Monday, March 19, 2012

Tricky Dick fictions

In his new novel Watergate, Thomas Mallon bends reality to make it true

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Even when it was as fresh as as the latest edition of a newspaper, Watergate was complicated. Yes, the essence of the story -- failed attempt to break into the opposition's headquarters leads to cover-up and eventual resignation of a president -- is clear enough. But the cast of characters in the saga is enormous, and the various contexts for the story include the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Vietnam War, and an entirely separate scandal involving the Vice-President, among others. The saga has been widely dissected, beginning of course with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men (1974), the movie of the same year that followed two years later, and countless subsequent accounts that stretch from the journalism of Jonathan Schell to the the multi-volume biography of Stephen Ambrose to the biopic of Oliver Stone (in which Anthony Hopkins does a pretty good Richard Nixon). Should you ever wish to wade into the that water, there's plenty of people waiting to guide you.

Thomas Mallon's novelistic foray into Watergate is distinctive for a number of reasons. The first is that it's relatively demanding.  The cast of characters runs for four pages of the print edition (9 on my Kindle). The second is that aspects of this story are clearly -- and not so clearly -- fictional. Wait, I said to myself: did Pat Nixon really have an affair? (This is the first I heard of it.) There's a part of the story that shows the president's secretary, Rose Mary Woods erasing the famous 18 minutes of subpoenaed tapes in which Nixon reputedly discussed Watergate. We actually "hear" those missing minutes, which of course must be fabricated. But much of what's rendered in the novel is factual. We also get interior monologues from a variety of characters, including Nixon himself, which we might safely consider fictive until one considers that Woodward has made a career of writing non-fiction books in such a stream-of-consciousness manner without leaving any fingerprints in the form of quotation marks.

None of this is to suggest that there's anything specifically wrong or even all that unusual in what is now a well-established genre of historical fiction -- one in which Mallon is a master (I simply loved his 1995 novel Henry and Clara, which looks at the Lincoln assassination from the standpoint of a pair of minor characters in the tragedy). But more so than other works of its kind, Watergate requires a degree of mental energy and occasional recourse to Wikipedia.

Which is not to say it is without its rewards. By this point, calling Nixon a crook is shooting fish in a barrel; at the same time, the hatred Nixon aroused seems heartless in retrospect (more recent Republican presidents may well have deserved worse). Mallon steers around these poles, emphasizing the degree to which even the principals in this story operated under a cloud of ignorance, even confusion. Woodward and Bernstein are in the background, as are the protesters who can be heard in the distance. The principal voice of a critic we hear is that of Elliot Richardson, the liberal Republican and multi-cabinet officer who hoped to benefit from Nixon's fall, as both Nixon and he expected he would, much to the former's chagrin. This of course proves to be one more illusion. (Elliot who?)

If there's any one voice that serves as a protagonist, it's Fred LaRue, who, appropriately, was a mysterious figure at the time -- a man without title, salary or listing in the White House directory, but who was close to the planning of the burglary and served as a bagman to buy the silence of those arrested in its aftermath, among them E. Howard Hunt, who also figures prominently here. A wry Mississippian, he's given a backstory here involving a long lost love who helps him try to come to terms with his role in the shooting of his father many years previously.

But it's the women who make Watergate a distinctive piece of storytelling. They are, as a group, as incisive and ruthless as any of their male counterparts. That goes for Woods, typically depicted as a hapless apologist for the president, as well as Pat Nixon, who memorably recalls Dwight Eisenhower as "cheerful as Popsicle and just as cold." Hunt's wife Dorothy is portrayed as playing hardball with more verve than anyone in the White House. But the shameless scene stealer here, as she was in real life, is the octogenarian (who turns nonagenarian) Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of TR best remembered for her epigram, "If you haven't anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." Mallon depicts her as having an unusually close relationship with Nixon, rooted in a favor Nixon once did for her. In an ironic twist of the historical record, Mallon turns Longworth's well-known disgust with Nixon's invocation of TR in his resignation speech and makes it an inside joke. As Longworth well understands, she's a tragic figure in her inability to forge her fiery intelligence into much more than rapier-sharp sarcasm. But she understands Watergate better than most, and confers what comes off as a prescient benediction of sorts on Nixon.

There were times when I felt Watergate sagged, and that its sculpted omissions deprived it of a bit of narrative oxygen. But this is nevertheless the work of a writer at the height of his powers, conferring truths about the past that transcend mere factual accuracy. I suspect it will take its place of one of the truly useful accounts of the event.