“Forty years on, memories of the ignominious Watergate scandal linger, like a non-murderous Holocaust.” Merv Kaufman reviews Thomas Mallon’s novel “Watergate.”
I remember the moment clearly: It was the summer of 1973, and we were visiting family in Franklin, Massachusetts. That afternoon we’d driven to my in-laws’ country club so the kids—my four-year-old and her cousin—could hit the pool. Other parents had brought a transistor radio tuned to that day’s Senate subcommittee hearings.
The radio voices droned on, over the sounds of children playing and splashing, as the FAA administrator, Alexander Butterfield, was invited to testify. After a brief preliminary exchange, he was asked rather pointedly if the Nixon White House had ever recorded private conversations.
“I knew I would be asked this question, and I’ve thought about how I would answer it,” I remember Butterfield saying, before adding, “Yes, there was tape in the Oval Office.” I blinked and bit my lip. “It’s over,” I thought. If the tapes were destroyed, the Nixon team would be subject to criminal charges. If they did exist, their contents could lead to a Nixon impeachment—or worse.
For more than a year our country would endure a seemingly endless series of ugly revelations, followed by indictments, trials and jail sentences that made most Americans look sourly on their government. What was particularly scary, I remember, was the realization that the White House was totally absorbed in verbal sandbagging and seeking exoneration. No other business appeared to be taking place, despite everything else occurring in key capitals of the world.
For many of us, Watergate was something to try and forget the moment a new president (Gerald Ford) took office. But so many books have been written—along with the success of “All the Presidents Men” on film—that the break-in and cover-up remain part of political lore.
Now, in his latest historical novel, Thomas Mallon has written “Watergate: A Novel
” (Pantheon Books), which is a detailed and extraordinarily perceptive fictional account of what led to and followed the “plumbers’” clumsy June 1972 burglary of Democrats’ national headquarters in the Watergate building. The break-in’s alleged purpose: to find evidence that the Democratic party had been using funds secreted in from Castro’s Cuba to fuel their campaign to thwart Nixon’s reelection.
The why’s of that sloppy burglary were never resolved, but its ramifications left a stench that still hangs over much of the Washington establishment. Author Mallon has carefully sifted through files and reports, books and memos—even private papers—to build a solid structure for his engrossing narrative. What makes it fiction is his ability to enter the minds of a vast cast of characters and simulate conversations that might well have occurred.
Was it true that Pat Nixon had a long-time relationship with a New York-based director of a local charity? Was it also true that Dick Nixon’s unending sense of insecurity and self-loathing compelled him to shave off any chest hair that might show if he chose to wear an open collar? Mallon makes convincing arguments for all his novelistic assertions.
As the volumes of tape transcripts confirmed when made public, Nixon was not above using coarse language in everyday converse in the Oval Office, but Mallon probes what he concludes was Nixon’s soft underbelly of sensitivity and human concern. He concurs that the President might have shed crocodile tears at times but concedes that they were real tears nonetheless.
Stoic and at least publicly supportive of her troubled spouse, Pat Nixon managed to hold her head high during the grueling lead-up to the presidency’s inevitable collapse but suffered privately nonetheless. In Mallon’s words, “Pat found release of their financial records more mortifying than publication of the tape transcripts. Here they were, the nation’s ‘first family,’ subjected to more green-eye-shaded scrutiny than they’d had when they were still the church mice of the Checkers speech.”
The author also concocts a plausible scene aloft, as the Nixons leave D.C. for the last time, flying home to San Clemente: “He was looking at her now, wanting to tell her that he loved her. She knew that he couldn’t, no more than he could make himself ask if she loved him. For an awful second she feared he would say, ‘I hope I haven’t let you down,’ as if she were one more congressman from Nebraska. But he knew better than to try that with her.”
Unrelenting in her scabrous wit and cynical view of the political stage was Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s long-lived daughter and a Republican icon on Capitol Hill. “I detest self-pity, and I find self-destruction absurd,” she’s said to have told a suicidal Nixon when calling on him after he’d resigned. And it was she, of course, who knew for certain—early on—that his presidency was doomed.
“The clock is dick-dick-dicking,” she’s made to say in an aside. She wasn’t kidding, and she wasn’t wrong.
AP Photo of Nixon leaving by helicopter after he resigned.