How it took a novelist to make Richard Nixon seem human.
Watergate: A Novel
by Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 448 pp.
With the fortieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in arriving this June, we should prepare ourselves for a deluge of Watergate- and Nixon-related material. This may well be the last good anniversary opportunity to revive and relive this massively frightening, entertaining scandal before the vast majority of those who cared about these mat-ters as they were happening have gone off to join the Great Unindicted Coconspirator in the Sky.
After that, it will be interesting to see how much we hear about Richard Nixon again. Will he be studied, like Theodore Roosevelt? Mentioned, like William McKinley? Ignored, like Benjamin Harrison? Nixon was one of the largest figures of the third quarter of the twentieth century. But as his era recedes, he is overwhelmed by Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—the liberal icon who preceded him, and the conservative giant who came in his wake, two leaders of consequence whose ideas persist decades after their deaths. With no enduring legacy to call his own—détente was at best a mixed bag; wage and price controls were an embarrassment; he may have opened China, but Deng Xiaoping was the more significant figure—Nixon now seems destined to be best known for the Watergate scandal and for being the un-Kennedy, dark to Jack’s light, ambitious and striving in comparison to Jack’s grace and ease, sweaty to Kennedy’s infinite cool.
And yet we remain interested in Nixon, welcoming him as a character the way the Brits always seem happy to see a new Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Just three years ago we got Frost/Nixon, where we saw Nixon tortured by guilt and defeat; later this year we’ll see Elvis & Nixon, the third film about that weird, marvelous, and ultimately meaningless encounter. We have had Oliver Stone’s tragic Nixon, the Nixon of All the President’s Men, unseen and malignant, The Watchmen’s Nixon as the despot of the new dystopia. It is perhaps the unique accomplishment of Watergate, the excellent new novel by Thomas Mallon, to depict Nixon not as a moral to a story, a symptom of a political pathology, or a walking character flaw, but as a man.
Mallon accomplishes this by leveling him. Instead of focusing on Nixon as the main character in a drama, the author presents us with an ensemble cast; the president may be first among equals in their world, but his views, reactions, and feelings do not outweigh those of the other characters. Among these players are his wife, Pat; his secretary, Rose Mary Woods; the director of the famous Watergate burglary, E. Howard Hunt; presidential aide Fred LaRue; and the utility cabinet member Elliot Richardson. It’s noteworthy that all of these characters are in their forties and fifties, the great middle passage of life where too many youthful dreams have died and too many youthful vanities persist. When the crisis erupts, this potent mix imprisons them, keeping them tied to the tracks as the train approaches. As we see these folks watch the last of their prospects melt with the ice cubes in their drinks, we feel for them as we have never felt for them before.
Mallon’s second and even more brilliant way of humanizing Nixon is to avoid dealing with much of his presidency. So many of Nixon’s key cronies—Chuck Colson, Henry Kissinger, H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman—have little more than cameos here. Similarly absent are many of the colorful set pieces of the scandal that we have repeatedly seen, either live before the Ervin Committee or in successive viewings of All the President’s Men. The mystery of the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap has finally been resolved, but almost certainly not in any of the ways you might have suspected. “There’s a cancer growing on the presidency” does make an appearance here, but other chartbusters from the Golden Hits of the Watergate Era—“twisting, slowly, slowly in the wind”; “I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment; cover-up or anything else, if it’ll save it, save the plan”; “What did the president know and when did he know it?”—don’t appear. Mallon seldom if ever puts us where the power is exercised, but, instead, in a bedroom or a bar or an antechamber where the characters are dressing or dining or traveling shortly after a shoe has dropped downstairs or hell has broken out across town. By forcing us to follow the progress of the break-in plan, the cover-up, and the increasingly threatening investigations from a distance, Mallon forces us to come to our knowledge of Watergate the way most of his characters did, without actually having been present at the famous moments of conspiracy and connivance. Because of this, the Watergate scandal is the subject of Watergate in much the same way the Chinatown neighborhood was the subject of Chinatown—in other words, not really. Watergate is about what happens to a group of frogs who live in a pot of water on top of a stove after somebody has turned the burner on.
Mallon presents all of these people with great tenderness, with the possible exception of Richardson, the preening popinjay who, appropriately, likes to paint birds and whose pride in his own rectitude enables him to escape the catastrophe for a life on the rubber-chicken circuit. Those who went down with the ship, however, are the beneficiaries of Mallon’s empathy: LaRue, the accepting stoic; Woods, the collaterally damaged loyalist; and Hunt, the good soldier, punished beyond all proportion. A great revelation is the depiction of Pat Nixon, the last of our first ladies to have a nonspeaking media personality; not only does she show that she could teach Julianna Margulies a thing or two about being a good wife, she also has more spirit and grit here than she ever allowed the country to see during those two decades she spent standing at Dick’s side in her good Republican cloth coat. Mallon rewards her for all those years of dutiful silence with an electrifying outburst where she not only expresses her discontent but also gives us an insight into her husband that we can take away and chew on. It comes on the dismal Thanksgiving of 1973, not long after the Saturday Night Massacre, and Pat finally lets Dick have it:
There is one major character in the ensemble who is not middle-aged: the shrewd, wasp-tongued dowager of Washington society, the elderly Alice Roosevelt Longworth, playing precisely the role that Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, plays in Downton Abbey—part solon, part superannuated mean girl. Mrs. Longworth was the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, the wife of Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth, and the mistress of Senator William Borah. Not only did this make her a real expert on how a bill becomes a law, but having been born in the sausage factory and lived on the packing floor her whole life, she is a woman who is surprised by nothing and no one. And having been a failure at something important—motherhood—she brings a surprising gimlet-eyed mercy to the shortcomings of others, or at least to those others in whom she recognizes a remedial virtue. There is a moment in the novel when she visits Nixon shortly after his resignation, and she offers him some unsentimental encouragement by reminding him of the time, shortly after he became vice president, when her daughter committed suicide and he served as pallbearer at the funeral. She tells him,
“I saw the look on your face when you were carrying that wretched girl’s coffin. You understood the ghastliness of it all, and you knew how to deny it, too. I realized that you could do that with anything, always finding another layer of make-up to put over the tears.”
“Is that a compliment?”
“No, it’s a fact. If I let myself be swallowed by one personality, you hid yourself behind dozens of them, one ‘new Nixon’ after another.”
Nixon carrying a casket in the rain; Nixon picking up his wife and twirling her around at what he thought was an unobserved moment of joy on Air Force One; Nixon ordering the band to play all night at a White House party for returning POWs; Nixon enjoying a drink and a sail and the swelling bombastic chords of “Victory at Sea”—Mallon presents us with a human Nixon, and asks us to look at him without preconceptions. He turns out to be that somewhat aloof and distant neighbor who, once you get to know him, turns out to have more soul than you, in your arrogance, ever imagined. If you’re like me, you finish this book and wonder what Richard Nixon did to deserve the more than four decades of scorn and snark we’ve heaped upon him—except pull himself up from nothing, raise a family, pursue his dreams, and be the best damn liberal president this country has had since FDR.
Ah, clever Mallon! In keeping us out of the Oval Office, in restricting us to the upstairs rooms, we never quite see the hatred and paranoia and mania for control that were more than a small part of Richard Nixon. These were things that consumed him, and that, in the final analysis, left him without the sanctuary of goodwill in which Ronald Reagan hid after Iran-Contra and to which Bill Clinton repaired after Monica. But we don’t really need another book to remind us of that. The great reward in reading this wise and thoughtful and subtle novel is that it reminds us that our leaders are only human beings. This is something we tend to forget—foolishly, when they’re on their way up, and cruelly, when they’re on their way out.
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