Category Archives: History

Shelf Life: The Cast Behind the Watergate Scandal

Tom Mallon's new book, Watergate, will be released February 21.
(Photo by Jessica McConnell Burt)

It isn’t often historical fiction writers meet their subjects.

But in 1968, on the Hempstead Turnpike in Long Island, a 16-year-old Thomas Mallon shook hands with then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, whose involvement in the nation’s most infamous political scandal is the subject of Dr. Mallon’s latest book.

Watergate, to be released next week by Pantheon, follows seven real figures during the Watergate era—including Fred LaRue, a Nixon presidential aide who was in charge of delivering payment to the burglars, and Alice Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and longtime friend of Nixon—providing their perspectives as the scandal unfolds.

This book was four years in the making for Dr. Mallon, whose Foggy Bottom residence looks right at the Watergate complex, where five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972.

“I think the subject, even 40 years later, still tantalizes and interests people,” said Dr. Mallon, a professor of English at GW. “Nixon has such a combination of the good and the bad, with both his accomplishments and his ‘dastardly deeds.’”

His eighth novel, Watergate has already received extensive recognition, including placement on Newsweek’s “12 for 2012” and O Magazine’s “17 Books to Watch for in February.”

“The Watergate, which Nixon claimed never to have been in, figured more in the story than I thought,” said Dr. Mallon. “The book goes in and out of the complex a lot … and I hadn’t imagined that at first. I just thought of it as a place where the burglaries took place.”

Dr. Mallon said he was drawn to Nixon in part because the infamous president was “such an enormous figure” in his own life. Dr. Mallon was an undergraduate at Brown University when Nixon was president, and his own father was a “passionate supporter” of the man.

“Nixon was certainly one of the people who shaped the world that we live in, and he was a brilliant man who was so tangled up in his personality that he couldn’t help himself,” said Dr. Mallon. “There were times when his rational capacities—which were considerable—and his analytical capacities—which were great—were overruled by these dark impulses he had.”

(Continue reading the story by GW Today’s Julia Parmley.)

Shelf Life: Reading ‘Residues of the Past’ and Telling the Story of Modern Cities

A London street painting by the graffiti artist Banksy.
(Photo by Flickr user canonsnapper)

Until moving to the District a few years ago, Christopher Klemek said his life was that of an “academic nomad,” roaming between cities on the East Coast, as well as Berlin, London and Toronto.

“Even before I was a professional scholar I was just a fascinated urban resident,” said the GW history professor. “I was above all a walker in the city, as Alfred Kazin once described himself. I was driven by this sort of insatiable curiosity to explore places that I inhabited, which for me seemed to have lots of fascinating residues of the past.”

The result of all that wandering and pondering—and doubtless tons of hours otherwise spent—is an in-depth look at the plight of the cityscape in his first book, The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism From New York to Berlin (University of Chicago Press, 2011). In cities, Dr. Klemek also sees prisms through which whole nations (in this case, the United States, Canada, England and Germany) can be better understood, individually and comparatively.

And the book is starting to generate some buzz. Last October it was awarded the biennial Paul Davidoff Book Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning; in the fall Dr. Klemek spoke at a colloquium on the book at the University of Pennsylvania; and this spring he’s been invited to speak at Fordham University and twice at Columbia University.

We caught up with him during a break in the hoopla.

Q: Tell me about the poem you translate at the beginning of the book, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Foolish things are often written,
And also oft told,
Yet leaving everything unchanged,
They harm neither body nor soul.
But foolishness placed before the eyes,
Has a magic power;
Because it captivates the senses,
The intellect bows.

Why did you pick that?
What I liked about it was the line about “foolishness placed before the eyes” having a magic power over the intellect. It reminded me of a theme in the book of the entanglement between physical objects—things that you can see and touch—and this other realm, the intellectual realm, the realm of ideas. In the case of the book, this includes the political realm, the way in which a political movement and certain ideological goals and even policies get very closely tied together with certain physical forms.
Continue reading

Good Things on the Horizon

Dusk surrounds the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall.
(Photo by Flickr user

Well folks, spring (semester) is in the air and things are starting to get busy around here. In case you missed these recent developments, we thought we’d catch you up—though we can guarantee you’ll be hearing more about them:

The university announced this week that it will be home to a new research center devoted to the study of 20th century icon Winston Churchill, the first of its kind in the United States.

The National Churchill Library and Center, which will be housed in Gelman Library, is being established through an agreement and pledge of $8 million by the Chicago-based Churchill Centre, an educational organization devoted to preserving the legacy of the legendary British statesman.

The center will open in several stages between 2013 and 2015. (This GW Today story has the full scoop.)

And earlier this month, five joint GW-Smithsonian research projects emerged as the first ones to be awarded funding under a partnership between the two institutions.

The slate of collaborative projects will include locating and securing sunken remnants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; a molecular study of breast milk in non-human primates; a study of the cultural impact of cell phones; examining factors that impact the concentration and dispersal of dissolved oxygen in aquatic environments; and an effort to devise a better method for tracking contaminants from poultry operations that make it into waterways.

50 Years Ago: The Berlin Wall Rises

Life was changed overnight in Berlin. … In some cases, children had been visiting their grandparents on the other side of the border and were suddenly cut off from their parents.

—Hope M. Harrison, associate professor of history and international affairs, describing to the impact and origins of the Berlin Wall, which 50 years ago last week (on the night of August 12-13) began dividing streets, rivers and families in the city. The wall isolating West Berlin—initially with barbed wire, and later concrete, watchtowers and guns—stood until Nov. 9, 1989. Dr. Harrison is the author of the award-winning book, “Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961.”

Dr. Harrison also recently discussed the anniversary with Al Jazeera, The New York Times and, below, with C-SPAN (video is cued to her five-minute segment).