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Nearly four decades have passed since the Watergate break-in. While the scandal may be ancient history to some, questions remain about events that brought down the Nixon presidency. Exactly who ordered the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters and why? Why didn’t president Nixon destroy the Oval Office tapes? And why was a politician as smart as Richard Nixon brought down by a “third-rate burglary?” Answers remain elusive despite volumes of committee records, court transcripts, and memoirs. A new novel attempts to capture the mystery at the center of the scandal. Diane talks with author, Thomas Mallon, about his fictional account of the events surrounding Watergate.
- Thomas Mallon Director of creative writing at George Washington University, author of seven novels, including "Bandbox," "Henry and Clara," and "Dewey Defeats Truman." Among his nonfiction books are "A Book of One's Own," "Stolen Words," and "Mrs. Paine's Garage." He's a frequent contributor to "The New Yorker," "The Atlantic Monthly," and other magazines.
Near the end of the new novel about Watergate, a fictional Pat Nixon says Watergate was enormous, colossal and it was nothing. Author Thomas Mallon joins me in the studio to talk about his imagined take on the nearly 40-year-old scandal and its legacy today. This new book is titled “Watergate: A Novel.”
“It Was Ridiculous”
Mallon had his fictional Pat Nixon utter the quote above because, he said of Watergate, “It was ridiculous. “It was an act of political sabotage that was meaningless…and on the other hand, it was colossal…I think you have to, in a way, look at it both ways,” he said.
“I Wanted To See This As A Novelist”
Mallon likes to look at American historical events from the perspectives of people who get swept up in them. Years ago, he wrote a book titled “Henry and Clara” about the couple who were seated in the balcony with the Lincolns on the night of the assassination. “And so I thought here was another chance to come at a big historical event somewhat obliquely, although one of my point of view characters is Nixon himself. So you can’t get any more central than that, but a lot of them are people sort of on the fringes,” Mallon said.
Mallon’s Portrait of Nixon
Mallon calls his portrait of Nixon “wildly mixed.” “I think he was a rough character in politics and had very, very sharp elbows,” he said. “I think, in a way, his problem in life politically and, to some extent, maybe even personally, he didn’t know how to take yes for an answer. He had finally won the presidency after losing it, after losing the governorship of California and being told that he was finished. And he was suddenly there, but he arrived at such a tumultuous time that he felt besieged. And he had the sort of personality that would take actual evidence of being besieged and magnify it. And I don’t think he ever had a relaxed moment in his life,” Mallon said.
A Man With Demons
Even when Nixon won his 1972 landslide victory over McGovern, Mallon is struck by accounts that he sat and watched the returns with an air of depression. “I think that often happens to people of accomplishment. You know, there’s the let down when you’ve actually achieved something,” Mallon said. “But I think this was the third time he’d run for the presidency. The first time he had lost it by whisker, the second time he’d won it by a whisker. And I think what he really wanted was another sort of thrill ride. And what he couldn’t really deal with was victory easily and a victory that indicated resounding approval from the voting population or at least resounding disapproval of his opponent,” Mallon said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Near the end of the new novel about Watergate, a fictional Pat Nixon says Watergate was enormous, colossal and it was nothing. Author Tom Mallon joins me in the studio to talk about his imagined take on the nearly 40-year-old scandal and its legacy today. This new book is titled "Watergate: A Novel." He's here in the studio with me and you can join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Tom. It's good to have you here.
MR. THOMAS MALLONGood morning. Nice to be here.
REHMTom, you dedicate this book to Christopher Hitchens, American.
REHMTell me why.
MALLONHitch, as everybody called him, was a good friend of mine and a Washingtonian, a neighbor and he was an American by choice. He took the oath of citizenship at the Jefferson Memorial not that long after 9/11. He had made a lot of his career here. And he was in his own iconoclastic, implacable way and critical way. He was very proud to be an American. And I share the dedication with him. Very shortly before he died, I let him know that the book was dedicated to him. And I think of all the labels you could affix to him, that was one he was very happy with and proud about.
REHMBeautiful. Now, to your fictional Patricia Nixon's quote, "Watergate was enormous, colossal and it was nothing." Is that your summation of Watergate?
MALLONI think so. I think you have to see it both ways because to use the famous quotation, it was a third rate burglary. It was ridiculous. It was an act of political sabotage that was meaningless. Richard Nixon was on his way cruising toward a landslide victory over George McGovern. People probably didn't know it was going to be as big as it was, but the unnecessary Keystone Cops aspect of it.
MALLONAnd on the other hand, it was colossal. The initial plans to target places like the Democratic National Committee were revealed at an easel when Gordon Liddy was standing up in the Office of the Attorney General of the United States so that's colossal. So I think you have to, in a way, look at it both ways. And what I tried to do in this book was to, I don't know, restore the human factor, in a way, to make it intimate and to make the scandal seen from the perspectives of people who were caught up in it and not necessarily just the principal players.
REHMAnd in order to do that, it had to be fiction.
MALLONWell, I think so. I didn't think I had much to add much to add as a nonfiction writer. I do write nonfiction, but I wanted to see this as a novelist. And that's sort of my practice as a novelist. I've taken a lot of American historical events and seen them from the perspectives of people who got swept up in them. I wrote a book years ago called Henry and Clara, which was about the couple who were in the balcony with the Lincolns on the night of the assassination.
MALLONAnd so I thought here was another chance to come at a big historical event somewhat obliquely, although one of my point of view characters is Nixon himself. So you can't get any more central than that, but a lot of them are people sort of on the fringes.
REHMAnd describe the Nixon of your novel.
MALLONWell, I'd say it's a wildly mixed portrait. And I think there are certainly reserves of sympathy and admiration for him. What would be the point of having some mustache-twirling villain? You know, I don't think that would interest a novelist or readers for very long. God knows he was a complicated man, and to see somebody bringing himself down to see the petty side, destroying the visionary side, which was very operative at the time, you know?
REHMAt the same time, looking back, his villainous side came out in that California race against Helen Gahagan Douglas.
MALLONBack in 1950, well, that was -- she was the woman who gave him the appellation Tricky Dick, which stuck with him forever and ever. But I think that he was a rough character in politics and had very, very sharp elbows. And I think, in a way, his problem in life politically and, to some extent, maybe even personally, he didn't know how to take yes for an answer. He had finally won the presidency after losing it, after losing the governorship of California and being told that he was finished.
MALLONAnd he was suddenly there, but he arrived at such a tumultuous time that he felt besieged. And he had the sort of personality that would take actual evidence of being besieged and magnify it. And I don't think he ever had a relaxed moment in his life.
REHMAnd thereby remain insecure is your point.
REHMThroughout, even though he's here in the Oval Office. He has this power, but he is the man beset by, people have said, demons.
MALLONOne of the things that was very striking to me about election night 1972 when he wins this absolute landslide victory over McGovern is that, by all accounts, when he sat up late watching the returns in his hideaway office, the executive office building, there was an air of depression about him. And I think that often happens to people of accomplishment. You know, there's the let down when you've actually achieved something.
MALLONBut I think this was the third time he'd run for the presidency. The first time he had lost it by whisker, the second time he'd won it by a whisker. And I think what he really wanted was another sort of thrill ride. And what he couldn't really deal with was victory easily and a victory that indicated resounding approval from the voting population or at least resounding disapproval of his opponent.
REHMWhere were you during Richard Nixon's presidency and his downfall?
MALLONI was in college. He was president the entire time I was in college, which was from the fall of '69 until...
REHMAnd you admired him from your early youth.
MALLONWell, I had -- my father was a rabid Nixon supporter. I went to fourth grade wearing a Nixon Lodge button in the fall of 1960. And I'd been for him in 1968 when I was all of 17. And I shook his hand when he came through my town, shook his hand and Mrs. Nixon's hand. Went to college, defended him to my classmates. I thought that his policy of Vietnam-izing the war, this gradual withdrawal was a good one. But it became very, very difficult to stick with him, particularly after Kent State and Cambodia.
MALLONAnd I sort of was repelled by a lot and just sort of moved away and went into my more sort of liberal phase. Although I admire things he did, the China trip, things like that, one of the things that amaze me while writing the novel was to see how during months when the Watergate developments were at their absolute worst, the Saturday Night Massacre, showdown in the Supreme Court, he's really operating foreign policy of the United States not just at a competent level, but really at a visionary level.
MALLONAnd, you know, I don't know what that dissociation says. People used to talk about President Clinton as being able to compartmentalize, maybe that's the same thing in a more extreme version with Nixon. If it's so, I mean, I would sort of say, Viva compartmentalization. I mean, the same way President Clinton was able to keep going during all of that and be president. To a greater extent than I thought even when the White House was totally engulfed in Watergate, Nixon, in the foreign policy realm was still operating as president.
REHMAnd one figure who gains prominence in "Watergate: A Novel" is Pat Nixon. She becomes more of herself.
MALLONI had, as I think most Americans had, a real sympathy for her. I think, by all accounts, she was a much warmer person than the public thought she was because she was so reserved. She was from that generation of political wives who stayed entirely in the background. But there were things I knew about her, that she was a chain smoker, that she was very nervous. She could be very implacable about Nixon's enemies. She was all for burning the tapes.
MALLONShe had opinions and at the same time, had a real gentleness, especially with her daughters. Both of the Nixon children had excellent relations with both of their parents. And that's intriguing to somebody who, you know, sees only the rough tough Nixon of the public arena. And with Mrs. Nixon, I tried to imagine what her life was. And she's one of the characters who I probably fictionalized the most.
MALLONAnd I imagine a sort of warm temporary kind of sweet-natured affair that she might have had with another person, another man during what Nixon called the Wilderness Years, the years between his defeats and attaining the presidency when the Nixons were living in New York and he was in private practice as a lawyer.
REHMJust a note on her relationship with her daughters, Julie Nixon Eisenhower was here recently with her husband David Eisenhower. What a charming young woman she is. And one cannot help but believe that some of that charm and warmth and spirit of generosity came from her mother.
MALLONHer mother, yes. I mean, Julie, in particular of the two daughter, was very gallant defending her father and sort of went to the bitter end and would step out in front of the microphones and take questions. And she would do her best to, you know, mount a defense for him. But I do think there was probably more warmth among the Nixons than people thought.
REHMThomas Mallon, his new novel is titled simply, "Watergate." We're going to open the phones and take some of your calls shortly. Join us on 800-433-8850.
REHMWelcome back. Tom Mallon is with me. He is a writer. He has written several novels including "Henry and Clara," "Dewey Defeats Truman" and "Fellow Travelers." His latest book, a fictionalized version of Watergate, certainly containing many of the figures you and I all know and recognize, including, of course, Martha Mitchell, Patricia Nixon. All of them come alive in this book. But the questions remain, Tom, the questions about who ordered Watergate in the first place. Did you, in doing the research for this novel, get to figure that out?
MALLONNo, and I don't think anybody actually has. I think we have a pretty good idea of how it happened but no real certainty. There's a whole kind of grassy knoll theory of Watergate, you know, just as there is with the Kennedy assassination. There's a whole alternative theory that this involves something completely different. There are people who make John Dean into the kind of villain of all of this.
MALLONIn the book, without giving too much away, I actually propose that it happened because of a slip of the tongue, a kind of inadvertency, an accident, which is the way I think history does actually happen sometimes. But I don't think we know that answer for sure. I had to come up with my own suppositions about a lot of things, the 18-and-a-half minute gap on the tape. Who created it? There are people who think Nixon did himself.
MALLONAnd poor Rosemary Woods doing that famous stretch. And in my novel, she does create the gap, but for a very different reason from what people think. She's not doing it to take out something that's damaging to her boss. She's taking out something that hurts her own feelings. And in fact, it's an irrelevant passage and it's her rival, H.R. Haldeman, talking about her with Nixon.
REHMTell us about Martha Mitchell.
MALLONMartha Mitchell was a flamboyant figure. She was tremendous copy for magazine writers and interviewers. She was a belle out of Arkansas. She was the second wife of John Mitchell, the Attorney General who ran Nixon's reelection campaign.
REHMWho was very protective of her.
MALLONI think the Mitchells were a real love match too. And Nixon, in a way, ultimately blamed Martha for Watergate because he felt that if John Mitchell hadn't been so distracted by her problems -- and she had a tremendous drinking problem. If he hadn't been so distracted and worried about her at that time that he would've been minding the store more closely. But she was wonderful copy and I thought for a while, you know, of making her into the chorus figure in the book, but she was finally too, in a way, unreliable and over the top. And she sort of disappears from the scene fairly quickly. She goes up to New York.
MALLONThe Mitchells had lived in the Watergate and that was another surprise. I mean, I knew they had been there, but the number of figures involved in the Nixon years who actually lived in the complex. Rosemary Woods, his secretary, had an apartment in the Watergate, Fred LaRue the bagman who took the money to the burglars, he was there. Senator Brook who was the first Republican to call for Nixon's resignation, he lived in the Watergate. It was kind of a Republican fortress in those days.
REHMHere's an interesting email from Beth who says, "I'm teaching a poetry class in which we're studying dramatic monologue and the epical considerations. We discuss the ways they need to be addressed so one person is not merely using another person's life in an exploitive way for their art. What about this novel? How is that issue handled?"
MALLONWell, I think that's always a question with historical fiction. Whenever you deal with real people you have to wonder what the feelings they might have or their progeny might have. It obviously is harder the closer in time you are to the event. But I remember with that book "Henry and Clara," an interviewer once asked me, don't you fear the dead? And I thought, well, goodness it's 150 years ago. And I do think it's a very good question and I think a lot of it most fundamentally has to do with labeling.
MALLONI've written in the past that nouns always trump adjectives. And in the phrase historical fiction, it's very important for the reader to remember that this is fiction. Sometimes people come up to me and they say, oh I've learned so much history from your books. And I always flinch a little bit because I always want to say, be careful.
REHMYeah, of course.
MALLONBecause, you know, you've learned history that's been manipulated.
REHMBut aren't you worried that to a certain degree young people, for example, might read this even though it's fiction?
REHMI mean, people believe Oliver Stone's movie version of J.F.K.'s...
REHM...assassination even more than they believe what the Warren Commission came out with.
MALLONRight. And so I do think that you have to keep in mind that you're performing a kind of indulgence as a reader. You're going to indulge in the pleasure of thinking about what might have been. I don't write alternate histories which, you know, change the outcome. In an alternate history Richard Nixon would survive and serve out his term. But I sort of write not what might have happened instead but what might have happened in addition to what we already know.
MALLONAnd here I was pleased when they came up with the dust jacket and the words, "A Novel," are as big as the main title "Watergate."
REHMTell me about this center piece on the dust jacket.
MALLONWell, they've done a trompe l'oeil cover and the dust jacket shows the top part of an old telephone receiver with a mesh of holes in it. You know the holes that the sound comes through. And there are actual holes in the paper of the dust jacket. And when you lift the dust jacket and you see the boards, as they call them, the cover of the book, you see that what's beneath the telephone receiver has been tapped and you see wires coming out of the receiver.
REHMHave you deliberately made women central figures in this book?
MALLONYou know, I didn't do it deliberately, but a lot of the reviewers have commented on this. And I think the women have always run away with my books. Again, I keep mentioning this "Henry and Clara." They sound coequals, but it's Clara's book more than Henry's. And I think that the women who were involved in Watergate, they were sort of the last generation of adult women before the second wave of feminism, you know, operating in political circumstances. They saw a lot, they knew a lot. They sometimes couldn't say a lot. But they were strong, vivid people, Rosemary Woods.
MALLONMrs. Nixon, as I say, was not the plastic sort of doormat figure that people may...
REHMDid you ever get to know her?
MALLONNo. Her biography was written by her daughter, by Julie, and she was very elusive. Never gave an interview ever from the day she left the White House. Truman Capote, you know, who one associates with glamorous women, what he called his swans and Jackie Kennedy and (word?) , whatever, he was once asked, who was the woman that he most wanted to meet. And to the interviewer's astonishment he said, Pat Nixon because she was very, very guarded and, in her own way, mysterious.
REHMSo you create a lover for Pat Nixon.
MALLONI imagined a fellow named Tom Garahan. And...
REHMYou gave him your first name.
MALLONI guess I did, yeah, and made him an Irishman. And he's a nice genial retired trust and estates lawyer from Manhattan.
REHMHow does she meet him?
MALLONThey meet in Schrafft's or a Schrafft's. Schrafft's was a chain of restaurants that no longer exist.
REHMIn New York.
MALLONAnd she's living the life that she liked in New York. They lived on 5th Avenue. The girls were in school. She went to museums. She went to Elizabeth Arden. She shopped for books. And she's having a cup of coffee in Schrafft's after coming back from Elizabeth Arden and he recognizes her. And he sends her a piece of apple pie, has the waitress send her one. For some reason, this gesture appeals to her.
MALLONAnd they begin this very tender low key affair that only lasts a matter of months before Richard Nixon begins running for the presidency again in '68. But he remains on her mind throughout the book and they have a number of fleeting contacts, both in person and over the telephone. And at the same time, she also, in her way, remains fiercely loyal to Richard Nixon. And I think she was.
MALLONAnd this is a good example of -- to site with what the emailer said about your responsibilities to these people. And I think that you can look at this and say, is that fair. And on one level it's not fair and it shows the arrogance of what novelists do. On the other hand, it was one of my ways of making what I hoped was a very three-dimensional and warm portrait of Mrs. Nixon.
REHMYeah, you're projecting onto her your hopes for her in a sense.
MALLONYes. She's a very sympathetic figure in the book.
REHMAlice Roosevelt Longworth, less sympathetic in real life and...
MALLONI'll bet, yeah.
REHM...and certainly in your novel.
MALLONI didn't know her. I've talked to people who did. And she, of course, was Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, the widow of the Speaker of the House, Nicholas Longworth.
REHMDid not suffer fools gladly.
MALLONShe had a pillow in her DuPont Circle mansion which said, if you can't say something nice about someone, come sit by me. And she was very much still on the scene when the Nixons were in the White House. She was at the Nixon White House quite a lot. She had known him from the time he got to town in the 1940s, had marked him as a comer and had seen quite a lot of him, remained a supporter, although she loved the gossip and intrigue of Watergate, couldn't get enough of it.
MALLONAnd Nixon even goes to her 90th birthday party at her house just several months before he resigns the presidency. And she kept up with things and she became that kind of chorus figure instead of Martha because she was the opposite of Martha when it came to drinking. She disapproved of -- didn't like to serve much wine at her dinners and stuff, but she liked the conversation sharp. And so she became the person with the long historical view.
REHMDid Pat Nixon go to that same birthday party?
MALLONYes, yes. And it was in February of 1974.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I wonder if you would read for us from that portion where it starts on page 300. And it is supposedly at Art Buchwald's birthday party.
MALLONRight. This is the night of the Saturday night massacre when Richard Nixon is really, in some ways, at his lowest point. Elliot Richardson, the Attorney General, resigns because he refuses to fire the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. And a lot of Democrats in town were across the river at McLane's celebrating Buchwald's birthday. And this is a bit of what I imagined, and it has Alice there.
MALLON"Roger Mudd, please call your office, boomed a loudspeaker. Mr. Mudd, please call your office. Alice noted that Ben Bradley had already gone off in a rush. She looked at the television above the distant bar and thought she could make out a man with a beard and mustache who looked like a villain out of Sherlock Holmes. People began moving quickly back and forth between the bar and the tables, ferrying fact and rumor. The mixed doubles players on the courts had been reduced to a solitary pair who wondered if they should carry on with a singles match.
MALLONIt was first a set of facts that reached Alice and her group. Elliot Richardson and his deputy had both resigned after refusing to fire Professor Cox. The bearded man on the television --" this is Robert Bork -- "was the department's number three who had agree to do the deed. Then the rumors arrived that the FBI had gone to the special prosecutor's office on K Street, perhaps to seize files, perhaps to protect them. Or the files had already been hidden by the special prosecutor's staff who, rumor also had it, were rushing from their homes to the office.
MALLONAlice found the present moment to be one of a handful in her long life when she could not command an audience. Joe Alsop had left her for the TV and Tom Braden had left with him. You should go too, dear, she said to Mrs. Braden. You never know what spry luminary is likely to be there waiting to buy you a cocktail, Averell Harriman, U Thant. Someone had turned the television up so loud that even Alice could now here it without getting up from the table. John Chancellor of NBC was speculating that this might be quote the most serious constitutional crisis in history.
MALLONOh please, thought Alice, who could remember legless Civil War veterans begging in the streets. And yet the palace did seem to be firing back on the peasants. As a student and theorist of the scandal, who wasn't? She believed that Howard Hunt had somehow been the one who'd managed to pull back the curtain on all that might have remained hidden. But who had really started everything and did that matter now?"
REHMI talked with Roger Mudd this morning who had said he's halfway through the novel and loves it. But he says I was not at...
REHM...Art Buchwald's party. I was in Williamsburg. But that was just such fun to read that portion. I recalled the stunned shock that all of us felt that night. It was just an extraordinary night. Of course, I was not at that party, but I just -- as a citizen of this country to realize that somehow some way this man who sat in the White House was involved in some criminal action was just stunning.
MALLONIt was the most dramatic night of (unintelligible) . More dramatic than the day Nixon resigned because that one could see coming. And this was really a thunderclap. And they thought that they had sort of had a deal worked out for these tapes but then it fell through. And it was at that moment that impeachment was really in the air. At that moment, the focus went onto the possible impeachment of Nixon, whereas, up until that time, impeachment was considered such an extreme option as to be unlikely.
REHMAnd of course, there were Woodward and Bernstein working and working and working trying to figure this whole thing out. We're going to take a short break here in our conversation with Thomas Mallon on his new novel titled "Watergate." We'll be right back.
REHMIf you've just joined us, Thomas Mallon is with me. He is a writer, a novelist with many novels to his credit, the latest "Watergate: A Novel." And we're going to open the phones now 800-433-8850. To Margot is Little Rock, Ark., good morning.
MARGOTGood morning. Actually, I had two questions. One is do you think that Nixon and his people involved in Watergate have attempted to change the American memory, thus history? And the other one is do you think that Martha Mitchell has been lessened by history because, you know, in vino veritas. I mean, they were all alcoholics then, particularly, John Mitchell. I mean, everyone then had an alcohol problem. So, I mean, why is she excluded?
MALLONWell, I mean, Mrs. Mitchell's problem was really debilitating and extreme and she required treatment in a way that, you know, the others didn't. You're certainly right. It was a much harder drinking culture than we have today. And everybody who was involved -- there was an enormous raft of memoirs that were produced, in some cases just because people needed to pay their legal bills.
MALLONThey wrote books that weren't even all that interesting. And so, naturally, they attempted to spin things their way. But I think the objective facts of Watergate, the enormous production of transcript from committee investigations, criminal investigations and so forth more than counter balances the spin that the players, themselves, might have put on it.
REHMAnd Noah in Indianapolis has a good question. Good morning, you're on the air.
NOAHHi, Diane. My question is -- I'll just say that I'm sort of one the listeners who for whom this story is a little bit of ancient history and I was wondering if your guest wouldn't mind briefly discussing the relevance to some of the younger listeners today in this day and age. And I'll take my answer off the air, thank you.
REHMAll right, thanks.
MALLONI think it's a very good question. I don't think this scandal could have played out in the same way. You know, at the time, Watergate seemed like such a cutting edge, high tech scandal. It involved tapes and bugging and surveillance. It seems so primitive now. They actually had to have a listening post directly across the street from the Watergate so they could pick up what was being transmitted. I think what remains relevant about it is the way in which a small thing can spiral out of control and the chief lesson, political lesson, from it was that the cover up always is worse than the crime.
MALLONAnd that's finally what made Nixon leave office, what he did to cover up what had happened, rather than what had actually happened that, I think, is relevant. In other respects, I don't think this could happen again. People sometimes ask me, well, would Nixon have had to resign or would he have been impeached if he had burned the tapes? And I have no definite answer to that. I think he still would have had to leave office if he had burned the tapes, but one thing I feel certain of...
REHMHe knew he would have to leave office if he burned those tapes.
MALLONUm-hum, yes. They weren't under subpoena.
MALLONAnd there were people who argued you still have time to get rid of them, but I think he thought it was too late. But I do feel certain that he would not have had to leave office if he had never made the tapes in the first place.
REHMHere's an email from Morgan who says, "The docudrama, 'Frost Nixon,' was an excellent story that showed the genius personality of Nixon. It's funny that nowadays he would not have a voice in his own party because of his visionary foreign policy initiatives. I thought his advisors did not serve him well, that includes Mitchell, Haldeman and Kissinger." What do you think, Tom?
MALLONWell, I think it's often forgotten how liberal, in some respects, the Nixon presidency was in terms of domestic policy, medical insurance. He had a health plan, guaranteed annual income, tremendous funding for the arts. Nixon, I don't think, was terribly interested in domestic policy. He viewed the presidency, essentially, as an office that ran the foreign policy of the country. But there was that side to Nixon, yes, he was badly served by his advisor, but he often egged them on in ways that made them misbehave. I think it's inconceivable, if you listen to the tapes, it's inconceivable that Nixon knew about the break-in in advance.
MALLONBut what I find so ironic when you listen to the tapes is I often hear a man who's pretending to know more about it than he actually did because when Haldeman and Ehrlichman and his advisors are in there talking about what's going on and they're trying to cover up and they're trying to keep the danger away from the White House, Nixon wants to appear like the boss, in control, knows what's going on. And, in fact, you can see that he doesn't remember who did what at the committee, you know, on such a date. So he's actually trying to appear more on top of Watergate rather than less. Whereas if he did appear less, it would be exculpatory, you know.
REHMHow much time did you spend on research before you wrote this?
MALLONProbably about a year and a half. When writing historical novels, I always tell people, if they're inclined to do such a thing, you've got to start writing before you finish researching or else you'll fall into dissertations and drama and you'll never start writing. But the voluminous-ness of the material, it was pretty staggering, the memoirs, the transcripts and, of course, the tapes themselves. And for a couple of years, Richard Nixon's voice was often the last one I heard before going to bed...
MALLON...because I worked late and I'd be playing the tapes on my computer.
REHMYou know, he always struck me as somewhat of a depressive character.
REHMDid he strike you as the same way?
MALLONIn the way that he was prone to getting low when he had gotten what he wanted, I think that that -- there's, you know, he had another irony and another sort of sad aspect to him. He had a brutal childhood. You know, the two brothers that he lost to tuberculosis and his father was kind of a martinet, a very difficult man. Mother long suffering, as he famously said in his farewell statement, she was a saint. I think there were powerful forces at work to create a psychology that was not ever going to comfortable.
REHMHere's an email from Andrew in Scottsdale, Ariz., who says, "The author continues a fantasy that Watergate alone caused Nixon's downfall. Republicans could have saved his presidency, but they chose not to. Nixon was too moderate for the right wing of the party and they disowned him as early as August of 1971, according to an article published in Time Magazine."
MALLONWell, I mean, he had a minor challenge in 1972 because he had gone to China. And because he had gone to the Soviet Union, John Ashcroft, a very conservative congressman, challenged him in the primaries. But the stalwart republican conservatives were with Nixon, really, up until the end, Barry Goldwater among them. Although, at one point at the end, it was Barry Goldwater who was among the people who went to the White House to say, you've got to go.
REHMYou got to go.
MALLONYou have no support left.
MALLONAnd, you know, there's no way you can mount a defense.
REHMAnd to Bloomington, Ind. good morning, Mark.
MARKOh, good morning, Diane. This is a fascinating story and I have something to add to it. I was intrigued by the little scenario that the author used with Rose Mary Woods and the reasons for the 18-minute gap. But I had the opportunity to meet John Dean late last year and I asked John Dean flat out. I expected a real spicy bit of insight as to what he thought was on that 18-minute gap. And he surprised me because he said, you know, I think people would be very disappointed.
MARKHe says, the Richard Nixon I knew was so technologically inept, he says, I do believe that he actually erased it accidentally. And that what we'll find is not a whole lot. And he says given the context of what was said around it, he said, I think it's just pretty much not much of anything. And I was wondering if the author had the same impression when he was putting together the Rose Mary Woods scenario. Thank you.
MALLONTo some extent because there's a reference just before the tape cuts out, just before the erasure takes place, there's a reference to Ely, Nevada, which was Mrs. Nixon's birthplace and a reference to some campaigning she'd done in South Dakota, I believe. And I imagine that the conversation just kind of meanders and that the two of them are talking about, in it's conversations associative way, they start talking about Rose Mary Woods and she doesn't like what she hears and she just gets rid of it.
MALLONBut it's not particularly relevant to Watergate, although it causes yet another calamity for Nixon. But I think that's entirely possible that it was an inadvertent error. You know, this is my scenario, but there could be others.
REHMYou have Alice Roosevelt Longworth nicknamed Dean the tortoise shell.
MALLONYeah, he wore those tortoise shell glasses, and I realize I've got them on myself, so she calls him the tortoise shell tattler. She likes to nickname people and (unintelligible) .
REHMShe must have been quite a woman.
MALLONI really think she was. And she was a very sharp political mind. She's a really interesting person because, I think, you know, her distant relative, Eleanor, she made merciless fun of, thought Eleanor was a do-gooder and she used to do these imitations of her and she would buck out her teeth and make fun of Mrs. Roosevelt's voice. And Alice's real problem in life was that she had a terrific mind.
MALLONShe was extremely well read, but she never really found anything to apply it to except mischief so she became a whip. But there's a certain emptiness. There's a certain hollowness there and she's a brilliant surface observer, but you can, sort of, imagine her, you know, at the court of Versailles in the 17th Century, but she never really applied that to anything and in the end that was her loss, I think.
REHMWhat about Elliott Richardson? He kind of comes off as the true villain here.
MALLONYeah, you know, I'm not a believer in the school of thought that says that, oh, my characters -- this is among novelists -- my characters they sort of take on a life of their own and so forth, but he -- I was struck by a certain pomposity in him and a certain tremendous ambition. And one of the things that was very apparent was Nixon was very aware of Richardson's ambition and Nixon thought that Richardson was a very credible candidate for president long before the time of the Saturday Night Massacre.
MALLONAnd he says when he appoints Nixon attorney general on the tape that night he fires Haldeman and Ehrlichman and he says, Elliott, this could take you all the way.
MALLONAnd I went through Richardson's papers in the Library of Congress, whatever, and he did sort of evolve into -- I don't know if he's a villain, but he's sort of a -- he's not the heroic figure that he is in most nonfiction Watergate accounts and I pause at somebody who has the same kind of ambitions that are leading the criminals in the case to their doom.
REHMAnd you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." A caller in Tampa, Fla. David, good morning, you're on the air.
DAVIDHey, (unintelligible) thanks for taking my call.
DAVIDListen, I read somewhere once that Richard Nixon referred to himself in the third person in his personal journals, RN, I think was the shorthand. First of all, Tom, is that true?
MALLONHe actually -- not so much in his personal journals, but I've seen him -- it's coming to mind now in memoranda that he wrote where I do believe there are some third person references to himself. And there was David Frye, the impressionist, the comedian of his day, he always used to have Nixon saying I am the president and he sort of thought about himself in that kind of third person way. What really struck me in terms of diaries and references to Nixon are the Haldeman diaries where Haldeman, for shorthand purposes, refers to Nixon as P, short for president. P went here and P did this and it's a very unearthly reading experience. Nixon almost feels like a cyborg in the Haldeman diaries.
MALLONAnd they're very gripping reading as for a day-to-day account of what went on in the White House and very, very chilly.
REHMAnd what about the aftermath of Watergate when you have people rushing in and saying I'm in charge.
MALLONWell, I mean, what I, I think, was most focused on was -- I mean, the amiable Gerald Ford becomes president and tries to right the ship pretty quickly, but it was mostly the personal toll that it would have taken on people. Nixon was very close to death in 1974 from these phlebitis attacks and other ailments that he had. And Mrs. Nixon had a very bad stroke a couple of years later in 1976.
MALLONAnd they very gradually sort of battled their way back to a new kind of life. Nixon became, I think, a very useful ex-president. He didn't take money for his speeches. He wrote serious books and he gave advice. Bill Clinton commented on the quality of his advice. But he will never be anybody that we can look at in a single way.
MALLONAnd I think, actually, Bill Clinton gave one of the most moving eulogies for Richard Nixon when he said the time has passed for us to judge Richard Nixon on anything but the entirety of his life. And I think what he was saying was Watergate will always be there, but there is the record that he achieved and, to some extent, threw away because of Watergate.
REHMAnd what about you, Tom Mallon, do you complete this novel with a certain sympathy for Richard Nixon that perhaps you didn't have previously?
MALLONA human sympathy, yes, I think he probably, yes, did have to leave office. I cannot resolve him in my mind. I can't absolve or resolve him in my mind. He does not add up to a single thing. One of the things I understood when I finished this book -- I used to ask myself how on earth can Robert Caro spend decade after decade after decade with Lyndon Johnson. I sort of get it now.
MALLONI think if I had to I could spend even more time with Nixon. You just don't get to the bottom of him.
REHMThomas Mallon, he is the author of eight novels, seven works of nonfiction. His latest is titled, "Watergate: A Novel." Thank you so much.
MALLONThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening, all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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