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Imagining Watergate

Thomas Mallon’s Historical Novel Takes Fresh Look at Nixon Years and Scandal

Local author Thomas Mallon may not be the only person inside the Beltway who’s made a living by stretching the truth. But he certainly has an impressive bibliography to show for it.

For more than two decades, Mallon, a novelist who teaches at George Washington University, has taken creative license with some of the biggest political stories in history. What he does, he said in a recent phone interview, is tell tales about how “ordinary people get caught up” in political events.

His most recent historical novel, “Watergate,” was published in February and has received widespread critical acclaim.

The book depicts the famous political scandal through the eyes of a long list of powerful and peripheral players.

Notable among them is Fred LaRue, a presidential aide who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for his involvement in the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. In addition to his role in the attempted cover-up, LaRue’s character harbored a dark personal secret about the circumstances surrounding his father’s death.

There’s also Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of a president and widow of a Speaker, who Mallon describes as the book’s “one-woman witches chorus.” The dowager’s role among the city’s political elite is summed up by the pillow she owned with the embroidered saying: “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Shifting among the characters’ perspectives allows Mallon to tell the Watergate story — the break-in, the cover-up, the resignation — as one of ordinary motives: loneliness, secretive pasts, self-doubt.

“I am interested in showing what might have happened in addition to what actually happened,” Mallon said.

Mallon imagines the personal stories that could have “slipped through the cracks” or “happened behind the scenes” of the official record: why President Richard Nixon’s assistant, Rose Mary Woods, erased those famous 18 and a half minutes of tape; or the tender (and purely fictional) love affair between first lady Pat Nixon and a retired lawyer from New York.

But even in a book full of memorable scenes, it’s Mallon’s portrait of the disgraced president that’s likely to catch the attention of political junkies.

Mallon avoids the common characterization of Nixon as paranoid, overbearing and even a little sweaty. Instead, he shows the president as gracious to those around him and noticeably more concerned with his foreign policy legacy than the scandal that took down his presidency.

“It presents Nixon as very confused by Watergate,” he said. “It invites readers to think about that as a possibility.”

In researching the novel, Mallon tried to “get a sense of what things felt like” for the people connected to the administration.

He sifted through memoirs, schedules and transcripts. He listened to the tapes. He talked with people in town and around the country who had experienced it up close, including Mike Balzano, a presidential aide, and Bob Gray, an escort to Rose Mary Woods.

“It was one of the few topics where I found myself wishing there was less material,” Mallon said.

Mallon insists that readers shouldn’t view his novel as history, even though he does stick to the official timeline.

“Historical fiction is fiction,” he said. “My primary responsibility is to be a novelist, to entertain, to write well. … My responsibilities to history are secondary.”

But, he concedes, novels “can provide a way of thinking about history.”

Politics Shaping Fiction

The novel re-creates the spectacle that captivated the nation almost 40 years ago.

“If you think about it in terms of the other news stories that people had lived through — war, riot, assassination — nobody got killed in Watergate. It’s almost as if you had a license to enjoy it,” Mallon said.

But it isn’t just political history that interests Mallon. The novelist also has quite a bit to say about present-day politics.

“I think my friends would consider me a conservative Republican,” he said, even though he insists that he has more of a moderate/libertarian streak.

Mallon is open about discussing his political views. He said he admires the late Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) and supports a “relatively unregulated” economy and “strong interventionist” foreign policy. But he strongly opposes conservative stands on social issues and some of the religious-tinged rhetoric favored by many on the right today. “It leaves me completely cold,” he said.

It’s a relevant point for understanding Mallon’s literary career. A quick look at his bibliography shows that politics have, in part, shaped his fiction.

Many of his novels imagine key historical moments in the Republican Party, dating all the way back to the mid-19th century. “Henry and Clara” (1994) depicts the evening of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. “Two Moons” (2000) takes place during President Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration. “Fellow Travelers” (2007) is set during the era of McCarthyism. And then, of course, there’s his newest book about Nixon.

“I do think Republicans seem to call for me for fictional subjects,” he said. “I seem to have had lots of Republican subject matter.”

And he has more in the works. He has begun working on a novel about President Ronald Reagan.

“The availability of stories in history appeals to me much more than trying to write tales about what I saw with my own eyes,” he said.

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