The drama of Watergate took on the qualities of a suspense thriller in the seventies, with the Washington Post’s daily installments of revelations, ultimately leading to the downfall of a sitting President. Reporters Woodward and Bernstein documented their relentless pursuit in their book, All the President’s Men, later developed into a movie. The identity of Deep Throat, their secret source, finally was revealed in 2005, and Frank Langella immortalized the deposed Nixon in the 2009 play based on the Frost/Nixon interviews. The fascination continues with a new twist.
Using the famous political scandal for his new historical fiction – Watergate – Thomas Mallon imagines the personal lives and conversations behind the scenes from 1972 (the night before the famous break-in) to 1974. With the real cast of characters – listed in the front of the book for reference – and embellishing the facts only a little, Mallon manages to create a suspenseful mystery about events that are already part of the historical record.
Mallon uses three key women in Nixon’s life to fill in a fictional back story to the well-known reality: Rose Mary Woods (the President’s secretary who famously erased 18 1/2 minutes of incriminating taped recordings); Pat Nixon, (the President’s long-suffering wife); and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (the well-connected ninety year old daughter of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt). All were devoted fans of Dick. Pat wore bright hues to compensate for her husband’s drab origins as a Quaker, and Mallon inserts more color into her life by giving her a fictional affair with a wealthy Irishman. Rose Mary, the loyal secretary, mistakenly thought she could erase herself from history (Mallon’s own version of what was really on those missing 18 1/2 minutes), and Alice used her insider information to predict catastrophe – with real lines that could rival Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith character.
In Mallon’s story, the powerful men have secondary roles as characters who reveal their own demons through conversations that might have taken place. Fred La Rue, the bagman who delivered the cash hush money, plays a sympathetic key role. His skeleton in the closet becomes a continuing thread in the story. Nixon himself emerges as strong-willed and brilliant, yet insecure and paranoid – a tragic hero/villain.
Throughout, Mallon inserts reminders of the seventies – the Vietnam War is winding down, a new agreement with China is imminent, Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture is defaced in the Vatican. At times, I found myself fact-checking on the internet only to find that an unlikely incident that seemed out of a spy novel had really happened, e.g., the untimely and suspicious death of Dorothy Hunt, wife of E. Howard Hunt, one of the many involved in the scandal who went to jail.
Most of the players are dead now, and the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge across from the Watergate where the break-in was planned, is a George Washington University dormitory. I kept wondering how history would have been different if those condemning tapes had been destroyed. In those pre-computer days, the evidence would have been hard to reconstruct. I found a transcript from the Nixon/Frost interview with a commentary from Ken Hughes that actually addressed Why Nixon Didn’t Burn the Tapes.
Whether you lived through the scandal, read about it, or just wonder why “gate” is now attached to any modern corruption scandal, Mallon’s Watergate offers a new perspective. I was surprised that there was still more to say on the subject, but Mallon says it well, and kept me reading – no matter that I knew the ending.