Once Maggie Smith finishes imperiously dictating everyone's life at “Downton Abbey,” there's another acid-tongued arbiter of taste just waiting for her: Alice Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt's daughter.
In Thomas Mallon's densely intelligent new novel, Watergate, the octogenarian Longworth owns every scene she surveys, although she’s frankly not impressed by the quality of the current crop of courtiers.
In “Watergate,” Mallon throws out “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat, and the familiar narrative of the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in favor of a shifting cast on the periphery of the bugging-gone-wrong. No one – not even the reader – has the complete picture.
As one character says, “What I don't know was always more than what I did.”
It’s an impressively difficult task Mallon sets himself, and, for the most part, he succeeds.
In addition to Longworth, the point of view shifts between Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's loyal secretary; Howard Hunt, former CIA agent turned thriller writer, and his wife, Dorothy; Elliot Richardson, ambitious appointee-of-all-trades; Fred LaRue, a near-sighted, soft-spoken Mississippian who seems far too gentle for the Nixon White House but who may have murdered his father in a bird-hunting accident 15 years earlier. (Perhaps Republican politicians should stick to skeet-shooting.) Mallon is especially sympathetic to Pat Nixon, for whom he dreams up an affair with a New York philanthropist (for which there is no historical evidence). In Mallon's hands, the women generally are savvier and more pragmatic than the men.
Pulitzer Prize-winners Bob Woodward and Carol Bernstein barely rate a mention as those “two Post Metro reporters.”
For those born during the Ford administration or after, “Watergate” can seem impenetrable without a refresher course on the scandal. Mallon doesn't go in for exposition or explanations. There isn't a single, “Well, as you know, Bob,” speech catching people up on the salient facts. I never did fully understand what happened to Vice President Spiro Agnew, who apparently was taken down by ordinary graft. (On the other hand, there are genuine surprises unavailable to those who remember, for example, which player dies in a plane accident.)
Presiding over the teeming mass of secrets is Nixon, whose “thin, ever-crawling skin” and desperate craving for admiration Mallon gives an almost Shakespearean quality. Except, as Longworth, who serves as the voice of acerbic reason, says: “[Watergate] is not a tragedy. It simply does not qualify as such.”
Nixon's desire to tape-record every presidential moment both is his undoing and suggests that the former president really would have enjoyed Facebook.
The dialogue is top-notch, and “Watergate” should appeal to baby boomers for whom the crisis remains a turning point in the country's move toward cynicism. Some of the fictional elements are less successful: Mallon's hypothesis for how 18-1/2 minutes of tape disappeared is plausible, but leaves a reader shrugging, while it seems highly unlikely the “savviest woman in the world” would have left a small fortune sitting in an airport locker.
Still, at the heart of the novel, remain two central questions, which Mallon lets Nixon ask for himself: “But what could [they] really know? And when could [they] have come to know it?”