In the 1970s, a time before the miracle of electronic data-storage, the Watergate scandal generated an amazing amount of paper documentation. Thomas Mallon has infused this monumental archive with freshness and immediacy to portray the drama -- and dark comedy -- of President Nixon's final years in office. "Watergate," a novel that deftly combines political scope with intimate characterization, is filled with humor, thanks in part to the chicaneries of Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Martha Mitchell.
Some of the plot unfolds through the perspective of Elliot Richardson, who, in the space of six months, held three cabinet posts -- Health, Education and Welfare; Defense; and Justice. A prominent character, he comes across as a pretentious self-promoter. ("I haven't told a lie since I was 13!")
More likable is the lesser-known Fred LaRue, a Mississippian who had worked for John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general. Through LaRue we learn about the "third-rate burglary" in which five men broke into the Democratic National Committee offices. According to LaRue, their mission was to find evidence that Fidel Castro's regime had been funneling money to the Democratic Party.
One of the five burglars was Howard Hunt, a seasoned CIA operative who deliberately left behind evidence of his participation in the crime, thus establishing a starting point for the Washington police force in its investigation. Almost immediately the cover-up becomes more important than the break-in.
The depiction of Pat Nixon is one of the novel's strong features. She is intelligent, friendly, poised and often inscrutable. Shaped by an era in which wives were programmed to defer to their mates, she is, above all, loyal to hers. She even restricts her smoking to private, "off-stage" moments.
There are no surprises in Mallon's characterization of Richard Nixon. He remains the same relentlessly ambitious and self-destructive man that we remember from his years in and out of power. His epic hubris and persistent unhappiness thread authentically through the book.
In time it becomes abundantly clear that the president will be impeached. In a memorable moment when an aide suggests that he resign, Nixon flashes "that madly dissociative smile," and pompously states: "That would be the cowardly thing to do."
Yet Mallon is an author who sympathizes with his characters. Early in the book he notes Nixon's genuine affection for John Mitchell: "What [Nixon] wanted most was to know that Mitchell was not responsible, and that these investigations ... wouldn't claim the friend to whom he owed so much."
"Watergate" offers no explanations why Nixon failed to come clean with the facts of the burglary from the very beginning. It offers, in fact, no answers -- except, perhaps, that statecraft, because it relies on human nature, is often messy.
Katherine Bailey also reviews books for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit her website at katherinebaileyonbooks.com.