If you’re under the age of 45 or so, it would be surprising if you had any active memory of Watergate. More likely, your knowledge of the scandal comes from history books. Certainly, though, if you were born before, say, 1965 — or, for sure, before 1960 — the events of those tragic days are probably burned into your memory.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
It would have been difficult indeed for anyone following the news during that awful time not to remember at least some of the names of the leading characters in the scandal: Richard Nixon himself, Woodward & Bernstein, John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Jeb Magruder, John Dean, G. Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt, Judge Sirica, Senator Sam Ervin . . . and I could go on. How surprising it is, then, that an historical novelist, Thomas Mallon, could weave those characters into a credible story and conjure up all the suspense, the tension, and the excitement of those events in a novel.
Three women and a man close to the President
In Watergate, Mallon artfully uses a third-person narrator to shift from one character to another, eventually taking the reader into the minds of many of the key players in those events of 1972 to 1975. But four true-to-life characters stand out, because Mallon keeps coming back to their inner dialogue again and again: Pat Nixon, Rose Mary Woods, Fred LaRue, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
- Pat Nixon was, of course, the President’s wife.
- Woods was the President’s private secretary who gained notoriety after she erased a lengthy passage on a tape recording that might have incriminated Nixon.
- LaRue was a wealthy Southerner who served as a bagman for John Mitchell when he ran the Committee to Re-Elect the President (familiarly known to most of us then as CREEP).
- And Longworth was the 88-year-old daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, an enfant terrible as a young woman and hell on wheels as an old lady. Mallon’s portrayal of Alice Longworth is especially colorful and a joy to behold.
Watergate by Thomas Mallon (2012) 448 pages ★★★★☆
Much of the novel revolves around two extramarital love affairs: Pat Nixon’s with a New York lawyer, and Fred LaRue’s with a conservative Southern woman who turned later in life to progressive politics and served on the staff of the Democratic National Committee. I have no idea whether either of these affairs was based on fact. However, they are both essential to the novel, and one of them is central to a twist in the plot that nicely wraps up the fictional story.
Mallon faithfully represents the conservative perspective of nearly all the characters in Watergate. It’s difficult to tell whether that perspective is close to his own.
Thomas Mallon is the author of eight books of historical fiction and seven books of nonfiction. He is much honored for his writing and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012.
For related reading
I’ve also reviewed four other political novels by Thomas Mallon:
- Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years (Ronald Reagan deconstructed in a new novel)
- Fellow Travelers (Thomas Mallon on America’s third Red Scare)
- Dewey Defeats Truman (A terrific political history novel)
- Landfall (A novelist’s sympathetic portrait of George W. Bush)
If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels. And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers.
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