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March 2, 2012

On Watergate's 40th anniversary, more secrets revealed

Even the biggest secrets have secrets lurking behind them.

And, Thomas Mallon suggests in his absorbing new novel "Watergate," America's biggest and dirtiest revealed secret was no exception.

The 40th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel is this June, and for many Americans, the cover-up and scandal that followed has become both a time marker and trivia.

But the drama that led to the first and only resignation of a sitting U.S. president was built on questions that, at the time, seemed unanswerable. What did President Richard Nixon know, and when did he know it? How far did the conspiracy reach? How did "a third-rate burglary" (as Nixon's press secretary Ronald Ziegler dismissed it initially) bring down the leader of the free world?

"Watergate" doesn't set out to answer any of those questions, although it gets around to many of them.

Instead, Mallon takes you inside the inner circles of the Nixon White House and the Committee to Re-Elect the President (known soon after by the best acronym ever, CREEP) to explore what it's like to be on a Titanic built not of steel and rivets but of people and their pasts, on the surface unsinkable but, in fact, vulnerable in unseen ways.

In the novel, many of the players involved the Watergate affair or on its sidelines have things in their lives they're desperate to hide that have nothing to do with re-election shenanigans.

Fred LaRue, a Mississippi Republican who serves as a soft-spoken fixer for Nixon's campaign, lives with a dark mystery: his role in the years-ago death of his father, who was shot while the pair were on a hunting trip. Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's loyal secretary, so resents the way she's treated by top presidential aide Bob Haldeman that she alters evidence — and, possibly, the course of history. Pat Nixon, the seemingly stiff first lady, keeps hidden a sense of humor and a secret past. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Washington doyenne and daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, plays the role of no-punches-pulled adviser to Nixon, whether he's actually listening or not, thanks to a private bond they share.

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