Thomas Mallon’s Comedy of Watergate

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!

11 Responses

  1. Ah Watergate!
    Ah Watergate!

    How I consumed the NY Times, Washington Post and all other publications as the drama unfolded. Read Woodward/Bernstein et al.

    I have a theory of my own. The special prosecutor looking into Whitewater that eventually led to Clinton being impeached was all just pay-back time for Nixon.

    But Nixon was in a league of his own – a powerful President who just couldn’t resist the cheap tactics that had served him over the years. Although he was a Republican and a Californian, he had the political instincts of a Chicago Ward Boss.

    Also note that the press was much more aggressive in those days, probably because newspapers were still strong and the news media hadn’t been corporatized as it is now.

    Still, I think the internet could break a scandal like this.

  2. Hey Michael — glad to hear
    Hey Michael — glad to hear you are a WG buff like me.

    One interesting thing about Thomas Mallon’s novel is that, in contrast to what you say above, he really doesn’t present the demonic side of Nixon. Nixon is just one of many helpless characters grasping for an anchor amidst the swirling currents in this novel — neither the cause of the scandal nor its prime mover.

    While I do think Nixon’s lust for power and taste for trickery made him a terrible choice for President, my own theory about the root cause of the Watergate break-in (which I’m looking forward to writing about next week) also deemphasizes the question of Nixon’s character, and looks towards wider, more universal human frailties that were at play when the whole thing went down.

  3. Today’s Chicago Ward Boss

    Nixon Won Watergate:

    “Obama has not only openly asserted powers that were the grounds for Nixon’s impeachment, but he has made many love him for it. More than any figure in history, Obama has been a disaster for the U.S. civil liberties movement. By coming out of the Democratic Party and assuming an iconic position, Obama has ripped the movement in half. Many Democrats and progressive activists find themselves unable to oppose Obama for the authoritarian powers he has assumed. It is not simply a case of personality trumping principle; it is a cult of personality.”

    — Jonathan Turley, The Thing Itself Speaks

  4. I don’t know about any of
    I don’t know about any of your other readers Levi, but the first I read about this (I’m a bit younger than you it seems) was from “The Scum Also Rises,” Hunter S. Thompson’s work that he sent in to his editors at the Rolling Stone through the mojo wire (fax machine). I think it’s a fitting description of the seedy and comical events. Though I didn’t read it at the time, I had a great journalism professor that made “Gonzo and New Journalism” a big part of the course (probably because he snorted quaaludes with Thompson and Wolfe and Plimpton back then). Anyhow, if you’re readers want a sarcastic, subjective look at this sordid affair, The Scum Also Rises is really good and it shows the real contempt and disgust that many people, including Thompson, had for Nixon.


  5. Your focus is on the novel,
    Your focus is on the novel, so this is perhaps not important, but your dismissal of a DC place name begs some correction. There’s reasonable evidence that the name “Watergate” does not originate with a real estate developer, and that, far from not meaning anything, the name at one time meant exactly what it describes.

    When it was operating commercially, the old Chesapeake and Ohio canal met the Potomac river on the northwest side of the present Watergate complex. At that point, there was a gate in the water, where the barges would enter or exit the canal. Closing and opening the gate permitted control of the water level in order to lift the barges through the lock system, and around the Potomac River’s fall line. While the canal remains as a national park, the gate itself is gone. Believe there are maps from the 19th C showing the location of the gate and associating the name “Watergate” with that area along the city shoreline.

  6. Thanks for the clarification,
    Thanks for the information, REW. However, I think that is only one possible origin, and Wikipedia tells a different story (“The name of the complex was derived from the terraced steps west of the Lincoln Memorial that lead down to the Potomac River.”). Do you know of any convincing proof that the term “Watergate” originated with this canal gate? If so, I’ll change the article above to clarify this.

    I do agree that this name origin makes sense, though, given that you are correct that the old site of Washington DC terminus of the C&O Canal (which merged at this point with Rock Creek) is directly northwest of the Watergate.

  7. As a hiker on the C&O Canal,
    As a hiker on the C&O Canal, Levi, I immediately checked my “Towpath Guide to the C & O Canal” booklet (Revised Edition, 1974) for information on how the Watergate Complex got its name.

    The booklet has old maps and photos, including one from circa 1900, and there’s even a 1973 photo of the area that includes a view of the Watergate Hotel itself.

    Yes, of course there was an actual water gate there at one time, but I found these two paragraphs of text very pertinent:

    “Original dam seems to have been repaired and rebuilt on several occasions, altering both appearance and location. A concrete wall now extends from mid tide-lock to a series of 6 wooden lift gates in the dam. These gates controlled the water level in Rock Creek Basin. Adjoining end of gates is what is left of the wooden-faced, stone-filled tumbling dam, which extended 200′ across the creek and tied into the Washington side of the creek.

    There is no longer a towpath to follow from tide-lock to the 1st lift lock (Lock No. 1) in Georgetown .3 m. upstream. To reach Lock 1 take bikeway along Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway., but first walk a short distance along bikeway toward river to get a good view across Rock Creek of dam remains and tide-lock. Tho most think the Watergate Complex across parkway takes its name from the gates of the dam across Rock Creek or tide-lock, this is probably not so. The more likely source is the ceremonial watergate near Memorial Bridge.”

    Both you and REW have valid points — and one can argue further that the “ceremonial watergate” was almost certainly named for the original dam. So who is the winner here? I’m going to declare it a tie — it seems to me that the real estate developers probably took the name from the ceremonial watergate, and that name came from the original gate.

  8. Eli, I had forgotten about
    I forgot about the memorial bridge watergate, thanks for reminding me. It’s been many years since I was at either place, biking the canal or attending open air concerts by the bridge. The guidebook knows more than I do, and am happy to concede the ceremonial watergate as the more likely source of the name. As there doesn’t have to be a link between that watergate and the one on the canal, your offer of a “tie” is generous.

    Either way, the name is, or was, not meaningless except as an invention of realtors flogging development or shorthand for journalists hounding malfeasance. The point is trivial in the context of the original post, maybe even self-evident. Place names such as Watergate, or Chappaquiddick, or Teapot Dome, all meant something else before becoming shorthand for scandal. I like the idea that the name Watergate is somehow appropriate in this instance, maybe as a nexus between a real fall from power and Machiavelli’s image of Fortune as a river in flood stage.

  9. Fascinating stuff about the
    Fascinating stuff about the name — thanks to both Eli and REW!

    I am updating the post above to point readers to these comments about the origin of the name.

    If I get really ambitious, maybe I’ll even submit an update to Wikipedia, which doesn’t seem to have any of this information, and should.

  10. And don’t forget that
    And don’t forget that Watergate inspired the addition of “-gate” to myriad scandals that followed, although none of them seemed more than just the laziness of writers who wanted to add a memorable name to some fresh outrage. The only one I can remember is Iran-gate.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!