Book Review

The Coverup continues – Book Review: Watergate – A Novel

By Jim Smith

We live in a world shaped by history. It is hard to escape our personal history – parents, aunts, uncles – and others who want to shape us in their molde. One means of escape that has likely been practiced by many readers is to run away to Venice. Here, at the end of the continent, we can create our own history, our own personality.

Even harder to escape is social and political history. Like it or not, we are all Americans and we carry considerable baggage, even here in Venice. We live in a country that has been shaped by world-historic events including the atom bomb, Nazism, the Holocaust, the demise of the socialist bloc, terrorism and seemingly endless wars, to name a few. And it is the political history of this country that has brought us to a more and more authoritarian society. These events include the Kennedy assassination(s), Watergate, Iran Contra, and 9/11. No matter when one was born, these events continue to play a role in our everyday lives.

Neither the mass media nor academia seem to have any interest in explaining why events happen and their significance to our lives. Thus we are left with the story that Kennedy was shot by a lone gunman (Oswald), who in turn was shot by a lone gunman (Ruby); Watergate was caused by a bunch of Keystone Kops or Plumbers; Iran-Contra was dreamed up by a crazy fellow named Ollie North, and was not the subversion of democratic government; and 9/11 was done by a bunch of religious fanatics and had nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy.

Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate: A Novel (Pantheon, 2012) seemingly has no interest in delving deeper into this pivotal event in American history. Mallon’s main interest is character development, which quickly turns into character distortion. Oilman Fred LaRue, who was a highly placed actor in the Nixon administration, was a man without a title or a clear job duty. This undoubtedly made it easier for him to work on Nixon’s reelection since he had no bothersome job duties. He was a protege of Mississippi’s Senator James Eastland, an unrepentant racist. He was also the architect of the Republican “southern strategy,” which gained that party a solid block of electoral votes in the South. In Mallon’s treatment, LaRue is a really nice guy with a liberal girlfriend.

Another Watergate conspirator to get a personality makeover by Mallon is the infamous E. Howard Hunt. He was the CIA’s point man on the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a failed invasion of Cuba in 1961. He later became a personal assistant to CIA Director Allen Dulles. Shortly before his death in 2007, Hunt made a taped death-bed confession of his involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He named as co-conspirators David Phillips, Cord Meyer, Frank Sturgis, David Morales, William Harvey, as well as a French gunman, Lucien Sarti, who worked for the Mafia, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Sturgis was one of the “Plumbers” who was arrested in the Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s offices.

In Mallon’s novel, Hunt is portrayed as a family man who is very much in love with his wife Dorothy, who was also the “bag lady” who delivered hush money to those arrested in the break-in. Mallon says Hunt’s life was shattered when Dorothy was killed in a plane crash in 1972, while carrying $10,000 in cash. All of what Mallon says may be true, but Hunt and LaRue were by no means upstanding citizens. Both had no compulsion when it came to subverting democratic government to get what they wanted.

The real story behind Watergate surfaced with the publication of the best seller, Silent Coup (St. Martin’s Press, 1991). Perhaps Mallon doesn’t read non-fiction. In it, authors Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin show that Nixon was not only paranoid but that people – powerful people – were really out to get him.

As is often the case in real life, there was something even more evil and dangerous lurking in the shadows behind Nixon. For those of us in the anti-war movement, Nixon was the president we loved to hate, perhaps more than Bush. But to the military/covert action establishment there was growing alarm about Nixon’s liberal foreign policy, including his efforts to establish detente with the Soviet Union and his unprecedented trip to China and meeting with Mao Zedung. Now that China makes all our cool gadgets, it may be hard to understand just how much the far right hated China in 1972. The rabid anti-communists in the Pentagon and CIA were horrified that the President of the United States would sit in the same room with the devil incarnate. Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral Thomas Moorer, went so far as to establish a spy operation in the White House.

When the spying was uncovered by the soon to be infamous Plumbers, Nixon and his staff first considered filing treason charges against the ring. However, they later decided to hush up what was known as the Moorer-Radford Affair (Navy Yeoman Charles Radford was the spy in the White House). Even though the spying stopped, the Pentagon unease continued.

Moorer had another protege in addition to Radford. His name was Bob Woodward, who stated in 2005, “In 1970, when I was serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and assigned to Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the chief of naval operations, I sometimes acted as a courier, taking documents to the White House.” However, Moorer said that Woodward’s role was to brief White House aide, General Alexander Haig. Woodward left the Navy, went to work as a reporter for a string of suburban Washington newspapers and quickly became one of the most famous journalists in history at the Washington Post, where he played a key role in bringing down Nixon.

None of this should excuse Nixon, who was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, including repression of domestic dissent and war crimes for his bombing of Hanoi and invasion of Cambodia. However, it should remind us that Presidents, including Barack Obama, are often manipulated and coerced by entrenched financial and government bureaucracies that are neither electable nor accountable. These bureaucracies, whether in the Pentagon, Wall Street or even in the Postal Service continue to lead us down a path of less freedom and more authoritarianism regardless of who is in the White House or Congress.

Watergate: A Novel will likely get a lot of publicity as the 40th anniversary of Watergate rolls around. Unfortunately, the book is a fantasy that uses real people’s names but alters them beyond recognition. Those who want to know the true story of Watergate should take a look at Silent Coup (silentcoup.com), which is available at Powell’s Books (powells.com) for as little as $3.50. Powell’s is a fully unionized alternative to Amazon.com. It might also be available at used book shops or thrift stores. Parts of the book are on-line at: nixonera.com/etexts/silentcoup/contents.asp. There have been new developments in recent years, as memoirs are written and files are declassified. Do a little sleuthing on the internet to uncover the facts. 

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