'Watergate' Revisited: Inside The Criminal Minds

Feb 25, 2012
Originally published on March 29, 2012 4:18 pm

During the summer of 1972, five men were arrested in the middle of the night for breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C.

The breach went to the very top. Watergate toppled the Nixon administration and became an iconic (and exhaustively studied) American political scandal. In his new novel, Watergate, Thomas Mallon gives the story a fresh twist, retelling it from the perspectives of the involved parties — from seven different points of view.

In his rendering, Watergate becomes a "series of private dramas," Mallon tells NPR's Scott Simon.

And while he recognizes the importance of accuracy, Mallon plays with the "always sliding scale of historical fiction," where there's room for imagination.

"You really have to make these decisions book-by-book and almost scene-by-scene," he explains. "I don't violate any of the big historical moments, dates."

Rather than create an "alternate history," Mallon deploys careful conjecture. "There's still plenty of room for a novelist to imagine what might have happened not instead of the real events, but in addition to the real events," he says, "and how people might actually have felt about them in a way that's somewhat different from what they put onto the record."

The story of Watergate is already rich with native drama. There is the central question of why Nixon would order the break-in given that he was at the height of his powers.

"He was cruising toward re-election," says Mallon. "And the sheer unnecessariness of the Watergate break-in is something that must have tormented him and his allies in all of the years that followed."

The cast of vivid supporting characters — including Martha Mitchell and G. Gordon Liddy — made the episode into a spectacle. There was the curious case of Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's longtime secretary, who accidentally (she claimed) erased 18 and a half minutes of recorded tape.

"She'd been Richard Nixon's secretary from the time he was in the Senate in 1950," says Mallon. "She was very private; her loyalties to him were extraordinary."

A photograph of Woods — a dignified woman making an undignified stretch, presumably to erase the tape — became well known.

"I think that that must have been tormenting to her," Mallon notes. "And I tried to imagine what it must have been to feel the personal isolation that she must've been — because she was a single person essentially by herself."

For Mallon, Nixon is a fascinating — but complicated — figure. The author recalls becoming distraught at the news of Nixon's death. "I started sobbing not in the way you sob for somebody that you had simple, uniform affection for, but sobbing for somebody you had a lot of admiration for as well as some horrified feelings about," Mallon says. "He let down all the people like my father who were his fervent supporters."

It doesn't seem possible to come to easy conclusions about this most enigmatic of public figures. "Bill Clinton, in his eulogy [for Nixon], said that the time had passed to judge Richard Nixon on anything but the complete record of his life," says Mallon. "And it's a wildly, wildly mixed record."

Mallon asserts that his "enormously conflicted feelings" are what keep him mesmerized with the larger-than-life president. "The number of nights that I fell asleep with Richard Nixon's being the last voice I heard ... There must be some appeal other than morbid interest that kept me coming back to him."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Almost any scandal in the world these days is described as a something-gate. The phrase dates back to the summer of 1972, when five men were arrested in the middle of the night during a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

The subsequent scandal brought down Richard Nixon's administration, made him one of the most notorious men in American history. Anytime someone observes: what did they know, and when did they know it; it's not the crime, it's the cover-up; follow the money, or third-rate burglary, it's a Watergate reference - whether they know it or not.

The Watergate crime and scandal have been exhaustively documented. But now, a great historical novelist has run it through his imagination. Thomas Mallon's new book is called "Watergate: A Novel." Tom Mallon joins us in our studios.

Thanks for being with us.

THOMAS MALLON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: With so much on the record, what's left to be imagined by a novelist?

MALLON: Mostly how it felt, I think. I thought if you were going to do this as a novel, you had to get inside the people who were there. And so, I tried to tell the story from essentially seven different points of view and see what it felt like. And I avoid most of the big events that people - they certainly occur. But I don't tell the story the way you would tell it in nonfiction. I tell it more as a series of private dramas and try to give certain intimacy.

SIMON: As you will learn on tour, there are Watergate buffs...

MALLON: Oh, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...like there are Civil War buffs and jazz buffs who will catch you on the smallest bit of misinformation, or imagined information. How important was historical accuracy to you?

MALLON: I refer in the acknowledgements of the book to the always sliding scale of historical fiction. And I think you really have to make these decisions book-by-book and almost scene-by-scene. I don't violate any of the big historical moments, dates. You know, Richard Nixon still resigns at the end of this book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MALLON: It's not what in the historical fiction biz we call alternate history where, you know, the South wins the Civil War and things like that happen. But within those events, I think there's still plenty of room for a novelist to imagine what might have happened not instead of the real events, but in addition to the real events, and how people might actually have felt about them in a way that's somewhat different from what they put onto the record.

SIMON: Your novel reminds us when the men were arrested and the scandal began, Richard Nixon was at the height of his powers.

MALLON: Absolutely. He was cruising toward re-election. He had a very weak opponent in George McGovern. McGovern wasn't nominated yet but things were certainly trending his way. Nixon had been to China. He had been to Russia doing arms negotiation. And so, he was on his way toward what happened in November, which was an electoral win with 49 states.

And the sheer unnecessariness of the Watergate break-in is something that must have tormented him and his allies in all of the years that followed.

SIMON: Watergate scandal, we think we know something about vivid characters like Martha Mitchell and G. Gordon Liddy. But let me get you to talk about Rose Mary Woods, a longtime secretary.

MALLON: She'd been Richard Nixon's secretary from the time he was in the Senate in 1950. So, she'd been with them nearly a quarter of a century by the time of the resignation. She never married. She did not give interviews. She was very private. Her loyalties to him were extraordinary. She is most famously associated with the erasure of 18 and a half minutes on one of the tapes that was subpoenaed.

SIMON: Why, the picture of her, a dignified woman making an undignified stretch, became well-known.

MALLON: And I think that that must have been tormenting to her. And I've talked to a couple of people who knew her and they remark on her charm, her wit. She was a terrific dancer. I talked to somebody who used to escort her around town, and he said don't finish the book without giving her a chance to dance.

And I tried to imagine what it must have been to feel the personal isolation that she must've been - because she was a single person, essentially by herself, but to be at the red-hot center of this catastrophe that was dragging down somebody that she admired unquestionably.

SIMON: Yeah. So, how fascinating is Richard Nixon to a great novelist?

MALLON: To me, endlessly. I've actually been trying to write an essay about him; an actual nonfiction essay now that this book is done grappling with him, and sort of the way he loomed in my life for really, so many years. He was, I'd say, the central public figure in my life. I went to fourth grade in the fall of 1960 wearing a Nixon Lost button.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MALLON: And he was the president who presided through my college years, which were very tumultuous from Kent State, and then all through things like the China trip. And I had enormously conflicted feelings about him the way people do about Lyndon Johnson.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MALLON: And I remember the night he died in 1994. I was living in New York in those days and the news came over the television that he had died in New York Hospital. And I remember I started sobbing. And I started sobbing not in the way you sob for somebody that you had simple uniform affection for, but sobbing for somebody that you had a lot of admiration for, as well as some horrified feelings about.

And, you know, Nixon was always worried about letting people down and he did let people down, and he let down all the people like my father, who were his fervent supporters. But he was a complicated figure.

Bill Clinton, in his eulogy, said that the time had passed to judge Richard Nixon on anything but the complete record of his life. And it's a wildly, wildly mixed record.

SIMON: After spending so much time with him, on the whole, can you like him?

MALLON: I - that's - boy, it's - I want to weasel out of it and say you can't give a yes or no answer to it. But I would have to say that unless there was part of him that appealed to me, I couldn't have spent the time with him. And, you know, most of the tapes, no, not most of them, but an awful lot of the famous ones - the crucial ones - you can listen to them on YouTube now. And the number of nights that I fell asleep with Richard Nixon's being the last voice I heard - 'cause I often write late at night - there must be some appeal other than morbid interest that kept me coming back to him.

SIMON: Thomas Mallon, his new novel, "Watergate." Thanks so much.

MALLON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.