Fresh Perspective on an Old Story

In another sneak preview from the May/June issue of the Washington Monthly, Jamie Malanowski accomplishes what every author of a favorable book review should want readers to feel: making me want to read a book that I otherwise would not consider picking up–in this case, Thomas Mallon’s Watergate: A Novel.

I’ve read an awful lot of books about Nixon, some very good, some mediocre. When it comes to Nixon as a historical figure, and as a personality, I can’t really imagine anyone much improving on the interpretive genius of Garry Wills’ sympathetic Nixon Agonistes, published long before Watergate (indeed, despite or because of Wills’ obvious pity for his subject, the book landed Wills on Nixon’s Watergate-era “enemies list”), or of the far darker 2008 tome by Rick Perlstein, Nixonland (which, as it happens, I reviewed for the Monthly).

Aside from all the reading, I was a college student and low-level political activist (a 1972 precinct chairman for George McGovern, as it happens) during Watergate, and lived through the whole thing. But that’s actually what makes the Mallon book intriguing, in Malanowski’s telling of it: it focuses not just on Nixon or the people most immediately involved in Watergate and the coverup, but on ancilliary figures, from the First Lady to cabinet members, who watched the whole nightmare from the perspective of watching their own lives unravel:

It’s noteworthy that all of these characters are in their forties and fifties, the great middle passage of life where too many youthful dreams have died and too many youthful vanities persist. When the crisis erupts, this potent mix imprisons them, keeping them tied to the tracks as the train approaches. As we see these folks watch the last of their prospects melt with the ice cubes in their drinks, we feel for them as we have never felt for them before.

I have to say, what I most recall about Watergate is just how weird the whole thing felt at the time, even from my distant perspective; things came out every day that you just couldn’t imagine, even if you were a cynical Nixon-hater, occurring at the top levels of national leadership. I never had quite that feeling of OMG, is this actually happening? again until November/December 2000, when it was every day’s wakening reality.

So even as I resolve to read Watergate: A Novel, it would seem its best audience would be people who did not experience the latter days of the Nixon administration, and would benefit from a cold plunge into how it felt at the time to various very interested parties. But read Malanowski’s review first, and see what you think.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.