In a brilliant takedown of the TV series Mad Men in the New York Reivew of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn condemned what many take to be the show’s main strength: its supposed fidelity to the historical period it represents. “In Mad Men,” Mendelsohn wrote, “everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig.” Mendelsohn wasn’t saying that people actually didn’t smoke that much in the 1960s (they did), nor that sexism wasn’t systemic and largely unquestioned (it was). Rather, he argued that the show sets up a false dichotomy between the past and the present that can’t help but redound to our credit. If the best art startles us into self-recognition, then Mad Men lulls us into moral complacency: we watch the show and smugly think to ourselves, “Thank God we’re not like that anymore.”
This challenge—how to represent the past faithfully, without either idealization or condescension—faces all writers of historical fiction, and it is a challenge that the novelist Thomas Mallon has largely met throughout his career. Mallon, a former professor of English and a regular contributor to the New Yorker, is one of America’s most accomplished historical novelists. He tends to focus on significant events in the nation’s past—the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, for example, or the 1948 presidential election—showing how these events affected, and were affected by, both large and small historical actors. If Mallon’s writing is occasionally sullied by nostalgia for a long-gone, less rancorous America, then it is redeemed by his obvious relish for archival research, his crisp, lively prose, and his suspenseful plots. (The last is no small feat for a historical novelist: it’s not as if we didn’t know who was going to win the big election in his novel Dewey Defeats Truman.)
Mallon’s latest novel, Watergate, opens on May 22, 1972, less than a week before the bungled break-in to Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. In the twenty-page prologue, we are whisked between Washington, D.C., and Moscow, dropping in on a series of historical figures right before the storm hits. We meet Fred LaRue, a steely, effective, off-the-books Nixon campaign official who “liked the way he got to operate without so much as a business card or a line in the staff directory”; Howard Hunt, the White House “plumber” who harbors doubts about the increasingly paranoid schemes of his superiors; Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the elderly daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who retains a sharp political intelligence and an even sharper tongue; and Richard and Pat Nixon, who are on a state visit to the USSR, confident that, with the tide apparently turning in Vietnam and re-election in the offing, “great things were afoot.”
Of course, great things most certainly are not afoot, and Watergate spends the rest of its pages tracing the fallout of the break-in and its cover-up. In the past, Mallon has written decentered novels in which the narratives of several different characters jostle for attention. This dispersal of attention is not just a matter of form for Mallon; it’s a historical argument—that history is not one, deterministic story, but many stories mutually interacting with one another. In Watergate, he surveys the causes and effects of history by once again examining a wide cast of characters. If a person was involved in the scandal, then that person is most likely in the novel.
In lesser hands, this novel’s constant shifting of narrative attention could lead to confusion. The machinations of Watergate are complicated enough without having to keep track of exactly how Bob Haldemann fits into things, or which cabinet position Elliot Richardson is occupying at the moment. (At various times, he served as secretary of health, education, and welfare; secretary of defense; and attorney general.) But Mallon manages to pull it off, in part because of his lucid style, and in part because he is able to draw thematic connections among the scandal’s various players. Though it concerns many different characters involved in many different plot lines, Watergate is really an examination of one thing, power, and the lengths we will go to in order to get and keep it.
If the Watergate scandal taught us anything, it’s that there is a deep connection between power and secrecy. One way to get and keep power is to find out someone else’s secrets; one way to lose power is to have your own secrets revealed (or to be clumsy in your attempts to uncover other people’s secrets). Everyone in Watergate, from the president to his secretary, has a secret, something that they are hiding from others and, often, from themselves. Fred LaRue’s secret is, at least potentially, criminal. Years ago, LaRue’s estranged father was shot in murky circumstances while out hunting and drinking with his son. Fred was never charged, but this doesn’t dispel his guilt; he’s never had the courage to look at the inquest’s sealed report, and now worries that others might get their hands on it. Alice Longworth’s secret is personal: she suspects that her daughter, Paulina, committed suicide but refuses to admit it publicly, claiming instead that it was an accidental overdose. The first lady’s secret is romantic. After her husband’s humiliating loss in the 1962 California gubernatorial race, during the famous “wilderness years” in New York City, Pat had a brief, loving affair with Tom Garahan, a silver-haired widower who was everything Pat’s husband is not: self-confident, warm, kindly.
Some of these personal secrets have relevance to the broader scandal. LaRue, for instance, fears that his past may be used as leverage during the investigation into the break-in; Alice Longworth supports Nixon during his time of need because he supported her after Paulina’s death. But many of these secrets—Pat’s affair, for example—have no basis in historical events, and Mallon’s focus on them is really an attempt to show us how, to history’s actual participants, the personal often feels more important than the grand historical. Sure, Mallon suggests, Pat Nixon knew that she was involved in events of great import, but this doesn’t mean that she was consumed or defined by them; matters of the heart still matter, even or especially to those caught up in history’s unfolding. As Pat thinks at one point, “Watergate was enormous, colossal; and it was nothing.”
While Mallon offers his most heartfelt sympathy to Pat, he clearly is most entranced by Alice Longworth. Alice isn’t on the stage that much, but when she’s there she dominates, flaunting her puckish wit and diagnosing, then exploiting, the weaknesses of friends and foes alike. At one point, while watching John Dean testify against the president, Alice applauds the former White House counsel for wheedling his way out of a difficult line of questioning. Despite her personal allegiance to Nixon—he served as pallbearer at Paulina’s funeral and went on the offensive after the Washington Post reported the death as a suicide—Alice “couldn’t help herself: her love of smarts, her lifelong preference for winners over losers, trumped everything. If Iago was a species of ‘motiveless malignity,’ she was a creature of motiveless mischief.” This mischief is often directed at herself. Alice freely admits her own meanness, displaying something that is all too rare in this story: not public honesty—she too lies when it’s necessary, even when it’s convenient—but honesty of self, an unwillingness to descend into self-pity and ignore her own flaws. As she says, “I detest self-pity, and I find self-destruction absurd.”
Late in the novel, as Nixon prepares to resign in disgrace, he complains to Alice, “It’s too late for strategy in my case. This is a tragedy.” To which Alice retorts: “This is not a tragedy. It simply does not qualify as such.” It’s a testament to Mallon’s skill that he is able to balance the comedy and the tragedy, to show just how tragic these events must have seemed to their actors without ever letting us forget how farcical they appear with the benefit of hindsight. This broader perspective can bring its own problems, as Mallon occasionally makes his historical ironies a bit too obvious. (After Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s loyal secretary, gazes at the Jefferson and Lincoln Monuments, she dreams of “what would be standing there two or three generations from now commemorating Richard Nixon.” At another point, someone chuckles at the thought of O. J. Simpson, All-American hero, being questioned by the police.) Still, Watergate is a delightful novel—well written, well paced, and enjoyable. It achieves the main goal of historical fiction: it shows us just how strange, and how completely familiar, the past can be.
Related: Peter Quinn's review of Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon