Watergate is not a very distinctive title for a novel about the 1972-74 USA presidential scandal by Thomas Mallon. It was, however, a great name for the scandal.
The term “Watergate” originally referred to the office-hotel complex in downtown Washington DC where, on a quiet day in June 1972, a gang of hapless spies with indirect connections to the Nixon White House were caught in a botched bugging operation. The name “Watergate” always felt right for the scandal, even though it’s a made-up word, the invention of a real estate corporation. The “water” refers to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which merge at the complex’s northwestern edge, and the “gate” does not seem to refer to any specific thing at all. (UPDATE: see comments below for some helpful information that suggests the name referred to a water-gate at the nearby historic canal.)
But the Watergate complex was a cool, exciting new locale in 1972, a swirling, innovative work of postmodern architecture that belongs to the same era of urban design as New York City’s World Trade Center. The image of water crashing through a barrier seems to evoke something meaningful about the entire scandal that was born there.
It’s not clear what Thomas Mallon was aiming for when he gave his imaginative novel the flat title Watergate. There are already many books called Watergate, and this one is different because it’s a sensitive, smart literary historical novel, a work of creative invention. Fortunately, the title is the only thing about this clever, humane book that doesn’t work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it helped me think about the years of Nixon’s fall in a few new ways.
Mallon’s novel proceeds as a series of glancing looks among a few key players who buzzed around Nixon’s White House: Fred LaRue, E. Howard Hunt, Rose Mary Woods, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Elliot Richardson, Richard Nixon himself and his wife Pat Nixon. Mallon is especially good with the female characters, like executive secretary Rose Mary Woods, who jealously guards her territory in the White House, and who erases 18 and a half minutes of a key White House tape for (this book conjectures) a completely different reason than everybody thought.
Most books about Watergate aim for Shakespearean tragedy, but Mallon’s book aims for Shakespearean comedy. Each character harbors secret thoughts, mostly about misguided love. Wistful or romantic instincts drive nearly every part of this story, and every person we meet seems to be lost, confused, drifting. I’ve spent enough time around Washington DC to know that this is a believable depiction of the town.
Mallon’s best creation is probably Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the now-elderly daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, Nixon’s close friend and an Olympian presence in the DC social scene, With one characterization after another, Thomas Mallon manages to touch the heart. I will never dislike prim, grimacing First Lady Pat Nixon again after her heartbreaking exit scene in the novel’s epilogue — the most affecting moment, I think, in the whole book.
I like Mallon’s work of fiction, though I would not recommend this as anybody’s first book about Watergate. This book is best for Watergate buffs and connoisseurs like me, and if you haven’t yet read a book about Watergate I’d recommend starting with All the President’s Men and The Final Days by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, followed by Blind Ambition by John Dean, The Ends of Power by Bob Haldeman, Will by G. Gordon Liddy (this one for comic relief). If you get this far, you’re ready to find your own reading path.
One of this novel’s subplots addresses a mystery that historians are still puzzling over: what information were the Nixon plumbers (Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy) looking for when they bugged the Democratic National Committee office telephones?
Early in the text, Thomas Mallon’s Watergate provides a specific answer to this question: they are looking for evidence that Cuba’s Communist presidente Fidel Castro might be providing secret funds to the Democratic Party. (Or, at least, that’s what at least Hunt and Liddy think they are supposed to be looking for as this novel begins.)
Outside of this novel’s fictional world, historians have debated this question without ever arriving at a single convincing answer. Hunt and Liddy (and their sponsors John Mitchell and Jeb Magruder) may have been looking for incriminating information about Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick — a decent guess, since DNC Chairman Lawrence O’Brien was a close Kennedy friend. Other evidence points weakly to a White House suspicion that the famous multimillionaire Howard Hughes was funding Democratic politicians through O’Brien. The bugging operation might also have been intended as a defensive shield, a way to get advance notice of any possible damaging information about the Nixon administration that Lawrence O’Brien might have gotten his hands on. All of these hypotheses are possible. I have my own theory about what the Nixon spies were looking for, and I’d like to present it in a separate blog post next week. It’s a theory I’ve held for a while, though Mallon’s novel helped bring it back to my mind.
These Watergate posts come on a special anniversary. It was in Spring 1973, exactly forty years ago, that the scandal began to turn into a disaster for Nixon, beginning with L. Patrick Gray’s confirmation hearings, in which the FBI head revealed damaging information about a Watergate cover-up. The disaster got worse when burglar James McCord suddenly recanted his prior cover-up story in a letter to Judge Sirica (another event that Mallon’s novel attempts to explain). And it was exactly 40 years ago that John Dean uttered these famous words to the President of the United States:
I think that there’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’ve got. We have a cancer within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself. That’ll be clear as I explain, you know, some of the details of why it is, and it basically is because, one, we’re being blackmailed; two, people are going to start perjuring themselves very quickly that have not had to perjure themselves to protect other people and the like. And that is just … and there is no assurance —
Happy 40th Anniversary, Watergate scandal. Litkicks readers, please check back with me next week for a new blog post in which I’ll explain what I believe the real purpose of the original break-in was, and what must have motivated E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Dean and the President himself. My theory may turn out to be a controversial one, especially when I explain what it has to do with Dick Cheney. Stuff is about to get real up in here … please check back next week!