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'Watergate' Revisited: Inside The Criminal Minds

Feb 25, 2012 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Rose Mary Woods demonstrates the infamous stretch that may have resulted in the erasure of the Watergate tapes. Author Thomas Mallon stands outside the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

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During the summer of 1972, five men were arrested in the middle of the night for breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C.

The breach went to the very top. Watergate toppled the Nixon administration and became an iconic (and exhaustively studied) American political scandal. In his new novel, Watergate, Thomas Mallon gives the story a fresh twist, retelling it from the perspectives of the involved parties — from seven different points of view.

In his rendering, Watergate becomes a "series of private dramas," Mallon tells NPR's Scott Simon.

And while he recognizes the importance of accuracy, Mallon plays with the "always sliding scale of historical fiction," where there's room for imagination.

"You really have to make these decisions book-by-book and almost scene-by-scene," he explains. "I don't violate any of the big historical moments, dates."

Rather than create an "alternate history," Mallon deploys careful conjecture. "There's still plenty of room for a novelist to imagine what might have happened not instead of the real events, but in addition to the real events," he says, "and how people might actually have felt about them in a way that's somewhat different from what they put onto the record."

The story of Watergate is already rich with native drama. There is the central question of why Nixon would order the break-in given that he was at the height of his powers.

"He was cruising toward re-election," says Mallon. "And the sheer unnecessariness of the Watergate break-in is something that must have tormented him and his allies in all of the years that followed."

The cast of vivid supporting characters — including Martha Mitchell and G. Gordon Liddy — made the episode into a spectacle. There was the curious case of Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's longtime secretary, who accidentally (she claimed) erased 18 and a half minutes of recorded tape.

"She'd been Richard Nixon's secretary from the time he was in the Senate in 1950," says Mallon. "She was very private; her loyalties to him were extraordinary."

A photograph of Woods — a dignified woman making an undignified stretch, presumably to erase the tape — became well known.

"I think that that must have been tormenting to her," Mallon notes. "And I tried to imagine what it must have been to feel the personal isolation that she must've been — because she was a single person essentially by herself."

For Mallon, Nixon is a fascinating — but complicated — figure. The author recalls becoming distraught at the news of Nixon's death. "I started sobbing not in the way you sob for somebody that you had simple, uniform affection for, but sobbing for somebody you had a lot of admiration for as well as some horrified feelings about," Mallon says. "He let down all the people like my father who were his fervent supporters."

It doesn't seem possible to come to easy conclusions about this most enigmatic of public figures. "Bill Clinton, in his eulogy [for Nixon], said that the time had passed to judge Richard Nixon on anything but the complete record of his life," says Mallon. "And it's a wildly, wildly mixed record."

Mallon asserts that his "enormously conflicted feelings" are what keep him mesmerized with the larger-than-life president. "The number of nights that I fell asleep with Richard Nixon's being the last voice I heard ... There must be some appeal other than morbid interest that kept me coming back to him."

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