Watergate: A Novel by Thomas Mallon (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012. 448 pp)

Thomas Mallon is an American author whose notable works include Henry and Clara, Bandbox, and Fellow Travelers. A specialist in non-fiction, Mallon focuses his studies on plagiarism, diaries, and the Kennedy assassination. A contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Book Review, Mallon earned his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard University. He has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rockefeller Fellowship, and the National Book Critics award for reviewing. Currently, Mallon directs the Creative Writing program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The Passive Voice 

A writing technique I learned much too late in my academic life, I still struggle with active voicing. By preferring active verbs over passive verbs, a writer provides strong and compelling language for the reader. As a simple illustration, consider these two examples:

  1. George passed the ball;
  2. The ball was passed by George.
In the active voicing, the first sentence offers clear and precise prose describing an action by a character. In the passive voicing, the second sentence presents George as a background character. Even though both sentences describe the same action, the active sentence feels clearer.

Much like sentence construction, character development requires activity. Author Donald Miller once tweeted,

“If a character in a movie doesn’t know what he wants, the story drags. The same is true in life.”

Truthfully, passive characters create a boring story.

Sadly, in Thomas Mallon’s work of historical fiction, Watergate, the characters appear passive as if the mounting evidence surrounding the Watergate scandal influences the characters into action, rather than characters influencing Watergate.

A Scandal from the Top

Richard Nixon

Born over a decade after the events occurring in the wake of a June 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters, I honestly admit to no rooting interest in the well-known controversy of Watergate. Housed within the acrid partisanship which permeates American society, the feelings of those who experienced the events must certainly equate to the party lines. As such, I do not accept Richard Nixon as the scapegoat for everything wrong with Republicanism or a victim of liberal politics.

Interestingly, Mallon decides to unveil the events of Watergate through a series of chapters containing multiple protagonists. With each chapter skipping a month or more ahead, Mallon reveals the dramatic events through susurrus dialogue between offending parties.

The Connecting Glue

If I had to name a main character, Fred LaRue would earn the title. Present during the initial planning of the break-in and a crucial actor in the subsequent cover-up, LaRue forges the perfect bridge between the administration and the burglary.

“LaRue sat on the bed for a moment, silently reviewing the algebra that governed the room on the other side of the wall. Magruder hated Liddy. Mardian hated Magruder. Ehrlichman hated Mitchell. Mitchell hated Colson. And that was all before Friday night. He himself was a kind of lotion, a soother, the one most generally trusted because he was the one least thoroughly known” (41-42).


A Complicated President


President Nixon remains a complicated character, at times scurrilous and at others a fragile product of unalterable forces. Mallon illustrates this dichotomy well; he utilizes the First Lady, Pat Nixon, to describe the early days of the presidency:

“’I’m remembering a day late in ’68. A few weeks after the election. We were going from New York to Key Biscayne, and Johnson gave us Air Force One for the trip. We got on it together for the first time. And you know what he did? Dick?’
‘Tell me.’
‘He picked me up by the waist and spun me around. Twice. He hadn’t done that when we got the house in Whittier or even the one on Tilden Street, just a couple of miles from here. But that plane. That was carrying me over a threshold he could appreciate’” (216).

Here, Mallon carefully balances Nixon as a loving husband with Nixon as a power hungry politician.

Characters Influenced by Circumstance 

Watergate in 2 Covers

Despite these interesting character traits, passivity, like strong glue, connects the characters. Nobody truly feels guilty for the Watergate events because no single person feels directly responsible. With each character carrying substantial amounts of doubt, the circumstances surrounding the Watergate scandal act as the primary influencers in Mallon’s story. As an example, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s personal secretary cites the argument from authority as a defense against her guilt.

“If she passed the money on, would she be committing a crime? Would the lack of a specific instruction to have done so make her less guilty—or more? All her instincts spoke of the danger and foolishness of what she was about to do, but if this was the boss’s chosen course, she wasn’t going to second-guess him” (188).

By relaying guilt to her boss, Woods defends her actions as if she is incapable of defying orders. Interestingly, guilt exists in defying orders but not in covering up the scandal.

Ultimately, the same difficulties with a passive sentence exist in the characters of Watergate. A compelling character must act. Readers find entertainment in a driven character; they do not enjoy a character left swaying in the winds of lassitude. Even if Mallon intended to illustrate the nature of the political beast consuming the Nixon administration through no action of the characters, passiveness created a frustrating read. If you are interested in the Watergate scandal, Watergate might be an entertaining read. However, it did not do enough for me.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

What do you think? Did you experience Watergate? Do your political leanings influence your perception of Nixon? Can a passive character be intriguing?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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2 Comments Leave a comment
  • Susan (Reading World)

    I was a kid during the Watergate era. I didn't understand what was going on then and as an adult I know it as “history” even though I lived through it. I wish I had a better graps of the details, but they're murky. I was interested in this novel as a way to make the history come alive, but I'm not sure it'll do that. Thanks for the review. I'll have to think about it some more.

    • Donovan Richards

      Thanks for the comment, Susan. You are correct. Mallon's Watergate focuses more on the characters behind the scandal than the controversy itself. I think my rating is low partly because I expected the book to “make history come alive”. Instead, it represented a cast of characters helpless in the firestorm of Watergate. If you find a more informative work about the scandal, I'd love to hear about it!

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