Watergate: Reimagining the biggest US political scandal

Thomas Mallon's novel about the Watergate burglary breathes new life into an old scandal, mixing real and invented characters in an intriguing work.

The luxurious Watergate complex in Washington where the Democratic National Committee had its offices in 1973. AP Photo
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There’s a scene in the epilogue to Thomas Mallon’s historical fiction Watergate in which Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon’s personal secretary, is having a hard time remembering someone. It’s 2001, a quarter of a century has passed since her time in the White House and she can’t place Bob Gray. And so she does something she has rarely done: go to a book and search a name in the index.

She flips to the entry and discovers that Gray had given the president a silver cigarette box. She remembers it, however, as having been a cigar box and that it had come from someone else. “The real problem with the entry is that it didn’t help her remember who Bob Gray was.”

There is no index to Watergate. One finds Gray, and Woods, among the dramatis personae. Gray, it turns out, was a public relations executive and occasional escort to Woods.

A reader would be forgiven to not know or remember Bob Gray, however. The events of Watergate, the break-in and cover-up, and the cover-up of the cover-up, happened 40 years ago. Those who remember names such as H R Haldeman, John Mitchell, Chuck Colson and E Howard Hunt are fewer and fewer. And they were among the major players. Anyone for Lewis Fielding? Herbert Kalmbach?

There are many reasons an author works in historical fiction. One could be a fascination with a time gone by. One could be the challenge of recreating an epoch, or dusting it off and breathing new life into it.

There’s also the ego-driven notion that by writing fiction the author would arrive at some truth history refuses to reveal, or the even more egotistical idea that the story can be improved. Only Mallon knows his motivations for writing Watergate, just as there’s only one man who knew the answer to “What did the president know and when did he know it?” and that man is long dead.

Watergate, however, is a backstop to the passage of time, another reminder that we are doomed to repeat history should we forget its lessons.

For the benefit of those too young or too old to remember, the original Watergate was an apartment, hotel and office complex in Washington DC. Within the complex were the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. It is these offices that a group of inept burglars broke into in 1972 with the intention of tapping telephones, assuming they would discover something usable against the presidential campaign of Democrat George McGovern, of South Dakota.

The burglars got caught. Their arrests led to a cover-up, organised by members of the White House staff and the Committee to Re-Elect the President (known to Republicans as the CRP; to others as Creep). Here, the names of people that might otherwise have faded in the fog of subcommittee hearings became, instead, answers in a game of Trivial Pursuit with their own Wikipedia entries. Here, we meet Haldeman, Mitchell, Colson, Hunt, plus G Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, Fred LaRue and John Dean.

The cover-up turned out to be as ineptly executed as the burglary. Soon enough a brief story in The Washington Post led to the major investigative work of many reporters, but of two in particular, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; Senate hearings and special prosecutors; All the President’s Men and “Deep Throat”; and, eventually, the resignation of the US president. Watergate became shorthand for political corruption and the suffix (-gate) entered the English language to be fused to all manner of scandal.

Much of this “real” history happens offstage, hardly plot points at all. The main storyline is the players’ reaction to events and their motivation. Their memory of events is more important than their participation in them (this is rather amusing, 40 years later, since the most-used phrase during the Senate hearings was “I don’t recall”).

It might have tempted Mallon to approach his subject from one point of view, perhaps an omniscient third person, but this would, paradoxically, have limited him. Despite the volumes that have been published about the scandal, we don’t know all there is to know about what happened, and to what benefit is such a narrator if he doesn’t know everything? Instead, Mallon gives us seven narrators. They are some of the major players and a couple of surprises, each of them significant to the telling of this particular story and in this particular way: Richard Nixon; his wife, Pat; Woods; Hunt, a White House consultant; LaRue, a Mississippi businessman and deputy director of the CRP; Elliot Richardson, who held several cabinet positions under Nixon; and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the acid-tongued 90-year-old daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, the former president, who gets the novel’s best lines and acts as a kind of institutional memory (she’s been around so long that guests at her wedding in the White House East Room had, only 40 years before, filed by Abraham Lincoln’s body).

The novel begins and ends with LaRue, the White House/CRP bagman, which might seem like an odd choice but, given a fictional device Mallon uses – a police report – it makes sense. The report deals with the accidental shooting death of LaRue’s father and, unfortunately, it happens to be in a drawer in a desk used by Clarine Lander, a fictional DNC worker having an affair with LaRue. The report is a tool in Mallon’s examination of memory: LaRue is scarred by his inexact recollection of what happened. Did he shoot his father or not? He would rather live in the pain of ignorance than know the truth. The report also becomes a tool in Mallon’s hands to mix the personal with the political.

This is an important point to make, particularly regarding the Nixon White House. Nixon was an intensely insecure man, financially unstable, burdened by the memory of the premature death of two brothers and haunted by every personal and political enemy he’d ever encountered, the greatest among them being John Kennedy. This is all dealt with here, as is the cynical manner in which Nixon used Pat and his daughters, Julie and Tricia, for political purposes. They were props – attempts to warm the US public to a man seen as distant and cold – but also crutches: Nixon went to his family repeatedly looking for the love and assurance he couldn’t find in public life.

Two of Mallon’s fictional characters are involved in Watergate’s more touching scenes: Lander, and one Tom Garahan, with whom Pat Nixon has an affair in New York when the Nixons were living there between the failed presidential campaign of 1960 and Nixon’s run in 1968. Involving two real characters in one of the shadiest political scandals in US history in fictional love affairs humanises them.

With the clouds of Watergate darkening around them, Lander and LaRue, and Garahan and Pat Nixon, find comfort and light in each other and in their memories. Pat, as much as anyone, has so much to lose in the scandal and not only because her husband is a scoundrel and embarrassment. Knowing she might not ever see Garahan again should Nixon resign and they return to California, Pat sees Garahan added “to the stack of victims who were piling up like a cord of wood”. Yet, her love for Dick is steadfast and Mallon obeys a general rule of historical fiction: don’t change the past. “She felt calm returning. The storm that had gathered inside her for months had, in the space of an hour, spent itself. She knew that she would be with him to the end.”

Mallon structures the book chronologically in two parts, Hide and Seek, a not-so-subtle hint that Watergate itself was no child’s game, but also a throw to the espionage thrillers Howard Hunt used to write. Watergate was full of hidden facts and truths and, since 1972, many people have sought them out.

This novel is full of facts and truths, but it is fiction. There’s no point in trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not. Just as there is no point in trying to remember what was on the 18 minutes of Oval Office tape mysteriously erased by Rose Mary Woods. There are few who knew and they’re long since dead.

Raymond Beauchemin is the former deputy foreign editor of The National and the author of Everything I Own, a novel.