Watergate Re-Imagined: Â The Secret History of the United States A Review of Thomas Mallonâs Watergate
By Dr. Steve Blankenship
When examining the bloody 1960s, Cold War historians of the United States will book-end their studies with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on the one hand and the Watergate-induced resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on the other.Â Indeed, Watergate will in the future resemble little more than the dirty laundry of JFKâs murder hung out to dry in public view.Â After all, it was only with the post-Watergate congressional investigations (Rockefeller Commission, Church Committee, House Select Committee on Assassinations) that the American public discovered a conspiracy among anti-Castro Cubans, Mafia members Â and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill Fidel Castro (LBJ called this âa damned Murder Incorporated operating in the Caribbeanâ). Â That no consensus has emerged with regard to either of these historical tragedies or whether and how they are linked explains why historians steer shy of these topics whose primary sources remain in great dispute, and whose interpretations cover the gamut of political possibilitiesâfrom the absurd to the subversive.Â Graduate students in history do not build their careers on such shaky ground, and thus the links between Kennedyâs death and Â Nixonâs resignation remain, if not opaque, then little understood.
Thomas Mallonâs new novel, Watergate, deftly wades into this historical quagmire, skillfully examining key moments in the unfolding tragedy while illuminating previously obscure or marginal actors in the scandal that ended Nixonâs presidency.Â Â Nixon himself is here with his mechanical (maniacal?) grin and ham-handed attempts at humor, repeating jokes that his staff had ceased to find funny years before.Â Pat Nixon, too, is portrayed in more detail than we have ever seen before as world-weary with her interminably political life, one now collapsing all around her.Â Most surprisingly, Mrs. Nixon has a secret liaison for whom she longs but cannot have.Â Mallon mostly ignores or pushes to the periphery Watergateâs other principle charactersâHelms, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Dean, McGruder, Liddy, McCord, Barker and the various members of the Senate Watergate Committee, some of whom became quite famous, i. e., Fred Thompson, Republican candidate for president in 2008 and one-time star of televisionâs Law & Order.
Mallon focuses, instead, on characters known only to scholars and Watergate junkies.Â Fred LaRue worked for Attorney General John Mitchell and later helped his boss by passing hush money from the White House to the Watergate burglars (all Cuban or CIA or both).Â Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the capitolâs oldest and wealthiest widow (and daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt), skewers the pretentious and powerful with her acerbic wit and fearless sarcasm even as she remains loyal to Nixon who often quotes her own long-dead father.Â Â Rose Mary Woods, Nixonâs secretary since the 1940s, is revealed here as his fiercest defender, while anxious that her life spent in his service may soon result in prison.Â Woods, you see, took responsibility for the infamous âeighteen-minute gapâ on a presidential tape recording subpoenaed by the Senate Watergate Committee.Â Those older than fifty will remember the cover of Newsweek during the summer of 1973 with poor Ms. Woods demonstrating how her ridiculously contorted body managed to âaccidentallyâ and ârepeatedlyâ erase a key conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff.
Mallonâs treatment of Dorothy and E. Howard Hunt takes the reader into the secret history of the United States.Â A happily married (if doomed) couple, the Hunts had worked for Central Intelligence since the origins of the Cold War in the 1940s.Â In 1960, in the last year of the Eisenhower administration, it was decided to eliminate the new, leftist-leaning Cuban President Fidel Castro and to restore Cuba to her traditional role as a client state of the United States.Â Hunt recruited and trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles for what would later become known as the Bay of Pigs.Â This debacle would tarnish the image of new-elected President Kennedy, though it is crucial to remember that the operations to assassinate Castro and to overturn his regime were hatched under the supervision of then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
There is no accident that the infamous smoking gun tape, that once released would quickly lead to Nixonâs resignation, has Hunt as its subject.Â Â In the Oval Office, on 23 June 1972, President Nixon instructed his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to tell the Â director of Central Intelligence that he should shut down the FBIâs investigation of the Watergate burglary (17 June 1972) on grounds of national security.Â Nixon coaches Haldeman on how to approach the DCI.Â âLook, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels thatâwithout going into the detailsâdonât lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into itâŠHunt knows too damn much and he was involvedâŠthis is all involved in the Cuban thing, that itâs a fiasco, and itâs going to make the CIA look bad, itâs going to make Hunt look bad, and itâs likely to blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing, which we think would be very unfortunate for the CIA and and for American foreign policy, and heâs just gotta tell âem [the FBI] to lay off.â
Nixonâs fear, of course, and Mallon hints at this significance, is that any investigation of Watergate will lead to Hunt, which will inexorably track back to Nixonâs role in bringing together the CIA and the Mafia to kill Castro and to invade Cuba with Huntâs trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles.Â The presidentâs attempt to stifle the FBIâs investigation was clearly obstruction of justice, and Nixon resigned within a week of the tapeâs release.
Dorothy Huntâs role in the Watergate scandal has long been a topic of dispute.Â With her husband in jail, Mrs. Hunt sought support from the White House, not only for her family, but for the families of the other arrested burglars (the same Cubans Hunt had trained twelve years before for the invasion of Cuba).Â Mallon portrays Dorothy Hunt as a no-nonsense blackmailer and hush-money courier.Â She threatens the White House with hints of disclosures much more damaging than the Watergate burglary (again, back to the whole Bay of Pigs thing), in addition to her husbandâs fabricated cables, done at the behest of the White House, making President Kennedy responsible for South Vietnamese President Diemâs murder).Â Dorothy Hunt died along with her fellow passengers when her plane crashed on approach to Midway Airport in Chicago in December 1972.Â As Mallon writes:Â âThe plane made a sudden, sickening turn, as if the pilot were afraid of the schoolchildren and needed to flee them.Â Seconds later it was over the rooftops of some houses, barely clearing them in its last moments of flight.Â In her own last seconds of consciousnessâamidst an explosion of blue and orange flames that fused her locket forever shutâDorothy realized that she was in someoneâs living room.â (144)
Some have speculated that Dorothy Huntâs plane was sabotaged to ensure her silence and end her blackmail.Â This charge seems excessive; yet, the cause of the crash remains in dispute.Â Additionally, those living in the neighborhood where the plane went down reported numerous federal agents, police and fire officials on hand as if awaiting the doomed airlinerâs descent.Â Finally, three high-level White House aides left the employ of the president that same month after securing new positions within the FAA, United Airlines and as Undersecretary of Transportation.
Mallon believes that Nixonâs fear that his role in the âwhole Bay of Pigs thingâ might be exposed by his political enemies; therefore, the purpose of the Watergate break-in was to find out what the Democrats had on Nixon that could cripple his chances for re-election.Â Mallon does not explicitly link Watergate to Dealy Plaza, though his reiteration of the âwhole Bay of Pigs thing,â the centrality of Howard Hunt in this story, and the threat that the Democrats might make public evidence that Nixon himself lay at the heart of the Cuban troubles demonstrates the authorâs knowledge of the connection between the assassination of one president and the resignation of another.
The continuing crises over Cuba connect Dealy Plaza to Watergate.Â JFK was accused of timidity (and treason) during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.Â Afterwards, he fired the DCI and threatened to âscatter the CIA to the winds.âÂ To resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis short of war, President Kennedy had to ironically guarantee the survival of Castroâs regime with his pledge to not invade Cuba. Â He followed this with an agreement with the Soviets to cease atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Â Three months before his murder, JFK’s American University speech sought reconciliation with the Soviets.Â A few weeks before his death, Kennedy began withdrawing troops from Vietnam.Â These failures of nerve and strategy left JFK with many powerful enemies, men who believed that they had been betrayed by a young, inexperienced president who might blunder away the store in the tensions of the Cold War.Â The ultimate irony is that JFKâs Cuban troubles began with Richard Nixonâwhose own career would end in less bloody fashion by those same Cuban intrigues.