There’s a scene in the epilogue to Thomas Mallon’s historical fiction Watergate in which Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon’s personal secretary, is having a hard time remembering someone. It’s 2001, a quarter of a century has passed since her time in the White House and she can’t place Bob Gray. And so she does something she has rarely done: go to a book and search a name in the index.
She flips to the entry and discovers that Gray had given the president a silver cigarette box. She remembers it, however, as having been a cigar box and that it had come from someone else. “The real problem with the entry is that it didn’t help her remember who Bob Gray was.”
There is no index to Watergate. One finds Gray, and Woods, among the dramatis personae. Gray, it turns out, was a public relations executive and occasional escort to Woods.
A reader would be forgiven to not know or remember Bob Gray, however. The events of Watergate, the break-in and cover-up, and the cover-up of the cover-up, happened 40 years ago. Those who remember names such as H R Haldeman, John Mitchell, Chuck Colson and E Howard Hunt are fewer and fewer. And they were among the major players. Anyone for Lewis Fielding? Herbert Kalmbach?
There are many reasons an author works in historical fiction. One could be a fascination with a time gone by. One could be the challenge of recreating an epoch, or dusting it off and breathing new life into it.
There’s also the ego-driven notion that by writing fiction the author would arrive at some truth history refuses to reveal, or the even more egotistical idea that the story can be improved. Only Mallon knows his motivations for writing Watergate, just as there’s only one man who knew the answer to “What did the president know and when did he know it?” and that man is long dead.
Watergate, however, is a backstop to the passage of time, another reminder that we are doomed to repeat history should we forget its lessons.
For the benefit of those too young or too old to remember, the original Watergate was an apartment, hotel and office complex in Washington DC. Within the complex were the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. It is these offices that a group of inept burglars broke into in 1972 with the intention of tapping telephones, assuming they would discover something usable against the presidential campaign of Democrat George McGovern, of South Dakota.
The burglars got caught. Their arrests led to a cover-up, organised by members of the White House staff and the Committee to Re-Elect the President (known to Republicans as the CRP; to others as Creep). Here, the names of people that might otherwise have faded in the fog of subcommittee hearings became, instead, answers in a game of Trivial Pursuit with their own Wikipedia entries. Here, we meet Haldeman, Mitchell, Colson, Hunt, plus G Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, Fred LaRue and John Dean.
The cover-up turned out to be as ineptly executed as the burglary. Soon enough a brief story in The Washington Post led to the major investigative work of many reporters, but of two in particular, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; Senate hearings and special prosecutors; All the President’s Men and “Deep Throat”; and, eventually, the resignation of the US president. Watergate became shorthand for political corruption and the suffix (-gate) entered the English language to be fused to all manner of scandal.
Much of this “real” history happens offstage, hardly plot points at all. The main storyline is the players’ reaction to events and their motivation. Their memory of events is more important than their participation in them (this is rather amusing, 40 years later, since the most-used phrase during the Senate hearings was “I don’t recall”).