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on March 11, 2012
Watergate was my entrance into adult awareness. I was only 12 when I read about the burglary at the breakfast table in Connecticut but from that moment on the scandal grabbed me and remains my most vivid political memory.
I picked up "Watergate: A Novel" because I hoped this novel would provide insights into this long, bizarre, pathetic scandal that even today stands as the classic of its form. Boy, was I disappointed.
Its been 40 years since the scandal and yet we can still argue about why it happened, why it lasted so long, did so much damage and acted as the bookend for that tumultuous period of American history stretching from Nov. 22nd 1963 until September 8th 1974. But this is a historical novel that doesn't care about any of that. It is smugly satisfied with rehashing the signature events from the perspective of half a dozen actors in the affair, now all dead, and frankly just going through the motions.
Here's the thing. If Mr. Mallon wanted to capture the drama and excitement of Watergate, he should have focused on a single person, an investigator who we follow through the curves and turns in the story. Instead he puts us into the heads of these mostly secondary participants who give us their thoughts but not the history of the events. Maybe he was trying to create a compassion for players caught up in this tale of incompetence and sleaziness at which he succeeds but by choosing "Watergate" he is choosing history and at that he missed the boat.
A novel could take us back to JFK and Vietnam and show how Watergate was more about an immoral war that gave rise to political hijinks that seemed okay to the participants because of Vietnam. Or it could have focused on the history of Richard Nixon and how this was an outgrowth of his basic lack of integrity. Or it could have focused on the connection between the virulence of the anti-war movement and the rise of the plumbers to combat fire with fire. But it does nothing on that score and so we are left with interesting characterizations of historical figures. I hope a future Watergate novel will focus on the "why?"