Thomas Mallon’s Watergate: Truth in Fiction, Finally

You know, what a historian always has to strive for is accuracy. What a novelist always has to strive for is just plausibility. And if you can impose the illusion of plausibility, then you’re okay.

Thomas Mallon with Chris Lydon in Boston, 3.9.12.

Thomas Mallon’s fine, funny imagination makes a better story of Watergate than the “facts” and the “news” ever did. I’m taking it personally — a humbling sort of inspiration! — having profiled many of his characters (Fred LaRue, Jeb Magruder, Elliot Richardson, Chuck Colson et al.) nearly forty years ago, and having written the first “Man in the News” profile that ever ran on page one of the New York Times, about Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and Attorney General, John Newton Mitchell. Of course we should have been listening (as Mallon’s mind does) for the women just off-stage: Martha Mitchell on Nixon: “We are dealin’ with a most irregular Joe here”; Alice Roosevelt Longworth on the Trickster she supported to the end: “this misanthrope in a flesh-presser’s profession…”; Pat Nixon in a late eruption to the sinking president: “I hate your enemies, but you love them. You love their existence; they’re what gives you your own. That’s why I’m sick with anger at you: for bringing us to the top of this awful mountain. We’re never going to get back down without being devoured!”

I remarked to my wife in that stupefying summer of 1972 that the Watergate burglary around the corner from our little house in Foggy Bottom would stick together someday as fiction. And here it is, finally. Thomas Mallon, undercelebrated as a past master of historical reconstruction, has more than vindicated Henry James’s dictum that “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”

What were we reporters missing at the time? Not least, the unprintable truth sharpened by Watergate that presidential politics is always a desperate deadly game of capture-and-hold the hill, more typically a form of gang warfare. Oddest of all in the Nixon gang: the most cutting hatreds were directed not at their opponents but at each other. Rose Mary Woods hated Bob Haldeman. Jeb Magruder hated Gordon Liddy. Henry Kissinger hated Nixon’s first Secretary of State Bill Rogers. The men that Nixon loved most to talk and drink with into the wee hours — Colson, Kissinger and Mitchell — despised each other. In the line Tom Mallon plants on John Mitchell: “Colson’s constituency consists of the president’s worst insincts.” I wish I’d written that, and I used to know Chuck Colson pretty well. We were also incapable of sensing at the time what Tom Mallon picks up all over the place: the countless irrational impulses to self-destruction in that realm — starting in the Watergate circle with Howard Hunt’s unexplainable choice to leave an envelope with a piddling payment to his country club at the scene of the crime!

Thomas Mallon has composed the Watergate story out of hundreds of made-up “gaffes,” those dreaded lines that say what public people are actually thinking. Mallon’s ventriloquism lets Senator Ed Brooke tell Rose Mary Woods in the late stages that Nixon should get F. Lee Bailey, the courtroom magician, to replace his over-qualified defense counsel Charles Alan Wright. “Rose could not believe her ears,” Mallon writes. “The president of the United States should hire the lawyer for the Boston Strangler!”

Mallon gives us Elliot Richardson at his watercolors, sure in 1974 of his route to the presidency because Gerald Ford had to pick him for the vice presidency. Why? “Elliot Richardson, the very perfume of probity, would take enough stink off Ford so that he could at least govern as a caretaker. But enough stink would cling to him to make his nomination in ’76 out of the question…” and the penitential party would elevate Elliot.

Over and over, Mallon gives us Nixon’s stream of thought and makes it plausible, incisive, maybe prophetic. At the Republican convention in 1972: “He can’t stop thinking that the Republican Party remains the world’s largest and laziest Rotary Club; if he can’t get them to nominate John Connally four years from now, he’d just as soon see a whole different party with a new name to take the GOP’s place.”

Thomas Mallon makes American politics interesting all over again — an intensely absorbing arena of strong, consequential characters, each with their histories and hang-ups rendered in depth and detail. How’s to explain that we had to wait 40 years to get the news?

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