One of my mother’s favorite pictures was of Alice Roosevelt Longworth standing in our front hallway. Known as “the other Washington monument” for her wit, cunning, and endurance, Longworth famously owned a pillow that read, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” The oldest daughter of Teddy Roosevelt lived to be 96, surviving a double mastectomy, 13 administrations after her father’s, and the end of an era where Washington was both powerful and cozy. I never knew her, but after reading Thomas Mallon’s clever, surprising comic novel Watergate (Pantheon) I feel like I do.
Longworth is one of the half-dozen characters Mallon uses to tell his tale. You won’t find her in All the President’s Men or Breach of Faith or most of the other accounts of the scandal that ended the Nixon presidency. But Watergate is not concerned with charting the main characters in the big drama that shaped modern politics, public attitudes about war, politicians, election financing, and the power of the media. If you’re looking for a sweeping account of the hearings, the media circus, the red flag Woodward tied on the flower pot to signal a meeting with Deep Throat — you’re not going to get it at all. This is a story about men and women at the periphery, whose lives are crumpled by the events so well-chronicled in those other books.
These are personal stories. The scandal grows out of them. Huge moments in history are initiated by private choices — little acts of survival, revenge, loyalty, ambition, and love. In Watergate, Nixon’s taping system exists so the president could have a record of foreign-policy achievements and keep Kissinger from taking credit. John Mitchell’s wife distracts him from his duties as Nixon’s campaign chairman, which lets Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy run wild with their scheme to break into DNC headquarters. Hunt leaves behind a bill to his country club during the break-in, which gives him away. Fred LaRue, who went to jail for helping with the cover-up, is haunted by his accidental shooting of his father. “I can’t help feeling that it’s Watergate that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the lives of three little people,” says Pat Nixon’s lover Tom Garahan, capturing the book’s message.
Wait, Pat Nixon had a lover? Not in real life, as far as anyone knows. But in Mallon’s novel, she sneaks Garahan into her life like the furtive cigarettes she relishes. In one of the most powerful scenes in the book, Garahan, a retired widower, pleads with Pat Nixon to move back to New York after her husband is forced from office. The world is crashing down. A presidency is going to end. Big Things Are Happening, but none of it matters as much as the urgent and desperate need this man has to be near this woman he loves. It’s the payoff to a long, well-rendered flirtation between the two. Mallon nails every detail of the encounter. Imaginative fiction can tell a deeper truth than writing that sticks to demonstrable fact; in this case, Mallon’s portrait of Pat is of a woman who shoehorns her own desires into the eight-minute snatches of free time in her first-lady schedule. In Watergate, Pat Nixon was covering up before her husband was.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth has a secret too—her only daughter was the love child of her affair with Sen. William Borah of Idaho. LaRue, the Mississippi businessman and Republican Party builder, also has a hidden affair at the center of his life. In the familiar version of Watergate, Nixon is the haunted figure, ruled by demons of insecurity and ambition. In this one his bum leg gets more attention than any of that. It’s LaRue who is on the run from his darkest self. He worries that in a drunken rage he may have killed his father in a hunting accident. He was too blotto to know for sure.
As with many of the characters connected to the Watergate crimes, the lines LaRue may have crossed are blurry and his reasons not so clear. LaRue’s search for the truth — contained in an official investigative report inadvertently swept up by the Watergate burglars—animates this novel more than Woodward and Bernstein’s bloodhound chase. Washington Post columnist Joe Alsop gets far more ink than the dynamic duo. He, like Longworth, is from an era that would disappear after Watergate, after the chummy relations between the press and the powerful are overturned.
In this private drama of affairs and accommodations, it turns out the troublemakers have some of the best marriages. Howard Hunt (who planned the break-in) and John Mitchell both love their strong and variously crazy wives. When Dorothy Hunt goes down in a plane crash — with $10,000 in her purse — it’s shocking, because a lively character from the novel is now gone. She’s been the one keeping her husband and the others involved in the break-in from being sold out by the White House. One of the most human moments in this portrait of Howard Hunt comes long after his wife has died, when he interrupts an exchange of secret papers with a mysterious woman who claims to have had a conversation with his wife. “Did she say she loved me?” he asks, clinging to any scrap of her memory.
If you’re under 50, I may well have just spoiled part of the book for you by telling you about that plane crash. Of course, if you’re of a certain age you saw it coming. You might have been waiting all along for the moment when Dorothy gets taken offstage. This is a central issue complicating the book. You may know what’s at stake when Rose Mary Woods starts erasing on the Dictabelt. If you grew up in Washington, it’s really fun imagining the humorist Art Buchwald at the McLean tennis club while the Saturday Night Massacre happens. But a lot of rich material falls away if you don’t know the history. When Pat Nixon talks about buses at the White House, for instance, the description comes and goes. In November 1969 Vietnam protesters were so numerous the police circled the White House with D.C. Transit buses. If you didn’t know that, the novel doesn’t give you much. It’s a missed opportunity to get a better feeling of the sea in which all of these characters are swimming.
Mallon took an exciting creative risk ignoring characters like G. Gordon Liddy and John Ehrlichman. But Watergate isn’t like Game of Thrones —you can’t just ignore most of the characters you come across. To properly enjoy the book—or at least not carry along the haunted feeling you’re constantly missing something—you should probably brush up on your Watergate history and keep a roster of important names. I found myself asking too many times about characters in the book the same thing everyone was asking in Washington 40 years ago: “What did they know, and when did they know it?”