” Lander do about a missing envelope, marked with the handwritten word “MOOT” and containing an investigative report about the deepest question in LaRue’s life?

Only three of the book’s 100-plus characters aren’t from the historical record — Garahan, Lander and Billy Pope, a senatorial aide who has a minor walk-on. Yet, in the architecture of the novel, Garahan and Lander bear a lot of story-telling load, bringing dimensions beyond politics and ambition into the story (although the reader is spared any sex scenes involving Pat Nixon).

It says something, I imagine, that, to make his novel about one of the most cataclysmic events in U.S. history work, Mallon needs to rely on two people who didn’t exist.

He even goes so far as to have LaRue wonder whether the Watergate break-in took place because of a misunderstanding about something he’d said relating to “Larrie’s desk,” taken erroneously to mean “Larry’s desk,” i.e., the desk of Lawrence F. O’Brien, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and target of the burglary.

The question

So, why did Nixon’s campaign people carry out the break-in?

None of Mallon’s characters knows. (Well, maybe G. Gordon Liddy does, but he has no speaking part here, perhaps because he’s still alive and the novelist fears a lawsuit. Most of those with lines in the drama are safely dead.)

Toward the end of “Watergate,” Mallon has E. Howard Hunt, a central figure in the scandal and the novel wondering.

He stood still on the sidewalk for several seconds: How had it all begun? Why had Liddy asked them to go into the DNC?…He was certain of nothing. While outlining his memoirs, he had noticed how speculations kept getting tangled in actualities, how he sometimes disappeared into several narratives concurrently and ended up unsure of which one he’d really lived.

I don’t think it’s incumbent on Mallon to solve the mystery of Watergate. (Still, he probably should have done better at explaining the erasure of 18.5 minutes on one of the Nixon tapes.)


For Mallon, even Nixon, even on the eve of his departure in disgrace from the White House, is clueless. In an exchange with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the long-lived, sharp-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, Nixon describes Watergate as a tragedy. Longworth tells him it just doesn’t qualify.

Nixon said nothing. He was unsure, even now, what Watergate really was. He remained as baffled as he’d been when talking to Haldeman on June 23, 1972. He would forever be able to hear himself on the tape: confused; groping; taking the first approach that came to mind, dooming himself.

Nixon and Hunt aren’t alone. With the scandal moving insistently to its crisis, participants tell each other and themselves that they just don’t know what happened and why it happened.

Which leads me to wonder: Was all of this “national nightmare” simply fodder for an entertainment, albeit a very readable one? Or was there something deeper, something Shakespearean, to be found at its heart? Was Longworth wrong? Was this a tragedy? If so, how?

Mallon couldn’t find one. Maybe some future writer will.

The real Nixon

A final point:

Mallon’s Nixon doesn’t fit the image I had of the 37th president after watching him on TV and in the newspapers throughout his long career and his final days in the White House.

In “Watergate,” Nixon is just too normal. Where is all the swearing that, from the tapes, we know Nixon engaged in? Even more, where is that hyper-awkwardness of his personality?

As Mallon portrays him in conversations with other characters and in interior monologues, Nixon could be you or I. A scary thought.

Yet, through the eyes of Longworth, Mallon does seem, in the end, to grasp the real Nixon — the one I remember.

…the 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….he smiled only in a kind of animal desperation. But she shared the darkness beneath and the capacity for denial; she could sometimes change or negate reality just with her contempt for it.

Not exactly you or I.

Patrick T. Reardon

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