Somebody needs to start a 12-step program for compulsive readers of presidential biographies. It can be a dangerous little addiction. My Millions colleague, Janet Potter, who is reading biographies of the 44 U.S. presidents in chronological order for her Presidential Biography Project, has reached Ulysses S. Grant, or President #18. I myself am nowhere near so ambitious or organized, but at last count I’ve read biographies of 11 of the 44, a fair number of them in multi-volume sets. In some contexts this might sound like boasting, but at the meetings of ARPBA (Addicted Readers of Presidential Biographies Anonymous), it would be recognized for what it is: a cry for help.
So when I heard about Thomas Mallon’s new novel, Watergate, I thought: Aha! Here’s a way to stay out of rehab and still kick the habit. I can read fictional presidential biographies. Mallon, author of eight novels, mostly on historical themes, has spun a fictional insider’s tale of the famed Nixon scandal that, for a hopeless junkie like me, held out the promise of a book-length methadone cure for my presidential biography jones.
Told from the point of view of numerous players in the Watergate saga, from the president on down to minor walk-ons like Mississippi-bred campaign operative Fred LaRue, Mallon’s novel is a dizzying high-wire act mixing fictional explanations of famous historical mysteries (how did Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods create that 18-minute gap?) with outright fictions (Plastic Pat Nixon, the president’s cipher of a wife, has a secret lover!). Mallon writes like a dream, and his mastery of the complex historical record and the equally byzantine folkways of Washington’s establishment class are staggering. But the book itself remains, for all its shining prose and historical insight, more of a literary achievement than an illuminating read.
This is unfortunate because Richard Nixon is in desperate need of better biographers, nonfictional and otherwise. It is an odd fact that Nixon, surely one of the most Shakespearian figures to hold the office occupied by that long rogue’s gallery of Iagos, Hamlets, and Lears, has yet to inspire a truly great biography. Stephen Ambrose’s three-volume Nixon is admirably thorough in all the ways that makes that sound like faint praise, and so many of the other writers to take Nixon on, like Rick Perlstein, whose Nixonland appeared in 2008, are so busy blaming Nixon for every bad thing that ever happened since he entered politics that the man himself gets lost. To my mind, the most convincing, and compelling, portraits of Nixon and his administration remain the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein originals, All the President’s Men and The Final Days, which is curious since those books were written largely on the fly while the Watergate scandal was still being fought out in the courts.
Mallon’s singular achievement in Watergate is to present Nixon and his co-conspirators not as the fright-mask caricatures they have become in popular culture, but as flesh-and-blood human beings trying, however crookedly, to run the country. Mallon performs this trick by making masterful use of close third-person narration, which allows him to bounce seamlessly from character to character and still give the reader access to those characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings. In one delicious scene, Mallon has a fuming Nixon attend the 1973 Washington Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which Woodward and Bernstein were honored for their trailblazing Watergate reporting:
The president looked at the three Washington Post tables just below the dias — a whole little government-in-exile presided over by [Post executive editor Ben] Bradlee, Jack Kennedy’s fellow cocksman; the two of them had fornicated their way into middle age like Harvard boys still panting outside the burlesque stage door in Boston.
But this rare chance to inhabit the minds of a gang of criminals hatching one of this country’s most notorious political crimes is also the novel’s fatal flaw. In Watergate, the scandal’s central figures, while occasionally aware that what they’re doing might be technically illegal, always see their actions as furthering the greater good of the United States. “I am not a crook,” Nixon famously declared during a press conference, and, in Mallon’s telling, it never seems to occur to him that he might be. Late in in the novel, as Nixon is flying home to California hours after delivering his mawkish farewell address to his staff and resigning the presidency, Mallon has a damp-eyed Nixon tell his wife:
I don’t know how it happened, how it began. Half the time I hear myself on those tapes I realize I’m barely remembering who works for who over at the Committee [to Re-Elect the President]. I hear myself acting like I know more than I do — pretending to be on top of the thing so I don’t embarrass myself with whoever’s in the room — especially [presidential advisor John] Erlichman. Christ, I can’t now apologize for what I can barely understand!
This is, as history, fanciful — Nixon was far too good a manager and politician not to know exactly who worked for him on his re-election team — but, worse, as literature it is mendacious. It is as if at the end of Othello, Shakespeare gave Iago a speech saying he couldn’t remember just how that handkerchief ended up in Cassio’s hands. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is as if at the end of the play Shakespeare turned Iago into a doddering, ill, self-pitying King Lear, howling insensibly among the rustling palm trees in San Clemente, always and forever “more sinn’d against than sinning.”
One could argue that such reflexive self-justification is inevitable in a novel that aims to give us a view of the scandal from the inside out, but I don’t think so. Mallon follows enough characters to fill a cell block, but all of them are, in one way or another, inside the Nixonian tent. LaRue, the Mississippi operative and bagman, is as close as the book comes to a protagonist, as is indicated by the fact that he is granted an invented — and entirely bogus — side plot involving an investigation into his role in the shooting death of his father during a hunting trip. But LaRue, who in real life was an early proponent of Nixon’s cynical, and deeply racist, “Southern strategy” to bring the once-Democratic South into the Republican column by playing to the region’s fear of black power, is a True Believer in Richard Nixon from start to finish. LaRue doesn’t experience a crisis of faith, or learn that his hero has feet of clay. He just thinks the break-in was a stupid waste of time and resources, and wishes, like the rest of the gang, that they hadn’t gotten caught.
Some of the other characters, particularly Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the rapier-tongued octogenarian daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and even Plastic Pat, whose portrayal as a quietly passionate woman loyal to a marriage that no longer really makes human sense is the book’s most revelatory, are a lot of fun to be around, but they too are Nixon partisans. All Mallon had to do was follow one outsider — a reporter like Seymour Hersh, say, who worked the story for The New York Times; or one of the Republican politicians, of whom there were many, who finally broke with the president over the scandal — and he could have cracked the book wide open. After all, what gives those early Woodward and Bernstein books their lasting power isn’t merely the thrill of the chase, but the poignancy of insiders like Deep Throat, later revealed to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, who believed passionately in their government and were at the same time disgusted by what it was doing.
But Mallon, for all his talent and insight, doesn’t want to take that risk, because to do so would expose Watergate for what it was, a laughably pointless and ill-conceived but nevertheless grievous crime against the American system of government. Mallon has said in interviews that he is a moderate Republican, which is to say he is a Nixonian Republican before Nixon the man let his pathologies get the better of Nixon the president. One cannot read this book without thinking that, in key elements of structure and characterization, Mallon the partisan got the better of Mallon the novelist.
In this, of course, he is no worse than countless liberals who, to this day, brainlessly invoke the jowly Nixon mask to personify all that is wrong with this country, but then he isn’t any better, either. In the end, Watergate is not a whitewash. The book is too well-written, too smart about people and politics for that. But it isn’t really history, either. It is history by other means, the made-up kind.
So, no rehab for me. I’ll take my presidential biography straight, thanks.