Former President Richard M. Nixon in White House with his...

Former President Richard M. Nixon in White House with his dog, Vicky, the night before he resigned as the nation's Chief Executive. (Aug. 1974) Credit: AP

WATERGATE, by Thomas Mallon. Pantheon, 432 pp., $26.95.

For Thomas Mallon, the past is a half-understood story waiting to be illuminated by invention. His novels often place fictional characters at the margins of actual historical events, investing both with hyper-vivid reality.

"Fellow Travelers" (2007), set during the Cold-War 1950s, exposed witch-hunts against not Communists but homosexuals. "Dewey Defeats Truman" (1997) chronicled a love triangle in Thomas Dewey's Michigan hometown during his unsuccessful 1948 run for the presidency. In these and other novels, the personal and the political mingle continuously. The result is sometimes tragic, sometimes comic.

Blending tragedy and comedy, Mallon's mesmerizing new novel "Watergate," tells its tale slant. We never witness the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office-apartment complex in Washington, nor the subsequent Senate hearings, nor the Special Prosecutor's investigation of Republican "dirty tricks" and White House cover-ups, nor the breathless newspaper coverage.

Instead, we view events from the perspective of President Nixon's embattled White House and that of his allies. The book begins and ends with a peripheral character, Fred LaRue, a Mississippi businessman drawn into the scandal as a "bagman" funneling hush money to the conspirators, hoping to erase any trace of White House involvement. LaRue is haunted by a secret, that he may have accidentally killed his father during a hunting trip. Similarly, the novel is haunted by the possibility that small misunderstandings can accidentally set in motion disasters of epic proportions.

While clarifying the maze of connections among elected officials, political advisers, cronies and assorted power-mad or ideologically driven Nixonites, Mallon keeps the narrative moving at thriller-novel pace. Yet his writing always soars far above that genre's cliches.

He pictures Pat Nixon remembering Eisenhower at the 1952 GOP convention as Nixon's "sudden patron, cheerful as a Popsicle and just as cold." The "blue-gray decor" of Air Force One combined with the airplane's drone, he writes, "suggested a submarine traveling at a low, serious depth. One almost expected to hear the pinging of sonar."

Mallon's Nixon is standard-issue -- shrewd and calculating, suspicious of everyone, resentful of the press and Eastern elites, and, at one point, suicidal. Toward him, Pat feels more loyalty than love. Mallon juices up the narrative for this white-bread first lady by imagining a lover from the wilderness years, in the early 1960s, when the Nixons lived in New York. Tom Garahan, a Catholic widower, offers her more tenderness than Nixon can ever muster, and her longing for sweet domesticity outside the limelight is palpable.

Meantime, the Nixon aides form a snake pit of distrust and envy: "Magruder hated Liddy," LaRue observes. "Mardian hated Magruder. Ehrlichman hated Mitchell. Mitchell hated Colson."

Of all the staff, Mallon endows Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's personal secretary, with the fiercest loyalty. A bit of a tippler, she is perfectly sober when she creates the infamous 18 1 / 2-minute gap in the Oval Office tapes. In Mallon's scenario, she's not so much protecting the boss as erasing her nemesis, icy White House chief of staff Bob Haldeman, out of her life.

For comic relief, there's former Attorney General John Mitchell's furious and foul-mouthed wife, Martha. Her late-night, whiskey-laced tell-all phone calls are pure catnip to reporters.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt's octogenarian daughter, plays a more formidable role. From time to time, she erupts into the story as a kind of ghostly, one-woman Greek chorus offering tidbits of acid wit. Famous for the bon mot "If you can't say something nice, sit right here next to me," she rains down equal-opportunity scorn on one and all. A Nixon devotee, she nonetheless can't abide his self-pity. Nor can she honor what others regard as integrity. She dismisses Eliot Richardson, the Mitchell successor who refuses to obey Nixon and fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, as a hypocritical careerist.

Like the best historical novelists, Mallon uses great public events as superstructure for classic themes of ambition and power, rivalry and envy, love lost and yearned for. In this sense, "Watergate" succeeds brilliantly. Like them or not, these tormented characters throb with life.

Forty years after that notorious burglary and its shattering aftermath, it's essential to underscore the idea that the rule of law applies to all Americans, even their president. Longworth the cynic wants us to believe that Watergate was merely more of the age-old, amoral story of the power struggle between competing political philosophies. I'm not sure what the author believes. But if we hope to retain our freedoms, she'd better be wrong.

Thomas Mallon grew up in East Meadow and Stewart Manor.

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