Friday, December 11, 2015

Thomas Mallon’s Watergate

Finally got around to reading Thomas Mallon’s 2012 novel Watergate, an exercise in historical fiction that manages to pull together most of the details of the complicated and fascinating political scandal that cut short Richard Nixon’s second term as president. As the genre allows, Mallon adds a number invented details as well, including significantly fleshing out a few characters and their backstories and introducing a couple of new figures (both love interests) not actually part of the real-life saga.

The book is highly engaging and aside from its literary merits actually could work as a decent introduction to the story of Watergate for those unfamiliar with it. I say that somewhat hesitantly, though, and in truth as I think about the college course I’ve been teaching this semester -- “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics” -- I realize I probably wouldn’t want to assign the novel as the fictionalization disturbs the historical truth just enough to create too many complications.

It’s hard enough trying to relate what actually happened, I wouldn’t want to give myself the additional task of sorting out where Mallon has creatively filled gaps -- in some cases quite literally, such as when he reveals what was said on those missing 18-and-a-half minutes (as well as how it got erased).

There’s much I like about the book, including some of the small, deftly chosen details like the reference late in the book to the “Watergate centrifuge,” at once evoking the maelstrom of the scandal and the unique, swirling shape of the complex (pictured below). Many have noted before how the actual story is “Shakespearean” in its scope with a “tragic hero” at the center of it falling in the end, although Mallon’s book is actually often more comedic and even light than tragic and dark.

Nixon himself recedes into the background for much of it as a minor player, in fact, portrayed somewhat sympathetically as having been led down a difficult path only partly of his own choosing. Mallon gives a lot more attention to others, including two important ones from the actual story -- Howard Hunt and Fred LaRue. He also cleverly highlights the fascinating octogenarian Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Theodore) who was friends with Nixon throughout his career.

The presentation of Hunt’s crazy life including the plane crash death of his wife Dorothy is quite effective (I shuddered a little at the relation of that event, as I think any frequent flyers might). Mallon also delves deeply into LaRue’s past and the death of his father in a hunting accident, thought perhaps to have been the fault of LaRue himself. Mallon actually allows that mystery to muscle its way into the becoming the novel’s primary plot, particularly during the latter half of the book, strangely making the mysteries of Watergate secondary. (He does, however, create a neat -- maybe too neat -- connection between LaRue’s backstory and the later scandal that serves in a way to present an invented “cause” for how Watergate got started.)

I mentioned my course, the title of which suggests that while the focus is Richard Nixon’s life and career, we use poker as a kind of guiding metaphor throughout. Nixon himself was an avid player, particularly during his young adulthood, and had much to say about the game later on, including about the many parallels between poker and politics. I’ll admit this interest of mine blinkered my reading of Watergate somewhat, causing me to hope for more talk of betting and raising and bluffing and folding than actually turned out to be the case.

My hopes that poker might actually be a kind of thematic motif in the book were raised right away during the Prologue. Mallon makes an early reference to Nixon’s decision after having renewed bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong to mine Haiphong Harbor just a couple of weeks before the first Moscow summit at the end of May 1972. The move is described as having put the whole summit at risk, and when it wasn’t cancelled Nixon is said to have arrived in Moscow “with a stronger hand” as a result.

The prologue then ends with Nixon in Moscow having a brief daydream about his days winning at poker as a Naval officer while waiting out the end of WWII in the Pacific. As it turns out, this will be the only poker reference in the book that explicitly refers to Nixon’s actual playing of the game.

“But something in the dream was wrong,” goes the description. “He was winning too much; he had too many chips in front of him. He didn’t know how he’d gotten them, but he knew he had to get rid of them fast. But how?”

Coming just as the story was starting, I thought perhaps Mallon was setting himself up for later references to Nixon sitting behind an imagined stack of chips, eventually switching over into a mode of trying desperately to preserve them as opponents attacked him from all sides. And once Watergate began to evolve from a minor irritation to an “affair” to a full-blown scandal, we would see Nixon bluffing madly as his “hands” got worse and worse.

That doesn’t happen, though. There are a few more incidental references to poker here and there, as well as some passages that a biased reader like me might argue imply something of the poker-politics parallel. But poker isn’t really part of this attempt to tell the tale.

A couple of weeks before the 1972 election, Nixon writes a letter to Alice Roosevelt Longworth in which he notes “I know, as you do and your father did, all victories are temporary, but we’ll soon be celebrating together -- not just the election, but a peace agreement.” Then after Nixon wins he feels a letdown, in part because by winning what was necessarily his last election “it meant, after all, no more politics.” “But he didn’t suppose there was much logic in giving thanks to politics to putting an end to itself.” Such references make politics sound a little like poker, with Nixon here having managed to beat a final opponent to leave himself alone at the table (temporarily, anyway).

A little later it’s inauguration day (January 20, 1973), and Nixon is shown talking with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman about ways to spin the story of the burglars having tried to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The old story of Lyndon B. Johnson’s adminstration having bugged the Nixon campaign airplane in 1968 is mentioned, though tempered by LBJ’s increasingly grave health (he’d be dead two days later). “I don’t know if it would be worth it or not to play the plane card once he’s gone,” Nixon says to Haldeman.

Another character (LaRue) is later described as pondering “the love of the game” of politics. He later refers to his own role in Watergate (as the bagman), saying “Money may have been my whole part in it, but you can’t name me one other political scandal where nobody had money as his motive, at least at the start.” Again, poker is well in the background here, only barely suggested by the many connections between poker and politics (money).

Later in July 1973 Nixon is in the hospital with pneumonia and his new White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig comes for a visit. Just a few days removed from Alexander Butterfield’s revelation of the secret recording system during his testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee, Nixon and Haig discuss the idea of destroying the recordings, something Nixon would never quite bring himself to do despite the encouragement of others, among them John Connally who’d been Nixon’s Secretary of Treasury and who after heading the “Democrats for Nixon” during the ’72 campaign had recently switched over to the Republican Party.

“Inertia would win,” writes Mallon, articulating the president’s thoughts regarding the tapes. Nixon wouldn’t destroy the tapes, but rather “he would fight for them in court, however hopelessly, rather than trigger a vast convulsion -- and maybe impeachment -- by their destruction.” He then goes on to bring up a characteristic of Nixon I’ve always linked with his poker playing -- his love of surprising, dramatic moves or what in poker we might call the “fancy play.”

“He himself had always loved the big play, the bold move” writes Mallon, “but he didn’t have the courage to light Connally’s bonfire.”

The passage reminds me of what Nixon once said in an interview when talking about his poker strategy. “If the odds are great against you in a small pot, get out,” he explained. “But while you should be cautious in the small ones, be bold in the big ones. Be willing to risk all to gain all.” Again, though, I’m forcing these connections into the text somewhat, as the novelist himself is making no explicit reference to poker.

Another character is later described as “eager not to overplay her hand” when meeting with Howard Hunt. The embattled Spiro Agnew is once described as a “bluff, manly character” as he is about to be ousted as vice-president.

Pat Nixon is one of the more likable characters in the novel, and while I’m not too sure I like one choice Mallon made when adding an invented detail to her story, I think he does well to make her come alive in the book. That said, he does have her deliver a short speech to Nixon that sounds less like actual dialogue than a kind of pale version of a Shakespearean soliloquy given to a minor character as a way of telling the audience something important about the tragic hero.

“I hate your enemies, but you love them,” she says. “You love their existence; they’re what gives you your own.” Again, one could talk about the existential crisis of a poker player who needs opponents in order to survive.

By the spring of 1974 it’s clear Nixon’s presidency very likely is going to be cut short, and Pat is made to think how “she and Dick and Rose and all the rest of them had spent their full allowance of life and now could only bounce checks against the past.” In early March the “Watergate Seven” are indicted with Nixon also named as an “unindicted co-conspirator,” that latter bit of information described as “a card that Jaworski” -- i.e., Leon Jaworski, the new Special Prosecutor -- “can play how and when he wants.”

Near the end in June and early July 1974, Nixon would make final trips abroad to Europe, the Middle East, and once more to the Soviet Union. While never weaker at home, he ironically is received especially well at many of those stops, something he’s shown anticipating in the book when he tells Haig that each of the countries would have “the red carpet out for him.”

“The region was suddenly a casino,” adds Mallon (narrating Nixon’s thoughts), “and he was running the table.”

The line is well placed, but totally misses the chance to circle back to the poker metaphor that would have special meaning for Nixon. In fact there’s something almost jarring here about the line’s recalling other casino games (e.g., craps). Even so, we have Nixon at the end of the chapter “thinking how the game might still be won,” even if the Supreme Court ruled (as it would) he’d have to give up the tapes.

The Watergate story ends with the resignation and pardon, then the novel includes an epilogue govering the next several decades. We get one last scene with Nixon during his final months after Pat’s death and just before his own. Here we get one last internal monologue that includes another accurate observation about Nixon’s character, but one more missed opportunity (I think) to have reprised the poker motif.

“He massaged his left temple and reflected upon a tendency to see only bad luck, never good, operating in his own life. Bad luck was the source of his defeats, whereas his achievements had come from his own skill and nerve.”

This sentiment does reflect how Nixon often spoke and wrote about his career, and fits well inside this final scene before Mallon’s character drifts off to sleep (and out of the story). It would have been nice to connect that talk of skill-versus-luck with poker, noting how what was really kind of a blind spot for Nixon (i.e., his overvaluing of luck when losing and skill when winning) might have been traced back to those days playing poker on Green Island.

Sure, he won a lot off his fellow officers -- many thousands (and enough to help fund his first Congressional campaign). But how much of it was skill and how much having been dealt some fortunate, well-timed five-card stud hands? Nixon tells a story from those games of once being dealt a royal flush -- it’s the most memorable hand he ever played. That could’ve come into Watergate somewhere, I’d think, perhaps even here at the end.

These are small quibbles, though, here idiosyncratically shared by a person with a special interest in Nixon the poker player. I enjoyed the novel greatly, and would recommend it to anyone wanting to be guided through this incredible real-life political tragicomedy.

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Blogger norm said...

Nixon, was an Enigma - nobody can explain him to this day.

12/14/2015 3:20 PM  

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