From one of our most esteemed historical novelists, a remarkable retelling of the Watergate scandal, as seen through a kaleidoscope of its colorful perpetrators and investigators.
For all the monumental documentation that Watergate generated—uncountable volumes of committee records, court transcripts, and memoirs—it falls at last to a novelist to perform the work of inference (and invention) that allows us to solve some of the scandal’s greatest mysteries (who did erase those eighteen-and-a-half minutes of tape?) and to see this gaudy American catastrophe in its human entirety.
In Watergate, Thomas Mallon conveys the drama and high comedy of the Nixon presidency through the urgent perspectives of seven characters we only thought we knew before now, moving readers from the private cabins of Camp David to the klieg lights of the Senate Caucus Room, from the District of Columbia jail to the Dupont Circle mansion of Theodore Roosevelt’s sharp-tongued ninety-year-old daughter (“The clock is dick-dick-dicking”), and into the hive of the Watergate complex itself, home not only to the Democratic National Committee but also to the president’s attorney general, his recklessly loyal secretary, and the shadowy man from Mississippi who pays out hush money to the burglars.
Praised by Christopher Hitchens for his “splendid evocation of Washington,” Mallon achieves with Watergate a scope and historical intimacy that surpasses even what he attained in his previous novels, as he turns a “third-rate burglary” into a tumultuous, first-rate entertainment.
Mallon's historical novels have been moving steadily closer to the present, from the Lincoln era through the Gilded and Jazz ages to the 1940s and, with Fellow Travelers, his last book, the McCarthy era. Here he takes on the '70s, which, depending on the reader, will seem either ancient or way too recent to be history. As Mallon moves from the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices to Nixon's resignation, shifting viewpoints as he goes, he provides a lot of exposition. Some of it, implausibly, occurs in dialogue and internal monologues, as people go over what they know for the sake of readers who no longer do or never did. It's hard going at first, but the reward is getting to enter the heads of Watergate participants who were off to the side or never wrote memoirs: Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods, progenitor of the famed 18-minute tape gap; stoic Pat Nixon; meddling Alice Roosevelt Longworth, famously tart-tongued and responsible here for some very funny moments; and Mississippian Fred LaRue, aka the "Bagman." Mallon makes these people sympathetic, no small feat; readers may be surprised at how much they end up disliking Elliot Richardson, one of the era's few heroes. If the author can't bring the story to a satisfying close or explain why so many were so loyal to the president they call "the Old Man," well, history is often messier than fiction.