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Jane Ahlin, Published March 17 2012

Ahlin: An intriguing new novel about Watergate and Nixon

To appreciate Thomas Mallon’s fictional account of the Watergate scandal, does a person have to be 55 or older? The question arises because the cast of characters in Mallon’s new book is almost as large as it was in the scandal itself and some familiarity with names helps.

For those, including me, who remember Watergate but haven’t thought about it in awhile, the number of people caught up in its web is amazing all over again. Mallon adds to that sense by telling the story from the points of view of eight real people affected by the scandal and one fictional character. Richard and Pat Nixon, Rose Mary Woods, E. Howard and Dorothy Hunt, Fred LaRue, Elliot Richardson and Alice Roosevelt Longworth were very real people given new voice by Mallon; Clarine Lander is a character invented to round out the primary role the author gives LaRue.

Readers see much through the eyes of LaRue, who not only was in on the planning of “dirty tricks” by the Committee to Re-elect the President early in 1972 that resulted in Watergate but also was the “bagman” in the cover-up, delivering cash to some of the burglars to keep them quiet. He became the first Nixon administration official to plead guilty; however, he remained steadfast (to his death in 2004) in insisting Nixon knew nothing about the Watergate burglary before it happened.

Although LaRue’s perspective informs much of Mallon’s storytelling, LaRue is not as compelling as Mallon’s female characters. In truth, none of the male characters has the strength Mallon gives the women. Dorothy Hunt is tougher than Howard Hunt, and Rose Mary Woods and Pat Nixon are uncompromising when Nixon falters or grows maudlin. Elliot Richardson gets particularly rough treatment by Mallon. During the actual scandal, Attorney General Richardson was seen as principled and strong when he resigned from the administration rather than fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox as Nixon wanted. In Mallon’s version, however, Richardson is an elite who pouts and paints pictures, upset that no one seems to see him as presidential material.

According to interviews with Mallon and many book reviews, Mallon’s portrayal of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the sharp-tongued 90-year-old daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, is best. She’s the character who stays witty in grim situations, often seeming to enjoy the discomfort of others. (Longworth famously said, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”) The only character allowed to confront Nixon with truth, Longworth keeps the book perking along.

That said, my favorite characters were Pat Nixon and Rose Mary Woods. Mallon particularly fleshes out Rose Mary Woods as a woman whose dedication to Nixon came from strength, not weakness. In the real-life Watergate scandal, Woods was typecast as a victim of sorts, the selfless secretary probably in love with her boss and willing to do anything to please him – even commit perjury. In this book, Woods is nothing of the sort and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. (She detests H.R. Haldeman.) Yes, Woods purposely erases the infamous 18½ minutes of tape but not because of Watergate secrets; her reasons are personal, not noble. She’s also a stalwart friend to Pat and the Nixon daughters.

And then there’s Pat Nixon. In the nation’s perspective, Pat was long-suffering, unemotional and politically disinterested: “plastic Pat.” In Mallon’s fictional account, she is unflinchingly loyal but clear-eyed and even has a secret relationship that comforts her.

The 400-plus pages of “Watergate, A Novel” fly by, almost as a romp. By the end, that bothered me. Richard Nixon’s disgrace was the culmination of so much tragedy and senselessness: the disastrous Vietnam War with its body bag count (death and more death), assassinations (JFK, RFK; MLK Jr.), student unrest and the Kent State killings, violent protest groups and the clandestine idiocy that grew into Watergate.

Mallon’s book is a fresh look at Nixon’s downfall and well worth reading. But it doesn’t speak to a decade of pain that changed our nation – change we have yet to reconcile.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.