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June 27, 2012

Watergate Re-Imagined:  The Secret History of the United States A Review of Thomas Mallon’s Watergate

By Dr. Steve Blankenship

Dr. Steve Blankenship

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.  Indeed, Watergate will in the future resemble little more than the dirty laundry of JFK’s murder hung out to dry in public view.  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  and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill Fidel Castro (LBJ called this “a damned Murder Incorporated operating in the Caribbean”).  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 possibilities—from the absurd to the subversive.  Graduate students in history do not build their careers on such shaky ground, and thus the links between Kennedy’s death and  Nixon’s resignation remain, if not opaque, then little understood.

Maloon's Watergate cove

Maloon's Watergate cove

Thomas Mallon’s 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 Nixon’s presidency.   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.  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.  Most surprisingly, Mrs. Nixon has a secret liaison for whom she longs but cannot have.  Mallon mostly ignores or pushes to the periphery Watergate’s other principle characters—Helms, 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 television’s Law & Order.

Mallon focuses, instead, on characters known only to scholars and Watergate junkies.  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).  Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the capitol’s 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.   Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s 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.  Woods, you see, took responsibility for the infamous “eighteen-minute gap” on a presidential tape recording subpoenaed by the Senate Watergate Committee.  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 “accidentally” and “repeatedly” erase a key conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff.

Mallon’s treatment of Dorothy and E. Howard Hunt takes the reader into the secret history of the United States.  A happily married (if doomed) couple, the Hunts had worked for Central Intelligence since the origins of the Cold War in the 1940s.  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.  Hunt recruited and trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles for what would later become known as the Bay of Pigs.  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 Nixon’s resignation, has Hunt as its subject.   In the Oval Office, on 23 June 1972, President Nixon instructed his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to tell the  director of Central Intelligence that he should shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate burglary (17 June 1972) on grounds of national security.  Nixon coaches Haldeman on how to approach the DCI.  “Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that—without going into the details—don’t 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 it…Hunt knows too damn much and he was involved…this is all involved in the Cuban thing, that it’s a fiasco, and it’s going to make the CIA look bad, it’s going to make Hunt look bad, and it’s 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 he’s just gotta tell ‘em [the FBI] to lay off.”

Nixon’s 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 Nixon’s role in bringing together the CIA and the Mafia to kill Castro and to invade Cuba with Hunt’s trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles.  The president’s attempt to stifle the FBI’s investigation was clearly obstruction of justice, and Nixon resigned within a week of the tape’s release.

Dorothy Hunt’s role in the Watergate scandal has long been a topic of dispute.  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).  Mallon portrays Dorothy Hunt as a no-nonsense blackmailer and hush-money courier.  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 husband’s fabricated cables, done at the behest of the White House, making President Kennedy responsible for South Vietnamese President Diem’s murder).  Dorothy Hunt died along with her fellow passengers when her plane crashed on approach to Midway Airport in Chicago in December 1972.  As Mallon writes:  “The plane made a sudden, sickening turn, as if the pilot were afraid of the schoolchildren and needed to flee them.  Seconds later it was over the rooftops of some houses, barely clearing them in its last moments of flight.  In her own last seconds of consciousness—amidst an explosion of blue and orange flames that fused her locket forever shut—Dorothy realized that she was in someone’s living room.” (144)

Some have speculated that Dorothy Hunt’s plane was sabotaged to ensure her silence and end her blackmail.  This charge seems excessive; yet, the cause of the crash remains in dispute.  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 airliner’s descent.  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 Nixon’s fear that his role in the “whole Bay of Pigs thing” 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.  Mallon does not explicitly link Watergate to Dealy Plaza, though his reiteration of the “whole Bay of Pigs thing,” 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 author’s 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.  JFK was accused of timidity (and treason) during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.  Afterwards, he fired the DCI and threatened to “scatter the CIA to the winds.”  To resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis short of war, President Kennedy had to ironically guarantee the survival of Castro’s regime with his pledge to not invade Cuba.  He followed this with an agreement with the Soviets to cease atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.  Three months before his murder, JFK’s American University speech sought reconciliation with the Soviets.  A few weeks before his death, Kennedy began withdrawing troops from Vietnam. 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.  The ultimate irony is that JFK’s Cuban troubles began with Richard Nixon—whose own career would end in less bloody fashion by those same Cuban intrigues.

One Response to Bookmarks

  1. Dana Davis on July 2, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    I was a grad student in journalism school at the height of the Watergate scandal. You can imagine what heroes Woodward and Bernstein were to us students. Journalists gained a lot of power during that era. And they became rather heady with it, I think. Still, it’s rather thrilling to think that the written word can have power for justice. On the other hand, the press did eviscerate Nixon — not without reason, of course, but still. They were pretty relentless in their condemnation. Oddly, I don’t even remember LaRue and some of the others. I think the novel has made the entire episode more interesting by providing an explanation, via Rose Mary Woods, of the 18-minute gap. Those of us around in those days probably would disagree with the explanation, but it was good for the story. And I loved the fact that Mallon gave long-suffering Pat Nixon a paramour. Nice touch, that.

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