A Watergate Romance

"Mo": A Woman's View of Watergate by Maureen Dean with Hays Gorey Simon and Schuster, 286 pp., $8.95

ON PRESIDENT NIXON'S Air Force One plane, The Spirit of '76, (beautifully decorated, well stocked with food and liquors, with a cosmetic mirror in the First Lady's compartment) all cigarettes are specially packaged and marked "Spirit of '76." At Camp David, cigarette packages with the Camp David seal fascinate Maureen Dean and she collects them. She wanders through Watergate like an economy tourist on a city-a-day vacation. She gloats over the limousines that pick her up at every airport ("It's the only way to travel.") and is haunted by the fear that another woman might be wearing the same dress as she at a political function.

In spite of all the glamor, the adventure of flying on Air Force One and the excitement of receiving phone calls from "The President," Mo Dean has some objections to Washington life. She doesn't like being limited to two drinks per party in order to preserve the sobriety of the Deans' name. She doesn't like being called away from every vacation because there is "Oh, just a little problem at the White House." She doesn't like Watergate.

While the scandal is stewing and growing and about to burst upon the public, Mo thinks of it as just another annoying personal problem. It takes her "beloved" husband away from her at odd hours. Watergate comes between them but he refuses to discuss it. Sometimes, though, she feels just a hint of foreboding:

Washington at that time was unlike any city I had ever been in before--including the Washington of the first Nixon administration. It just seemed so different that it was--in a way I can't explain--frightening.

She wonders why her husband is gloomy and depressed; why he has begun to drink heavily only to get some sleep. But she is so unaware of what is really happening that she doesn't bother to interrupt her routine: shopping, clothes, social events, and petty back-biting. Even when she accompanies her husband to the Watergate hearings, she is still preoccupied by the day to day:

On Tuesday I pieced out a combination I loved--a brown linen dress and a white silk blouse with brown polka dots. Wednesday I wore a floral blouse with a melon red suit, Thursday a white blouse with a bright yellow linen suit I had purchased in London when I was working for the marihuana commission. On Friday, I wore a burgundy blouse with white polka dots, a white skirt, and a navy blue blazer.

A Woman's View of Watergate is at first nothing more than the monotonous recounting of the life of a not particularly intelligent or ambitious "Watergate wife." Throughout the book, Mo tends to sit around, fret, sulk, and wait for John to come home from work. She learns about Dean's role in the cover-up only a week before the rest of the nation. And when Dean talks to her about his work, he is enigmatic: "Things are getting rough, dear, and they're going to get rougher."

HER POSITION in the Watergate vortex is essentialy a metaphor for the position of the American public. Both take the same attitude: they don't believe that it has happened; they can't conceive of the president having been involved; and fimally, they both wish it would go away. A Woman's View clearly illuminates the intense paranoia, secrecy, and save-your-own-skin aspect of the Watergate White House. Mo says that no two men within the top positions in the administration could depend on or confide in one another. From the moment Nixon realized that Watergate was going to be something more than "a little problem," (or as John Dean said, "hot stuff"), the scapegoat mentality took over. Somebody was going to have to take the blame, and everyone was busy "protecting his own flanks."

There is nothing special about Mo Dean's view of Watergate. It all boils down to a lot less than the general public already knows. It's hard to believe that someone so close to the president's counsel could know so little. The cause, perhaps, is that she thinks of herself as hardly a person in her own right, and Dean seems to follow suit. As she says at the outset:

Maybe I shouldn't be the way I am, but there's no helping it--I need someone. A father. A husband. Someone to depend on. I have no wish to be independent. To me, being independent means being lonely.

Watergate washes right over her, as do all other events in her life. Her story is a series of pathetic melodramas with marriage as the common theme. Her first husband was still married to someone else when he married her. Her second husband was killed in a car crash a few months after their wedding. And her third husband is John Wesley Dean III:

Handsome, medium height, slender, Brooks Brothers glen plaid suit, blue shirt with a button-down collar, wing-tip shoes, a slight tan.

Throughout the Watergate saga, she sees events in terms of her husband: whether he loses weight and has black circles under his eyes, or is cheerful and laughing. She has no clue about daily infighting at the White House.

A Woman's View reads like a screenplay for a mid-afternoon soap opera, or like the National Lampoon's parody of Judy Agnew's dear diary.

At one point, John and Mo are on a long awaited vacation at a White House-rented cottage in Palm Springs. John Ehrlichman decides to come down with his family and asks Dean to vacate the cottage so that he can stay there; he invokes the Washington pecking order. Maureen whines:

Oh! That John Ehrlichman! That arrogant, thoughtless creature! I never could stand him, and now this...So what if Ehrlichman could pull "rank"--this wasn't the military. Let him come in and try, just try, to get us out.

The Deans leave, of course.

FOR ALL ITS WHIMPERING, this is the best that Mo Dean achieves in A Woman's View: sudden glimpses into the Watergate men's feelings for each other, and their characters. Dean plays a tape of an interview with E. Howard Hunt for Haldeman and Ehrlichman, "who were so entranced with what they were hering that when the President summoned Haldeman--which he did several times--Haldeman told him he would just have to wait 'until we get through with John."' At Camp David, Maureen peers into all the windows because she wants to see Nixon's huge stereo system:

John told me that some of the Camp David staff had been whispering that Nixon often stood before the stereo and--all by himself--'conducted' a symphony.

She is also pretty good at defining people with one sharp cut. She works with Jeb Magruder on Nixon's re-election festivities committee, and she describes him as "the chairman of the Junior Prom who wants to run for student body president next year."

Unfortunately, it is only rarely that she manages a pointed anecdote. Her writing style (or her ghost writer's) is tacky and trite, and she often lapses into Watergate language:

Not at that time or at any other time did I think that it would be thrilling to be with a man who was close to the President.

We simply radiated delight at the various perquisites, assumed they were no more than we deserved, and enjoyed them to the fullest.

After this, the lawyers and the investigators coopted John again.

And so does her husband:

John. You're coming home. You're not leaving me here alone another night.

Hate to. But I can't run that press gauntlet.

or

I know how you feel, Mo. But we're in a period of no options.

Mo is a constant superficial moral quandary. Her three biggest dilemmas are womens' liberation, abuse of taxpayers' monies, and whether or not her husband did anything wrong. Her answers to all three are shifty. Every time she mentions that she assumed a "traditional female function," (preparing hors d'oeuvres for her husband's business associates) she adds, as an after thought, a "maybe I shouldn't be this way" clause, but always resolves it with that catch-all "but I am." She says she never realized she and her husband were misusing taxpayers' dollars (all those limos) until after he testified before the Senate Watergate Committee. And as to her husband's wrongdoings, she admits he committed some crimes, but, as she repeats ad nauseum, it was out of loyalty to Nixon; besides, he made a clean breast of it in the end. All of this is nothing more than conservative claptrap. Anytime she can avoid analysis or explanation, she does.

A Woman's View of Watergate is really more the story of the difficulties of being married to John Dean in troubled times than it is the story of those troubled times. It is the story of a romance that Maureen Dean knew was fated to occur from the moment she met the "Brooks Brothers" tan; a romance that began with this message, scrawled in lipstick by Dean on a motel room mirror: "Smile...an owl loves ya, loves ya, yes, loves ya."