In a stealth bull’s-eye of a political novel, Thomas Mallon invests the Watergate affair with all the glitter, glamour, suave grace and subtlety that it doesn’t often get. His cleverly counterintuitive Watergate even has the name-dropping panache of a Hollywood tell-all. In one typically well-waltzed episode the guests at an Oct. 20, 1973, birthday party for columnist Art Buchwald include the Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, “with an attractive, sharp-eyed girlfriend, apparently a reporter”; “Lyndon’s little poodle, Jack Valenti — now a miniature, silver-haired version of the MGM lion, cheerleading the movie business on”; ancient Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the most caustic party guest in town; and network television newscaster Roger Mudd.
Only when a loudspeaker begins paging Mudd does it become apparent that this is that Saturday night: the night of former US president Richard M. Nixon’s executive dismissal of Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor; Elliot Richardson, the attorney general; and William Ruckelshaus, the deputy attorney general. These events, which earned the sobriquet “Saturday Night Massacre,” happen almost casually in the midst of Mallon’s fine, boisterous historical tableau.
How accurate will hair splitters find this episode? “The text contains deviations from fact that some readers will regard as unpardonable and others will deem unworthy of notice,” Mallon writes blithely in an afterword. So readers who deem the book’s liberties too free can stick to the tonnage of Watergate memoirs, transcripts, investigative reports and marginalia. More fun-loving types can take Watergate as lively, witty drama and give Mallon a pass on the grueling fact-checking his story might otherwise warrant.
By Thomas Mallon
Mallon, the director of the creative writing program at George Washington University, recently talked to the student newspaper there about his research process. At a certain point he began investigating on a need-to-know basis for fear of bogging down in details and giving Watergate the feel of a dissertation.
He also felt free to make things up, so a few characters — like an old flame of the first lady, Pat Nixon — are clearly inventions. But most of the time the book is laced together so seamlessly that it’s impossible to be sure where the reality leaves off and the fabricating begins.
A couple of tactical conceits work very well here. One is Mallon’s decision to zero in on Watergate’s most colorful characters and give each of them a distinct point of view. Most of them are women: Even when the book follows the worried thoughts of former US attorney general John Mitchell, it offers a sad but riotous depiction of his loose-cannon wife, Martha, to whom he is still deeply, romantically attached.
But the book’s uncontested star is Longworth, who remembers the Teapot Dome scandal and certainly knows how to put this one in perspective, and who is never at a loss for a scorching one-liner. “I believe she’s to be released back into the wild after the benediction,” she says of singer Ethel Merman. The gentleness with which Longworth makes Nixon a confidant and tries to help him are especially touching, given what a she-demon she is to everyone else.
Mallon also reanimates Rose Mary Woods, the president’s fiercely loyal secretary, whose way with a tape recorder became the centerpiece of the Watergate investigation. Here she’s very human indeed: tipsily fun loving, easily flattered and sharply opinionated about other White House personnel. (She hates H.R. Haldeman but loves the macho good cheer of Alexander Haig.) Dorothy Hunt, the tough, stubborn wife of the ex-CIA man E. Howard Hunt, is also made three-dimensional, and her husband’s pain over her death becomes palpable on the page. Refreshing note: The Watergate burglars themselves, so often a source of confusion in unraveling the story’s criminal aspects, are mere walk-ons to Mallon. G. Gordon Liddy, a character who could wear out his welcome in no time, is just the butt of occasional jokes.