February 21, 2012

A Scandal Revisited

Some years ago, Thomas Mallon wrote a thoughtful essay about the responsibilities involved in placing real people into imagined, novelistic settings. Fictional history, he said, is justified "when the facts have been lost to time, and when a time has been lost to the facts." Mr. Mallon's own historical novels—including "Henry and Clara" (1995), about the young couple sharing the presidential box at Ford's Theater on the evening of Lincoln's assassination, and "Bandbox" (2004), about Jazz Age New York—have honored this precept in various ways. "Watergate" does, too, though it introduces a third variable: what to do when important facts are still matters of conjecture.

What emerges from "Watergate" is an acute sense of how much we still don't know about the events of June 17, 1972. Who ordered the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington? What was its real purpose? Was it purposely botched? How much was the CIA involved? Who erased the 18½ minutes from President Nixon's Oval Office tapes? And how did a politician as tough and canny as Richard Nixon allow himself to be brought down by a "third-rate burglary"?

Your guess is as good as mine. Mr. Mallon's guesses are sometimes over the top but never less than entertaining. "Watergate" demonstrates how a novelist can peel back layers of personality and motivation that historians must leave undisturbed. It also shows Mr. Mallon at times intruding on events more than his long-ago essay on historical fiction would probably endorse.

"Watergate" is a vivid and witty novel with a large cast of principal and supporting players. CIA Director Richard Helms is "slippery even for a spy." Vice President Spiro Agnew is "sleek as a seal in a circus, comfortable in his body and expensive suit, and always beautifully groomed." Democratic nominee George McGovern is the kind of candidate "for whom [Chicago Mayor Richard] Daley didn't even want to turn out the living." During after-work cocktails, political aide Charles Colson "would serve Nixon a new harebrained scheme as if it were just another ice cube or olive." Attorney General (and cabinet utility hitter) Elliot Richardson is appropriately priggish and sour. "Tea, please," he says to a waiter coming around with coffee.

"Watergate" begins with the break-in and ends with Nixon's resignation. Some of the interim events are straightforwardly narrated; some are embellished (a surreal birthday party for Art Buchwald); and some are made out of whole cloth woven at the Mallon mills (a lonely Nixon accompanying himself on the piano and singing the theme from the film "High Noon").

Mr. Mallon conveys the atmosphere of the White House and of Washington in the early 1970s and nails down many details. He casts his net so wide that even this reviewer, a peripheral White House aide at the time, manages a cameo appearance.

The most perceptive and wittiest members of Mr. Mallon's cast are the women, some participants in the unfolding story, some observers: Pat Nixon, Rose Mary Woods, Martha Mitchell, Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Dorothy Hunt (the wife of burglar E. Howard Hunt). Unfortunately, the novel's sole fictional female, a character named Clarine Lander, never rings true. This mysterious, multi-motivated Southern belle is so magnolia-steeped that she even writes in drawl, spelling darling as darlin'. If you buy her presence in a world populated by historically real people, her machinations may give "Watergate" a welcome ironic twist and answer otherwise puzzling riddles. But if you are able to resist her charms, you may find her initially incredible and ultimately annoying.

Considering that "Watergate" is about the scandal that done him in, Richard Nixon is a surprisingly tangential character. By the time he realizes that, unlike most campaign scandals, this one isn't going to go away after the election, he is hopelessly entangled in a piecemeal coverup and scrambling to figure out what happened and who was responsible. Although Nixon is often dismissed as a Uriah Heep, in this novel he is more like Mr. Micawber: hoping against hope that something will turn up. As Nixon resigns the presidency, he remains baffled, "unsure, even now, what Watergate really was. . . . He would forever be able to hear himself on the tape: confused, groping, taking the first approach that came to mind; dooming himself."

Mr. Mallon's early historical novels were extrapolations. But like "Fellow Travelers," his 2007 novel about the McCarthy era, "Watergate" seems more—to use a Nixonian word—an incursion. Mr. Mallon manipulates his characters to suit his story, even descending into a kind of melodrama that is ill-suited to the Watergate events of history, which were dramatic enough in themselves.

In his essay about writing historical fiction, Mr. Mallon said that "one cannot libel the dead, but one can refrain from distortions as hurtful as they are preposterous." He expressed sympathy for Thomas Dewey's son because a 1990s movie about Depression-era mobsters suggested that the upright Dewey was corrupt. How, then, can Mr. Mallon justify subjecting Pat Nixon's daughters and grandchildren to the creation and elaboration of a fictional adultery on her part? Aside from having no basis in fact, it seems a trite device and is unworthy of Mr. Mallon's otherwise sophisticated sense and sensibility.

For all his research and imaginative latitude, Mr. Mallon all but ignores perhaps the most fascinating of all the Watergate players: John Dean. Assigned to find out whether anyone on the White House staff had been involved with Watergate, Mr. Dean failed to mention that he was the only such individual and then proceeded to turn on his colleagues and his boss. Nowadays he is a hero for many and a villain for some. Only a novelist could do justice to the Dean story and the workings of his mind. It is disappointing that Mr. Mallon merely finesses him.

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