Watergate Finally Gets Its Novel
Watergate: A Novel. By Thomas Mallon, Pantheon Books, 448 pages, $26.95.
Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. By Ann Beattie, Scribner, 282 pages, $26.00.
This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters by yeggs with White House connections that provoked the Watergate scandal and led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as 37th president of the United States. It’s the kind of benchmark that leaves people who lived through those days facing two realizations, fused by the unwelcome recognition that we’re pretty old.
Something we experienced is now as dusty as Ginger Rogers in Gold Diggers of 1933. An event we were convinced would always resonate turned out to be our random turn on the merry-go-round. All sorts of nefariousness later—from Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra end run around Congress, arguably a worse assault on constitutional niceties, to Bush v. Gore, definitely a grimmer satire of the election process—Watergate’s Queen of the Scandal Prom tiara looks fairly weathered.
In her senility, the old dame’s main distinction is that the perps got their just deserts, meaning disgrace for Nixon and jail time for his henchmen. But that seems less triumph than fluke now. Far from slinking out of view, the us-against-them pathology we once blamed on his administration’s paranoia has become endemic in our politics. Because he couldn’t help how his curdled soul undid his nobler aspirations (and he did have them), Nixon’s demons are humanly preferable to his old media wallah Roger Ailes’s cynical glee.
As for the idea back then that Watergate would put paid to executive-branch hubris—never mind George W. Bush. Barack Obama’s belief that U.S. citizens can be assassinated on his say-so is a heady new spin on Nixon’s “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” The claim that our seven-month bombing campaign in Libya didn’t amount to “hostilities” was Newspeak to do Nixon’s White House proud. Sure, we can believe Anwar al-Awlaki deserved killing and tell ourselves that the Libya thing seems to have worked out. That won’t stop the ghosts of ex–press secretary Ron Ziegler, ex–chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, and Tricky Dick his own self from chortling in their various infernos.
Up to now, with scattered exceptions like Kurt Vonnegut’s 1979 Jailbird—not one of his best—Watergate hasn’t tempted our fiction writers. Movies were how the scandal metastasized into cultural fodder, not so much directly (All the President’s Men, a slew of mostly crummy TV docudramas) as indirectly. From The Godfather, Part II, to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, a sense of rot and threat was everywhere.
But maybe literature just needs more time. The cusp between fading memory and history-book history is a fertile place for novelists to get busy. Now Thomas Mallon and Ann Beattie both have, to very different effect but with one striking similarity. Just months after starring in Beattie’s self-impressed Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, Pat Nixon—first lady of the land from 1969 to 1974—is a major, warmly imagined character in Mallon’s Watergate.
It’s a bit unfair to compare the two books directly. Longtime Washington novelist Mallon’s is full-blown historical fiction told from multiple perspectives. Veteran boomer chronicler Beattie has written a hybrid of imaginary monologues, intermittently interesting skits spun off from key episodes in Dick and Pat’s life before, during, and after Watergate, and often gassy ruminations on “the writer’s” stratagems, purposes, and “more expansive sensibility” vis-à-vis her blinkered subjects. (She primly adds, “It’s not a value judgment,” but the hell it isn’t.)
The one perception both writers share is more eye-opening because it’s shared. Erupting when second-wave feminism was still the stuff of bra-burning jokes, Watergate, like American politics in general, was—or seemed to be at the time—an almost exclusively masculine affair. Viewing the whole stew through female eyes is a shrewd way at this late date of finding fresh insights into power, secrecy, and public role-playing.
And a way of permitting creative latitude, the more so as Mrs. Nixon never wrote her memoirs. Ditto her husband’s longtime secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who’s almost as prominent as Pat in Mallon’s novel even before her notorious erasure of what became known as the “18-minute gap” in one of Nixon’s taped Oval Office conversations. (Mallon’s invented explanation for what provoked the action is as funny as it is plausible.) Sadly, Martha Mitchell, the irrepressible wife of Nixon campaign manager turned attorney general turned convicted Watergate felon John Mitchell, was too often sozzled—and then too soon dead—to put pen to paper, either.
The peculiarity of Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, however, is that one closes it without knowing what, besides showcasing her own cleverness, drew its author to Pat Nixon—“a person I would have done anything to avoid” in life, she says. Why, I wonder? Unlike hubby, Pat never harmed anyone and showed admirable grace under pressure as well as fidelity to her own self-abnegating values. Few people now would deny she had courage.
Hating Nixon is, of course, another story. A tired one, but that’s not the same as being wrongheaded. As Beattie puts it in one of her better observations, “A lot of people liked [Pat], but something seemed wrong because she was married to him.” Yet even when Beattie strives to mimic compassion, she condescends, cluttering her heroine’s mind with Dick’s-better-half banalities (“A man doesn’t mind a good chocolate milkshake, let me tell you!”) or snidely imagining her reading Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” after being presented with a crystal bowl by a group of Senate wives.
The book isn’t all “Stupid Pat Tricks” though. Every so often, Beattie convinces you she’s channeling Pat, never more so than when, under attack from a mob in Venezuela, the then–vice president’s wife worries first about what will become of her daughters if she and Dick end up dead. A comic sketch of the Nixons adopting a dog in retirement is first-rate; curiously, Beattie is better at imagining his dialogue than hers. Good lines here and there—of Nixon, “his wife always knew he could do it. It was just that she didn’t want him to”—hint at the book Mrs. Nixon might have been if only Beattie had just written a novel instead of implying the job’s beneath her.
Mallon, by contrast, has not only written a novel but a terrific one. Because Watergate, perhaps inevitably, starts out in the kaleidoscopic manner of many a time-mildewed Washington thriller (think Seven Days in May), it takes a while to realize how rich and ambitious the book is. Mallon’s major achievement as he takes us from the eve of the break-in to Nixon’s resignation is to turn the scandal’s real-life players from yesteryear’s TV gargoyles into human beings. It could be the first time they’ve been seen that way, at least by anyone but themselves.
Mallon’s Pat Nixon is convincing right down to her homely, determinedly modest inner imagery for herself. At one fraught moment, she notices that her hand is trembling “as if she’d just bowled several frames.” (When Beattie does this kind of thing, she’s being supercilious; Mallon is empathizing.) Equally good is his rendering of a Rose Woods whose emotions are so sublimated by her relationship with her boss that she doesn’t recognize that her selfless devotion is vanity.
Another, more unexpected female character is brilliantly chosen: socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s octogenarian daughter and the District’s ultimate tart-tongued onlooker. As acute about herself as she is about everyone else—“I allowed my personality to swallow whatever real person I might have been,” she tells Nixon in a climactic tête-à-tête—she’s not only a link to the capital’s past but the occasion for glittering social comedy. Plus much vintage Washington gossip (who was JFK Jr.’s real father?) that Mallon, Gore Vidal–style, plainly enjoys serving up. Yet he’s only malicious in his characterization of the Nixon administration’s blueblood for all seasons, Elliot Richardson, “marooned in the paradise of his reputation.”
While Mallon doesn’t overdo the period decor, he knows the mores of a bygone Washington where one proof you were in the swim was to drink like a fish. His soused Martha Mitchell is exuberantly vivid, above all in a scene that has her crashing Teddy Kennedy’s birthday party in the full awareness she’ll be a sensation, not an intruder. Ventriloquized via Alice Longworth, Mallon’s crack about Boston-born Richardson’s “maddening double-slur of alcohol and lockjaw” brought back my own fascinated glimpse as a McLean, Virginia, teenager of our disheveled-looking secretary of health, education, and welfare—or was he attorney general by then?—emerging from an ABC store with a brown-bagged bottle of booze one fine Saturday morning. The time-machine details are unfailingly sharp, from Woods grumping because Camp David only gets reception from a single TV station to “the light of a hundred Instamatic flash cubes” at an inaugural ball. I’d almost forgotten those dinky little cameras, among the earliest to not only be cheap but look it.
Those who, like me, do remember how unwieldy the unfolding Watergate saga was to keep track of will also admire the deftness of Mallon’s selectivity in presenting it from the perspective of those for whom its bombshells weren’t revelations but exposed secrets. By and large, he has public highlights like the Ervin Committee hearings occur offstage. We get the culprits’ trepidatious or finagling reactions to each new development instead. If Woodward and Bern-stein rate barely a mention, that’s no doubt accurate too—this bunch already knew what was going to be in the duo’s Washington Post stories.
Despite Mallon’s craft, however, he may rely on readers’ firsthand memories more than he realizes. The short shrift given physical descriptions and other nudging reminders of who’s who is no problem for geezers, since we need only read John Mitchell’s name or even a bit player like Jeb Magruder’s to recall their televised looks, tics, and demeanor like it was yesterday. But anyone under 50 may have trouble keeping the cast straight. That’s one reason I wonder how Watergate will register to those not steeped in the era.
Another is that Mallon’s approach takes Watergate’s momentousness as a given instead of amplifying it for newbies’ benefit. Treating the scandal’s inner workings as District chamber drama leaves out how it first confused, then wrenched and appalled (and sometimes delighted) the country at large. So here’s a question. Why should people who weren’t born yet care—any more than my generation cared about, say, Teapot Dome? Despite being great theater and the grand finale to the whole alternately heady and sulfuric trip launched by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Watergate wasn’t all that consequential to the country’s future.
Compute what it changed besides Nixon’s address, and you don’t come up with a lot: campaign-finance reforms that are now dead letters, a temporary surge in applications to journalism school, a consensus among later presidents that Oval Office taping systems aren’t a great idea. As for the loss of innocence favored by cliché-mongers, presumably we all know by now that American innocence springs eternal. One proof was Reagan’s election with a deliberate appeal to it just six years after Nixon resigned.
Starting with the “Southern Strategy” that transformed the region from a bigoted Democratic bastion to a bigoted Republican one and not neglecting Roger Ailes’s Fox News career, the bigger genies Nixon let out of the bottle went right on genie-ing away. He might not recognize today’s elephant party; I’m not sure Reagan would. But Nixon fecit is still inscribed somewhere on its hindquarters, and pity the unlucky blind man who feels that part up.
Two cheers for nostalgia, though. Those three Watergate summers were exhilarating. The scandal’s best-kept secret is that, for Washingtonians, it was the time of our lives: “Carnival in Rio,” as Chris Matthews once endearingly wrote. No doubt that confused his non-Beltway audience, still under the impression that Watergate was some sort of national tragedy.
True, I was in my callow teens then: a happy Capitol Hill intern during the Ervin hearings, regretful mostly that my Nixonphobic dad wasn’t around to enjoy this. Bliss it would have been to him to be alive, but to be young was very heaven. Believe it or not—and I bet former first daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower can hum it, too—the vintage song that most brings back Watergate for me is one-hit wonder Terry Jacks’s 1973 version of a croaker ditty by Jacques Brel: “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun/But the wine, and the song, like the seasons have all gone.”
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