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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Watergate: A Novel’

- - Friday, February 24, 2012

WATERGATE: A NOVEL
By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, $26.95, 448 pages

Thomas Mallon, author of eight well-regarded novels and seven works of nonfiction, has written the first significant historical fiction novel centered in the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency. There have been works of fictionalized history, among them "All the President's Men," as well as important investigative studies of Watergate such as James Rosen's "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate." But this is the first historical novel, and it's fiction of a remarkably high order.

There are caveats. For those of us who worked in the Nixon White House, it's difficult not to object when Mr. Mallon creates certain backstories for the purpose of deepening character - an imagined affair for Pat Nixon, for instance, kept within boundaries of good taste but totally unnecessary. But, as Mr. Mallon reminds us in his acknowledgments, we're reading fiction, not history.

But romances aside, he gives us the Pat Nixon that friends and family have described over the years - a strong, sensitive and highly intelligent woman with a deep understanding of Washington politics, a natural extrovert with a fine sense of humor, and a woman totally devoted to her daughters and her husband, with whom she has an easy and affectionate relationship.

Two other remarkable women play key roles here. Rose Mary Woods, in fact and fiction, is one of those strong, centered executive secretaries, a disappearing breed totally dedicated to their bosses, deeply knowledgeable about their businesses, and knowing who should and should not have access. With Richard Nixon since the earliest days, she quite naturally resents the naming of H.R. Haldeman as chief of staff, allowing him to usurp some of her duties.

But her larger concerns lie in what she perceives as a threat to the best interests of her boss. She has little use for the new breed of bright young men produced by the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP); nor, as she listens to excerpts from the tapes, is she reassured by what she hears from the advisers who are increasingly closeted with him, especially the president's attorney, John Dean.

Her comments are always on point. "You need to destroy John Dean," she tells the president at Camp David. "And you need to get rid of those tapes." In April 1973, this would have still been possible, and it was the course recommended early on by those, like Pat Buchanan, closest to him. But for reasons never clearly articulated or understood, he couldn't.

In addition to giving coherent structure to the narrative as it exists on tapes, Mr. Mallon adds social and political texture to his story by creating scenes centered around one of his strongest real/fictionalized characters, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and widow of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, a splendid lady of the day who knew everyone in Washington - and in her way, a Nixon supporter.

Mrs. Longworth also allows Mr. Mallon to exercise his mannerist's gift for caricature and social satire, and periodically functions as chorus. "You say the press are trying to cripple Dick," she says to her friend Joseph Alsop. "They are not. ... They are trying to kill him."

Mr. Mallon's Richard Nixon is true to the tapes and also true to life, a man with great and justifiable resentments, but a man of considerable intellect - a man who loved to read and think in terms of grand designs and visions. And when he spoke of building "a lasting structure of peace," he meant it.

Through those last years, while he was implementing an intricate plan for extricating us from the Democrat-created morass in Vietnam and reconfiguring the global balance of power, that "third rate burglary" occurred; and many of us who worked for him believed, as the tapes demonstrate, that he never really understood the reasons for the break-in, why the cover-up was necessary or even what was being covered up.

Mr. Mallon seems to agree. On the flight from Washington to exile in San Clemente, he has Mr. Nixon say to Pat: "I'm so ... mystified! ... I don't know how it happened, how it began. ... I hear myself on the tapes I realize that I'm barely remembering who works for who over at the committee. I hear myself acting like I know more than I do - pretending to be on top of the thing so that I don't embarrass myself with whoever's in the room ..."

In character, and believable. And after nearly 40 years of studies and investigations, the reasons for the history-altering break-in at Democratic Party headquarters - or even who ordered it - remain a mystery.

Toward the end of the novel, in a conversation between Fred LaRue and Jeb Magruder, it's suggested that in 1972, in a drunken conversation, Mr. Magruder had confused Larry O'Brien's name with the similar sounding name of someone who had nothing whatsoever to do with matters of interest to the administration and had no office at the Watergate.

Fiction, to be sure. But just as acceptable as any of the factual explanations history has left us with.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley).