'Watergate': Dreamworking America's long national nightmare

Armed with rich material and complex characters, novelist Thomas Mallon tries to make the scandal sing

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Among my collection of historical "artifacts," along with the Oct. 13, 1960, late edition of The Pittsburgh Press is a yellowed copy of the Washington Post from Aug. 9, 1974. It's my proof that Richard Milhous Nixon did indeed resign the presidency a year and nine months after he won re-election by one of the largest margins in history.

The days leading up to his resignation produced an extraordinary time in the country culminating in its worst constitutional crisis since secession. Lumped under the label "Watergate," these were perilous and fascinating times.

"Watergate: A Novel"
By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon ($26.95)

Let's hope we never see their like again, but as someone said about forgetting the past, a repeat isn't out of the question. Watergate, though, does seem as faded and forgotten as my Post edition, the newspaper which uncovered the bizarre doings that ultimately sent Nixon back to San Clemente.

Unlike the John Kennedy assassination, Watergate has failed to spark the imagination of fiction writers. Now, a popular novelist takes on the challenge of telling the story -- and comes up short.

Thomas Mallon's entertaining and occasionally poignant novel leaves the import of Watergate to historians. Instead, he focuses on the lives of those affected by the event, most of whom are forgotten today.

The names, however, lack the sense of drama and mystery found in JFK's killing. Instead, the novelist frames these ordinary, if not banal, people within their confined lives. There's very little sense that Watergate was a significant, if not scary, crisis for the United States.

The author, whose previous works of fiction were based on real events, creates hybridized history that commingles actual occurrences and people with fabricated ones speaking dialogue and thinking thoughts he's invented to tell his version of the times.

"Watergate" takes it a step further than many of his other novels where fictional characters were at the center of the action. This time, Mr. Mallon's protagonists actually lived through the storm. Now dead, they can't object to the way the novelist shapes them to suit his purposes.

The leading man is Fred "Hound" LaRue, well-to-do Mississippi oilman and GOP handyman whose tasks include delivering hush money to E. Howard Hunt, former CIA officer and Watergate burglar. He was also present at a meeting where former Attorney General John Mitchell discussed a "dirty tricks" program as part of Nixon's re-election campaign.

Those "tricks" included the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office-apartment complex that gave the episode its name. LaRue served time in a federal lockup for obstruction of justice then disappeared, dying in 2004 at 75. Mr. Mallon makes him the unwitting spark to the chain of events that destroyed Nixon's presidency, although it could be argued that it was the nature of the man himself that led to his downfall.

Mr. Mallon's imagined reason for the comedy of errors attempt on the night of June 17, 1972, is, in the language of the times, a cop-out, which is disappointing for what is otherwise an engaging novel enriched by a cast of curious people.

There are first lady Pat Nixon, to whom the novelist gives a lover; a feisty, smooth-dancing Rosemary Woods and the real reason for the 18-minute gap on a White House recording; 90-year-old Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the sharp-tongued still-mischievous daughter of Theodore Roosevelt; and the Hunts, E. Howard, and wife Dorothy.

Mrs. Hunt died in a jetliner crash Dec. 8, 1972. She had been the intermediary between White House hush money and the Watergate break-in crew. Her death devastated Hunt, who shortly went to jail for his role, leaving three children in the care of others.

(Years later, I interviewed Hunt when he visited Pittsburgh -- it's a long bizarre story -- and had no idea of the pain he suffered in Watergate's aftermath. I only recall his forced laughter and downcast eyes when questioned.)

Of course, there's the president himself -- Richard Milhous Nixon, the "Old Man" or "Tricky Dick." Stiff and sanctimonious in public, he was profane and prejudiced in private, the ultimate political paranoid who gave his enemies "a sword. And they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish." Mr. Mallon gives him no quarter, but at least the slightest spark of humanity, most notably in a phone call to Jacqueline Kennedy that I assume was genuine.

Mr. Mallon lists four pages of "players," a scorecard of sorts for those unfamiliar with Watergate. He identifies his imaginary characters with quote marks. Then the novel begins, clumsily, reading more like a primer on the era than a novel.

It never manages to lose that "educational" sense among its lively re-creation of a far-off time. For people like me, though, who lived through that time (I was outside the White House fence the day Nixon resigned), "Watergate" recalls the nature of those fascinating days.

For the less-invested, the novel is a curiosity piece, a musty old newspaper that lacks urgency and drama. As skilled as he is, Mr. Mallon appears overwhelmed by his subject, so he shrinks its extraordinary nature to the ordinary. The impact of Watergate seems less threatening that way, but also less interesting as fiction.

Bob Hoover : pittbookeditor@hotmail.com . First Published February 19, 2012 5:00 AM


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