Expletives Deleted on Richard Nixon – New York Times – Clear masterful writing Review

Thomas Mallon Reimagines Watergate
Published: March 2, 2012

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.

Watergate By Thomas Mallon

432 pp. Pantheon Books. $26.95.

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.