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Nixon and Friends, Stalked With Literary License


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#1 Douglas Caddy

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Posted 16 February 2012 - 05:04 PM

February 15, 2012
Nixon and Friends, Stalked With Literary License
The New York Times
By JANET MASLIN

WATERGATE
By Thomas Mallon
432 pages. Pantheon Books. $26.95.

In this 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 the columnist Art Buchwald include The Washington Post’s 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 the 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 President Richard M. Nixon’s dismissal of Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor; and the departures of Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, and William Ruckelshaus, the deputy attorney general, who both refused to fire Cox. These events, which earned the sobriquet “Saturday Night Massacre,” happen almost casually in the midst of Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Mallon a pass on the grueling fact-checking his story might otherwise warrant.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 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 Alice 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 the singer Ethel Merman. The gentleness with which Mrs. Longworth makes Nixon a confidant and tries to help him are especially touching, given what a she-demon she is to everyone else.

Mr. 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-C.I.A. 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 Mr. Mallon. G. Gordon Liddy, a character who could wear out his welcome in no time, is just the butt of occasional jokes.

The other smart tactic on display in “Watergate” is Mr. Mallon’s understated way of working vital information into his account. Important events — like the discovery that Woods somehow erased part of a crucial White House recording — are mentioned almost in passing. (“The story of the blank stretch had broken yesterday,” the book simply says.)

Veteran Watergate watchers will also notice Mr. Mallon’s unusual way of dealing with the press: he ignores it. There is a reference to “Bernstein and Woodward,” who were not a brand name to the White House then. And there is an apt jibe at broadcast journalists for using the word “unprecedented” until it “seemed a synonym for ‘routine.’ ” In “Watergate” the news media are most alive in the pipe dreams of those characters who imagine the laurels that await them after this little historical blip has run its course. The most wickedly drawn is Richardson, a k a “the Former Everything” because of all the cabinet-level posts he has held. It is he who, for all his patrician bonhomie and very false modesty, harbors the most vanity and ambition in this story. Mr. Mallon mocks him mercilessly, never more so than when Richardson is indulging his habit of painting bird watercolors while Rome, figuratively, burns.

Richardson is on the extreme other side of the sympathy scale from Fred LaRue, the moneyman from Mississippi who served as deputy director of the infamous Committee for the Re-Election of the President. LaRue is made to seem a hapless dupe caught up in scandal on a scale he could never have imagined. An envelope of his, labeled “moot,” serves as the “Rosebud” of Mr. Mallon’s story.

Then of course there’s Nixon himself. Mr. Mallon wastes no time on the familiar caricatures of a sloshed, foul-mouthed chief executive and his wooden wife. His Nixons are an affectionate couple, surprisingly relaxed (she calls him “pal”) and intimate after three decades of marriage. And the president’s public awkwardness masks something more human.

“Nixon’s self-pity was a mere overlay, a kind of plastic transparency protecting the authentic anguish visible beneath,” Mr. Mallon writes. Even a cap on his teeth poignantly appears to be “infinitesimally whiter, and curiously more sincere, than the rest of his smile.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 15, 2012

An earlier version of this review misstated the circumstances under which Elliot Richardson left his post as attorney general. He resigned; he was not dismissed.

#2 Douglas Caddy

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Posted 26 February 2012 - 09:05 PM

The ghosts of Watergate
By George F. Will
Washington Post
Published: February 24, 2012

In 1960, when Thomas Mallon was in the fourth grade, he wore his Nixon-Lodge button to school and warned classmates that John Kennedy was too inexperienced to be president. Mallon was crushed when Richard Nixon lost, but things worked out well. He is a novelist for whom Nixon eventually provided interesting characters.

They’re back. Howard Hunt, Bernard Barker, James McCord, John Dean, Bob Haldeman, Fred LaRue, Gordon Liddy, John and Martha Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, Charles Colson, Herbert Kalmbach, Gordon Strachan, Rose Mary Woods, Anthony (“Tough Tony”) Ulasewicz and others. These were the dramatis personae of the scandal — actually a mare’s nest of scandals — that began to become public 40 years ago this coming June 17.

The gang that couldn’t burgle well properly got caught breaking back into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate. This burglary was supposed to accomplish what a botched burglary in May had not accomplished — planting listening devices.

The characters all have an encore in Mallon’s novel “Watergate.” In his practiced hands — this is not his first fling at historical fiction — the festering mess of 1972-74 becomes almost fun, actually funny, and instructive about how history can be knocked sideways by small mediocrities.

Mallon decided to put the minor figure of LaRue — a Mississippi moneyman for the Committee for the Re-election of the President — at the novel’s center after seeing a Watergate documentary in which LaRue was profoundly remorseful about not having spoken up in a March 30, 1972, meeting with John Mitchell. There the former attorney general, then running Nixon’s reelection campaign, deferred for another day a decision about financing Liddy and other nitwits bent on mischief.

Mallon believes, and he thinks that Nixon believed, that a distracted Mitchell, who was deeply in love with his deeply disturbed and alcoholic Martha, was at least partly to blame for things spinning out of control. Be that as it may, Mallon uses his literary sensibility and mordant wit to give humanity to characters who in their confusions and delusions staggered across the national stage, utterly unqualified for the prominence they enjoyed until it devoured them.

A mountain of nonfiction has been written about Watergate, yet four decades on it is still unclear who ordered the burglary or why. Perhaps no one ordered it; perhaps Hunt and the Cubans from Bay of Pigs Brigade 2506 thought they were supposed to improvise ways to help save the republic from President Nixon’s opponent, George McGovern, who was just five months away from losing 49 states.

Mallon thinks that the burglars may have been seeking evidence that Fidel Castro was funneling money to the McGovern campaign. But having listened to hundreds of hours of Nixon’s tapes, Mallon considers them “totally inculpating”: He is sure that Nixon — a “misanthrope in a flesh-presser’s profession” — did not know in advance about the burglary. Mallon hears Nixon on tape constantly “trying to give the impression that he knows more than he did, not less.” Mallon’s “Watergate” is a tale of floundering, frightened people unsure of what had happened or what others were telling investigators.

He says that his novel contains “no big counterfactuals” — if you do not count his made-up affair between Pat Nixon and an old flame. The friendship that he depicts between Nixon, he of “that madly dissociative smile,” and the acidic Alice Roosevelt Longworth was real. Mallon deftly suggests the continuities of American history when he depicts Longworth remembering Abraham Lincoln’s former private secretary, John Hay, when he was secretary of state for her father, Theodore Roosevelt.

Most Americans have no living memory of Watergate, and Mallon’s novel, which merits many readers, will be for many of them a primer, perhaps whetting their curiosity about this ugly discontinuity in the nation’s governance. Novels can be fine supplements to histories.

Dumas Malone’s six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson and Robert V. Remini’s several books on Andrew Jackson are splendid, but Max Byrd’s historical novels about the third and seventh presidents bring both men alive in ways that only a literary imagination can. One measure of Lincoln’s greatness is that not even a curdled cynic such as Gore Vidal could resist the spell in his novel “Lincoln.” To understand Huey Long, read T. Harry Williams’ masterful biography, but then get inside the scoundrel’s skin by reading Robert Penn Warren’s portrait of Long as Willie Stark in the novel “All the King’s Men.”

And let Mallon be your archaeologist, excavating a now distant past that reminds us that things could be very much worse. They once

#3 Douglas Caddy

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 07:34 PM

New York Times Book Review
March 2, 2012
Expletives Deleted
By CURTIS SITTENFELD

WATERGATE
By Thomas Mallon
432 pp. Pantheon Books. $26.95.

I’m fairly sure it’s a faux pas to compare a novel and a television show, but I mean it as a compliment to both when I say that Thomas Mallon’s new novel, “Watergate,” bears a certain resemblance to “The West Wing.” Like that much-loved NBC drama, “Watergate” shifts among various men and women — mostly men — working inside and outside the White House. Even when the action becomes convoluted, we’re propelled forward and kept highly entertained by the colorful characters, the delicious insider details, the intelligence of the dialogue.

Where “The West Wing” and “Watergate” diverge, at least most obviously, is that one is about a fictitious, idealized Democratic president and his staff while the other features fictional depictions of real, corrupt Republicans. This difference is less pronounced than you might imagine, however, largely because of Mallon’s evenhandedness. He’s not out to lampoon Richard Nixon or anyone else. Nor is he out to redeem the Nixon administration, which would have been just as tedious. In fact, Mallon avoids rendering Watergate in the familiar and expected ways: there are only fleeting references to Woodward and Bernstein, and the eventual profusion of indictments and imprisonments aren’t major plot points.

What Mallon captures particularly well is the fundamental weirdness and mystery at the center of the scandal. Who was trying to achieve what with those break-ins? And why? Given how ineptly they were carried out, could the sloppiness have been intentional — either as a result of double agentry or as individual self-­sabotage? In these pages, even those closest to the events remain bewildered by their smallness — their ridiculousness, even — and their contrastingly outsize and ruinous consequences.

It appears that Mallon’s primary goal, one he achieves with great finesse, is to make the portrayals of his characters as believable as possible. Like the rest of us, they aren’t simply moral or immoral but are both clever and defensive, selfish and self-pitying, sweet and loyal, generous and venal. Also, there are quite a lot of them.

Mallon’s initial list of “The Players” in this book contains 112 names, perhaps an unnecessary resource for readers who lived through Watergate, but extremely valuable for those, like me, who did not. Yet Mallon’s control over his material, his ability to subtly cue the reader about what information warrants close attention, means that “Watergate” isn’t usually confusing, even to a younger reader and even though name-bestrewn passages like this one, which describes the night of Nixon’s landslide 1972 re-election, are common:

“Nixon sorted through congratulatory messages and returned phone calls from Rockefeller and Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s tough-cop mayor, who made Agnew look like Elliot Richardson, according to Ehrlichman. When Haldeman reminded them of this line, Nixon asked, ‘Was Richardson on the platform at the hotel?’ ”

With such a large cast, it’s no surprise that the characters who show up the most often emerge the most vividly: Fred LaRue, a gentle White House aide from Mississippi, haunted by a not-so-gentle secret, who deliberately flies below the radar of the public; Rose Mary Woods, the president’s tough and steadfast secretary (and yes, the eraser of those tapes — though not for the reason everyone thinks); Elliot Richardson, who serves as secretary of health, education and welfare, then of defense and finally as Nixon’s attorney general, hiding his own presidential ambitions behind a screen of self-­righteousness. (Hoping to be tapped as Gerald Ford’s vice president after Nixon’s resignation, Richardson makes an amusingly blunt list “of his rivals’ liabilities”: Gov. Nelson Rockefeller is “too old, pushy,” while Senator Edward Brooke is “too liberal, black.”)

Also included in the mix is Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, widow of the former House speaker Nicholas Longworth and famed deliverer of bons mots. At 90, Mrs. L. remains “a creature of motiveless mischief” who steals every scene she’s in. She demands that the White House schedule Christmas parties around her own calendar, performs bucktoothed impersonations of her cousin Eleanor, rides the dumbwaiter in her house (or claims to) because there’s no elevator and stays up all night reading, then uses the bone from a veal chop as a bookmark.

As for the Nixons, sad and stoic Pat is also keeping a secret, one that makes her seem highly sympathetic. And Mallon abandons the usual sweaty, paranoid caricature of Nixon, offering instead a nuanced man who can even be endearing — quite a feat for those of us in the generation for which a Nixon Halloween mask is as much a reference point as Nixon himself. Mallon’s Nixon is preoccupied less with his enemies than with his foreign policy. An oddly touching moment in October 1972 has Rose Mary Woods glancing at a folder marked Oslo, “containing a plan of action to be implemented should the president win the Nobel Peace Prize. If he secured the Vietnam deal on top of China and Russia, how, Rose wondered, could he not get it?” (Ironically, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state, would win it the following year.)

A “misanthrope in a flesh-presser’s profession,” this Nixon is awkward rather than evil. He’s chivalrous with elderly Mrs. Longworth, forgiving of subordinates’ mistakes and entirely human in poignant ways: fastidious about having the White House barber “clip a little tuft of chest hair emerging above his collar,” irritated by the fact that the edited transcripts of the White House tapes make him sound as if he drops hard-core obscenities rather than mild ones.

And yet it’s the very fact that Mallon portrays Nixon and others so convincingly that raises questions about the fairness of depicting real people in a work of fiction. Is this type of literary borrowing less transgressive when it makes readers like the subjects better? When the subjects are dead? If so, for how long? Ten years? A hundred? Obviously, there’s no consensus when it comes to any of this, but I do know that if you write a novel about, say, Catherine the Great, you probably won’t be scolded for misrepresenting her or otherwise infringing on her privacy, while if you write a novel inspired by Laura Bush, as I did in 2008, you most definitely will.

In my case, I changed names, which Mallon has chosen not to do. And I made peace with the intrusive nature of what I was doing by telling myself that to sincerely imagine what the world looks like from someone else’s perspective is an act of compassion. The counterargument, of course, is that even the most savagely mocking skit on “Saturday Night Live” is less insidious than the sustained realism of a novel. “The reason it’s such a violation,” a journalist told me about my own book, “is that every single thing in it is plausible.” Judged by the same standard, Thomas Mallon is — appropriately enough, for a book about Watergate — equally guilty.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, “Earthquake Season,” will be published next year.

#4 Douglas Caddy

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 01:05 AM

From “A Scandal Revisited” by Frank Gannon, The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2012, in a review of Thomas Mellon’s book, 'Watergate':

“What emerges from ‘Watergate’ is an acute sense of how much we still don’t know about the events of June 17, 1972. Who ordered the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington? What was its real purpose? Was it purposely botched? How much was the CIA involved? Who erased the 18 1/2 minutes from Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes? How did a politician as tough and canny as Richard Nixon allow himself to be brought down by a ‘third-rate burglary’?

“Your guess is as good as mine. Mr. Mellon’s guesses are sometimes over the top but never less than entertaining. ‘Watergate’ demonstrates show a novelist can peel back layers of personality and motivation that historians must leave undisturbed. It also shows Mr. Mallon at times intruding on events more than his long-ago essay on historical fiction would probably endorse.”

#5 Norman T. Field

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 09:44 PM

Mr. Caddy and others;

A question that has lingered in my mind for a long time,
Why was Watergate necessary?

What did RN do that so offended the 'powers that be' to decide that he had to go?

His plans to create an American Police state?

His actions toward Red China and away from Taiwan?

The actions of the DEA?

I can come up with a long list of reasons why some folks felt that JFK had to go, what was RN's sin(s)?

Thank you.

#6 Douglas Caddy

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 02:59 AM

Mr. Caddy and others;

A question that has lingered in my mind for a long time,
Why was Watergate necessary?

What did RN do that so offended the 'powers that be' to decide that he had to go?

His plans to create an American Police state?

His actions toward Red China and away from Taiwan?

The actions of the DEA?

I can come up with a long list of reasons why some folks felt that JFK had to go, what was RN's sin(s)?

Thank you.


Nixon alienated forever a large and powerful group of Americans when serving in Congress he championed Whittaker Chambers in the epoch Alger Hiss drama. He was a staunch and vigilant anti-communist but was careful in marshalling his facts in contrast to Senator Joe McCarthy.

I told my closest friends in Washington shortly after the first week following the Watergate arrests that I believed Nixon would ultimately be forced out of office over the scandal. When John Kilcullen, a partner of the law firm for which I worked, returned from Italy the day after the arrests, he asked me to come to his Virginia home to relate to him what the case was about. After I finished, he shook his head, and said sadly, "The Republicans have really done it to themselves this time." Attorney General John Mitchell resigned soon thereafter as head of the Nixon re-election campaign and later as Attorney General. The Washington Post had been alerted within hours of the burglars' arrests by the arresting officer, Detective Carl Shoffler, who knew almost two weeks before the arrests of the burglars' plan to go back into the Democratic National Committee. Shoffler also, through wiretapping, knew there were higher-ups involved, not just the five burglars and Hunt and Liddy. Shoffler was one of the Washington Post's "deep throats."

So in my opinion the dye was cast early on in the scandal that Nixon would not serve out his second term in office. Influential people in both parties realized this.

What those who rejoiced in the downfall of Nixon did not realize was that he was the key person in holding back the takeover of the GOP by the extreme right wing of the party. With Nixon gone, Joseph Coors and his henchmen, Ed Feulner and Paul Weyrich, moved quickly in 1974 to lay the groundwork to capture the GOP. They have succeeded in doing so using the Heritage Foundation as a primary vehicle. With Nixon out of the political picture, the extremists, aided and abetted by sociopaths and opportunists, transformed the GOP into the nefarious entity that today is responsible primarily for most of the immense and seemingly insoluble problems that plague the nation (and the world).

Edited by Douglas Caddy, 09 April 2012 - 07:59 PM.





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