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Book Review: 'Watergate: A Novel'

Thomas Mallon's latest historical novel reimagines players in the famous scandal

Scandals often expose the hidden workings of a government under stress, torpedoing the polite fictions about how it’s supposed to function when the pressure’s on. So it was with Watergate, the “third-rate burglary” that became the greatest political scandal in 20th-century American politics.

In Thomas Mallon’s absorbing and prodigiously detailed Watergate: A Novel, the scandal takes on a Faustian dynamic and Stendahlian scope. The book is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, the late, great gadfly who once praised Mallon (Fellow Travelers, Dewey Defeats Truman: A Novel) for his "splendid evocation of Washington."

Mallon’s latest tale unfolds in the District of Columbia during the summer of 1972, a disquieting time suffused with conspiracy and dark intrigue. Obsessed by a rumor — well, fantasy, really — that Fidel Castro was funding the opposition, five undercover operatives from the Committee to Re-Elect the President placed listening devices in Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. But the information gleaned from the wiretaps was deemed inadequate, so a month later these “plumbers” broke in again. The rest is current events.

By shuffling together events that actually happened with those that could have happened, Mallon offers plausible solutions to many of the Watergate affair’s enduring mysteries. Why did conspirator James McCord break his silence and reveal the ongoing cover-up to Judge John Sirica? What in the nature of Attorney General Elliott Richardson led him to renege on a deal he had agreed to for acquiring Richard Nixon’s secret tapes? And what in Nixon’s makeup moved him to create those tapes in the first place, then left him unable to destroy them? In Mallon’s reimagining of these and other personalities and events, Watergate resulted from a misunderstanding that involved a jade brooch, an unopened envelope, a tragic hunting accident, a misheard name and an Albanian king.

Mallon moves deftly between the capital’s political and social worlds, evoking the drama through a Greek chorus of more-or-less peripheral players. There’s Richardson, the Machiavellian attorney general who speaks in a “maddening double slur of alcohol and lockjaw”; E. Howard Hunt, ex-CIA spook and one of the burglars; Fred LaRue, the presidential aide — and the book’s quasi-protagonist — who funnels hush money to the conspirators and is haunted by his accidental shooting of his father; Pat Nixon, the long-suffering first lady who sneaks cigarettes and has an adulterous dalliance with a New York lawyer; Nixon confidant John Mitchell and his wildly indiscreet lush of a wife, Martha; and Rose Mary Woods, the president’s loyal secretary who, in Mallon’s retelling, erased those infamous 18½ minutes of tape simply because they contained an unflattering reference to her.

By far the most acerbic and irrepressible of the lot is Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the oldest daughter of T.R., who describes herself as a “topless octogenarian” in the wake of a double mastectomy. Having borne witness to what was arguably more egregious presidential behavior than Tricky Dick’s, the D.C. doyenne brings historical perspective to the yarn. After a political columnist cites a forged letter from the presidential campaign of 1888, for example, she snaps, “Whom do you think you’re writing for? Me?”

In fiction as in fact, at the center of it all is Richard Milhous Nixon, who comes off as a figure of infinite contradictions and endless fascination. The same guile, determination and naked ambition that sustained him through his post-Checkers years in the political wilderness (narrowly losing the race for president in 1960; broadly losing the race for governor of California in 1962) won him the White House in 1968 and 1972. Those also happen to be the very qualities that engineered his downfall. Though not portrayed sympathetically by any means, Nixon is still very human here.

No one entirely escapes Mallon’s scorn in his withering commentary on an administration that frittered away an electoral landslide through paranoia, ineptitude and bad luck. Hearteningly, his approach to ridicule is decidedly democratic.

Former Sports Illustrated staff writer Franz Lidz is the author of Unstrung Heroes, Ghosty Men and Fairway to Hell.