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Book Review: Watergate

Watergate

by Thomas Mallon

Pantheon, 2012

Thomas Mallon is an extremely talented historical novelist, and Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal is a watershed historical event. It should therefore stand to reason that if Thomas Mallon chose to write a historical novel about Watergate, the result would be dramatically satisfying.

But there are darker forces than reason at work here. A seasoned writer for the old Boston Herald American once pointed out that “a baleful trial emanates from the man [Nixon] and all his works; men are tested by it, and even strong men can succumb.” That writer somewhat naively thought the trial would end with the man, but he was wrong: as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, evil propagates itself generation after generation – functionaries of the disgraced, resigned president become in their turn high wizards of his iniquity, and their office boys become functionaries and look forward to the day they can become high wizards. The man himself has long since gone to the hell reserved for defilers of public trust, but it doesn’t seem to matter – the works live on, including the masterwork, a weasly, self-pitying, all-encompassing cynicism that looks in the mirror and says, “Anything – anything at all – for me.” And just as in Tolkien, men can succumb even to the artifacts of that evil, if they handle them too long.

There’s no other explanation for why the hell Thomas Mallon would write a historical novel about Watergate that featured Richard Nixon as its hero.

Like all Mallon’s books, Watergate is steeped in research (far more so, in fact, than any of his other books – to the extent where readers not already familiar with the parts and players of Watergate and the Nixon years may find themselves somewhat swamped by names), and that research must have included many hours spent reading Nixon’s various memoirs and listening to hours of White House tapes. That level of exposure might have been enough to get to Mallon, to prompt him to write a novel of which he ought to be ashamed. In his Acknowledgments he tells his readers:

In this book, as in my previous novels, I have operated along the always sliding scale of historical fiction. The text contains deviations from fact that some readers will regard as unpardonable and others will deem unworthy of notice. But this remains a work of fiction, not history.

But the sliding scale of historical fiction doesn’t slide far enough to allow for the monstrosity Mallon has created here (readers of a certain age will physically wince at that “unpardonable”), for page after page of an upstanding, pragmatic Nixon beleaguered by small thinkers, unruly politicians, untrustworthy subordinates. The book’s most delightful dramatization, the aging doyenne of Washington society Alice Roosevelt Longworth, spends the whole book wondering if her cherished friend Nixon is a homme serioux, and by the time she ultimately decides he is, Mallon has invested his readers so thoroughly in her that they want to believe it too. Thus President Theodore Roosevelt’s ninety-something daughter is perhaps the book’s most efficient traitor to truth, since Mallon is constantly having her remember the good old days when presidencies had real problems (legless Civil War veterans camping in the streets, as we’re told repeatedly), not all this Watergate nonsense. She never misses an opportunity – nor Mallon through her – to pooh-pooh every aspect of this childish drama the Senate Democrats are making about “a little break-in” and all the rest of it. When she learns Nixon and his aides have drawn up a list of enemies, she scoffs:

“Bella Abzug and Mary McGory! Putting them on it. Could anything be more obvious? Aside from all else, I can’t believe the fuss over the list – as if Dick isn’t entitled to hate people.”

But it isn’t “Dick” who’s feeling entitled to draw up a list of enemies, it’s President Nixon, who isn’t entitled to such a list. Earlier in the same scene, Dame Alice hears that it’s more than drawing up a list: it’s the President planning to use the IRS and the FBI to torment the people on it. She shrugs it off – just the cost of doing business – and we’re clearly meant to shrug it off too. There’s convincing going on here, convincing done in defiance of the facts – something Nixon himself did for his entire post-resignation career. In Watergate he’s exactly the clear-eyed action-oriented tough president he always dreamed of being. In the early days of the scandal, when only the Watergate burglars have been indicted and it looks like the whole thing will blow over, Nixon’s the one taking the lead with loathsome subordinates like speech writer Pat Buchanan:

 “Mr. President,” said Buchanan, “what you’ve got to worry about is the real chilling effect of this whole scandal. If we let the Democrats criminalize what’s nothing but ordinary politics, the people on our side are going to be too scared to operate. They’re going to go around acting like the League of Women Voters.”

Nixon nodded. “Exactly right. The point is they should be finding out stuff like the connection between Larry O’Brien and Hughes. There are a lot of better ways to do that than breaking into the stupid committee headquarters, but damn it, we still ought to be pursuing that, even after November seventh if need be.”

He’s prone to reflection, this heroic Dick, but never the maudlin, self-pitying, almost psychotic reflection that was the only kind the actual historical figure ever did – instead, his are austere and knowing, the reflections of a great man caught in bad times:

Nixon nodded, still wondering why he seemed determined to feel so bad. His mind when once more to Woodrow Wilson, who’d never gotten over feeling like a fraud, even when he was being cheered in the streets of Paris. He looked down at the plate of eggs and felt his appetite waning. Dr. Tkach had been telling him there might actually be something to this research linking heart attacks and high cholesterol. Christ, imagine keeling over like Eisenhower, with goddamned Agnew waiting to take over.

Mallon intersperses this kind of noxious nonsense with just enough of his trademark excellent writing – indeed, even the noxious nonsense is impeccably written – to make large stretches of Watergate very enjoyable on the level of prose alone. The insular world of Washington is perfectly evoked in these pages, and the glimpses of the Clinton era at the book’s end are particularly enticing (if they become a book, I’m sure the maritally loyal President will just be reluctantly helping Miss Lewinsky work through some self-esteem issues). No five-page stretch goes by without a brilliant little illumination, like Nixon’s angry reflection on his mother’s religion:

The idea that Quakers were peaceful! Pacifist, yes, but turbulent, with that sense of God always rumbling up from inside them. People only knew the movie Quakers, thanks in part to his cousin Jessamyn West, who’d written all that Friendly Persuasion crap. That was what they’d seen, that and Grace Kelly, the Quaker wife in High Noon, sick of the guns before they even went off.

But Mallon reserves most of his creative talent for shaping the Mount Rushmore contours of his misunderstood president, who’s driven to drink, driven to lying, driven to immorality. This Nixon never wants to do evil, oh no: he wants to be out there bringing the Chinese and the North Koreans to the bargaining table, or getting tough on Russia, modestly shaping the dialogues of an entire world. It’s just all these distractions that keep getting in the way. When Nixon is talking to Al Haig (yet another winning portrait by Mallon, maybe the focal point of the novel this should have been) about keeping the incriminating White House tapes, the president is exhausted but heroically carrying on:

“You’re tired, Mr. President,” It was the only thing Haig could think of to say.

“Yes,” said Nixon, opening his eyes. His thoughts had begun chasing, overriding, and recycling themselves – probably an effect of the medication. But when he looked through the window, at the deepening nighttime darkness, he knew with finality that he would keep the tapes. Inertia would win: he would fight for them in court, however hopelessly, rather than trigger a vast convulsion – and maybe impeachment – by their destruction. He himself had always loved the big play, the bold move, but he didn’t have the crazy courage to light Connally’s bonfire.

He looked at the window ledge … With a surprising sadness, he realized that he also lacked, at least for now, whatever strange bravery it would take to leap from the window.

At least for now … “Don’t do it, Mr. President!” we’re supposed to react at that point, “Don’t even think it!” After all, why should he jump? It isn’t a feral, desperate personal evil prompting him to keep those White House tapes – it’s inertia. That’s a scientific term, isn’t it?

And so it goes, for chapter after chapter. Compulsive liars like Howard Hunt are transformed into ‘honest to God literary men’ crazily hijacked by events; lying sociopaths like G. Gordon Liddy become crusty no-nonsense operators; arch traitors like John Dean are easily interpretable as good soldiers lonesomely fighting a losing battle.

Battle is everywhere in this wretched book. This Nixon isn’t a pathetic little slime of a man who worked hard to subvert every aspect of his high office and simply got caught, he’s a warrior-in-chief whose various methods to pull his presidency out of the quagmire (and get back to doing real work) are thwarted by petty politics and newspaper grandstanding. The Nixon we hear constantly on those White House tapes – the flabby, guttural monster who’s always surprising his own aides by how quick he is to take the low road – is entirely absent from these pages, replaced by a Coriolanus waiting for his Shakespeare. All his preening paranoia is here, but displaced onto others – including his wife, in one of the novel’s most transfixing climactic scenes:

“You don’t understand,” she said, even now not raising her voice. “I know they’re to blame.” She didn’t have to tell him who they were: the Kennedys and everyone else who’d made him into the archfiend since the days of Jerry Voorhis and Helen Douglas, and who’d flung five times the mud and brimstone he had. “I would have made an enemies list twice as long as yours and Colson’s, and I would have done something to get the people on it. Anything to be rid of them forever – the way I thought they were gone from our lives after ’60, and then ’62, and then – surely! – at this time last year. I hate your enemies, but you love them. You love their existence; they’re what gives you your own. That’s why I’m sick with anger at you: for bringing us to the top of this awful mountain. We’re never going to get back down without being devoured!”

Mallon’s note about the sliding scale of historical fiction comes at the end of his book rather than the beginning, where it might have served as a kind of satyr-play warmup to the travesties to come. Instead, it smacks almost of a lecture: you can’t take this stuff too seriously, remember: it’s just a historical novel. But his research is evident on every page of Watergate – what’s it here for, if not to invoke the verisimilitude that is the historical novelist’s stock-in-trade? Novelists certainly aren’t bound by that verisimilitude – they can stray from it for any effect they like, serious or comic (Thomas Pynchon’s scandalous portrait of George Washington in Mason & Dixon remains one of the best and funniest things he ever wrote). But those novelists owe something to the verifiable facts of the period they’re portraying – simply saying ‘this is fiction, y’all’ doesn’t allow them to give us a King George III who stayed mentally sharp right to the end of his days, or a Hitler whose comments about the Jews have been badly mis-quoted … or a Richard Nixon who’s just Jed Bartlett having a really bad week.

Readers too young to remember Watergate are advised to take Mallon’s novel with a grain of salt and a stack of histories. Readers old enough to remember Watergate – and especially those who angrily, forlornly lived through it – should avoid this Watergate for purely medical reasons. They should go read some vintage Pogo instead, or watch Dan Hedaya’s sublime impersonation of Nixon in Andrew Fleming’s Dick one more time, and try to pretend.