Watergate by Thomas Mallon

President Nixon

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.

Alice

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.

Franklin and Eleanor’s Marriage

No none ever knows the inside story of a marriage, but Hazel Rowley does her best to understand the Roosevelt’s “extraordinary marriage” in her biography of  Franklin and Eleanor – the last book she wrote before her recent death at 59 years old.  Actually, I went straight to the eight pages of pictures in the middle; who knew FDR was so handsome in his younger day, and how well the false PR worked to convince everyone he was “swimming himself back to health.”

Eleanor and Franklin traveled in the elite circle of old New York, with a President in the family (Teddy Roosevelt was Eleanor’s uncle and gave her away at her wedding).  Their beginnings as a couple seemed romantic, except for Eleanor’s ubiquitous mother-in-law.  Rowley recounts the days of Tammany Hall when FDR first entered politics, and she clearly describes everyday life in the early nineteenth century – it’s easy to forget how hard daily life was back then, even for the wealthy.

And then, of course, there was Lucy Mercer – private secretary to Eleanor; private lover to Franklin…

“She was…a tall, slim beauty with the manners and poise of the blue-blooded…but she was Catholic, penniless, and her parents had created more than a whiff of scandal.  Where was she going to find a suitable husband?”

With a weak constitution, FDR was always getting sick – typhoid fever, the Spanish flu and finally, polio.   Rowley’s details of his first two years with the disease show the amazing spirit of a man who could not be put down.  Throughout, of course, he had the help of Eleanor, faithful servants and nurses, Missy LeHand, and Louis Howe, who eventually became the “Assistant President.”

Much has been written about how today’s world of sound-bites and fast information would never have allowed the façade that surrounded FDR’s life and real physical abilities, but he was careful not to outright lie about his condition.  With Louis Howe, FDR mastered the skill of perception; the public saw what they wanted them to see – through campaigns for Governor of New York and President of the United States.  It’s doubtful today’s press would be so willingly misdirected.

Rowley clearly outlines the Roosevelt’s political lives; both influencing public opinion – he with the Fireside Chats, she with the Gridiron Widows, and later, “FDR was the politician, and she was the agitator.”  At times, Rowley disagrees with other biographers and even with Eleanor’s own accounting.  Rowley contends, perhaps rightly, that Eleanor knew how to spin a story, years before Jackie Kennedy created Camelot.

“Eleanor’s autobiography was in every way a political document.  There was no way she could have told the truth about certain things…Her narrative might have come across as beguilingly honest, but it is full of omissions and factual errors…”

But it’s their personal lives that resonate.  No one really knows the anguish Eleanor may have felt at his need for other women, his deference to his mother, or the terror and pain Franklin endured.  Both partners, though supportive of each other, seemed to realize that one person could not be everything for the other – even in marriage.  Yet, it was this unusual partnership of Eleanor and Franklin that made both lives fearless, and care “so little about what {others} say.” Rowley includes a favorite quote, meant to address international affairs and the turmoil of the government FDR inherited from Hoover, but it could just as well be applied to their personal lives:

“…the policy of a good neighbor – who resolutely respects himself and…respects the rights of others….”

Although Rowley’s narrative sometimes seems like a staccato peppering of facts, this is a book you will want to read carefully and slowly, savoring her attention to detail. Rowley carefully references her facts throughout the biography (42 pages of notes and indexed material), but writes as though she were having a conversation about old friends.  The promised salacious gossip is there too – FDR as a philanderer (even after stricken with polio) and Eleanor with a woman lover – some true, some discounted – all fun to read about.

What struck me most were all those individuals who “sacrificed their personal lives” to befriend and support this extraordinary couple.