Washington Lawyer

Books in the Law: June 2012

From Washington Lawyer, June 2012

By Ronald Goldfarb, Leonard H. Becker, and Patrick Anderson

Book cover. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
By Michelle Alexander
The New Press, 2012

Review by Ronald Goldfarb

The mass incarceration presently prevailing in the United States is the end result of a racist criminal justice system that has created a “new racial caste system,” Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow, a provocative and timely book recently reissued in paperback. This modern caste system is a product of “the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control … criminals both in and out of prison.” The criminal justice apparatus that controls large numbers of African Americans, mostly men, requires a major social movement to dismantle it—“a complete restructuring of our society,” Alexander posits.

Alexander provides historical context for her examination of our criminal justice system in an interesting chapter on the sources of the racial caste system that, she argues, has evolved from slavery to Jim Crow to the current mass incarceration of blacks in America. From that historical background, Alexander analyzes racial disparity in every stage of the criminal justice system—arrest, legal representation, sentencing, incarceration, probation, and ex-offender laws. Hers is a radical thesis. But if Alexander’s thesis appears hyperbolic, data supporting her views is daunting.

Take her explanation of why the “drug war” of the past quarter–century has become the chief source of the unnecessary mass incarceration now prevalent. Our prison population for drug offenses has risen from 41,100 in 1980 to half a million people today. The chief cause: more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the United States waged its war against drugs. According to recent surveys, marijuana possession accounted for 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests. A predominantly public health problem was converted to a criminal one.

The criminal justice system exploits the drug war in several ways. Arrests tripled during the last quarter of the 20th century because huge federal grants (“massive bribe[s],” Alexander calls them) to state law enforcement agencies motivated the drug arrests, making them high priority. Excessive military equipment was sold to local law enforcement agencies to create SWAT teams to swoop in and arrest drug users, many not warranting such forms of excessive force. Seized property is kept, so there is a pecuniary interest in accumulating “forfeited” property—cash, cars, homes—even if no one ends up being charged. This forfeiture practice continued for decades and increased under President Obama, who also authorized funds for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program as part of the 2009 stimulus package. The asset forfeiture system and the Obama administration’s revival of the Byrne grant raise an ironic question about the racism behind these laws, given that the president and the U.S. attorney general are African Americans. Named after a New York City police officer killed in the line of duty, the Byrne Program awards funds “for state and local initiatives, technical assistance, training, personnel, equipment, supplies, contractual support, and information systems for criminal justice purposes.”

To achieve these drug cases, law enforcement officials used pretext stops and questionable “consent” practices to detain and search minor traffic violators. For instance, of the 600,000 stop–and–frisk cases in New York City in 2010, 85 percent involved blacks and Hispanics. Studies showed that whites were more likely to be carrying drugs in their vehicles than people of color, but minorities were more likely to be subjected to highway stops and searches. For example, a 1999 report by the New Jersey Attorney General found that 77 percent of motorists stopped and searched on the New Jersey Turnpike were minorities. Fearing retaliation and abuse, few victims complain, even when innocent.

Once arrested and charged—overcharged, Alexander argues—most defendants plea–bargain, often without legal representation, and usually go to prison. Alexander quotes a report by The New York Times concluding that 2 percent to 5 percent of all prisoners, which translates to thousands of people, are innocent of the charges for which they were arrested, charged, and convicted. As a result, prosecutors have more control and power than other officials in the criminal justice system through their decisions to indict on multiple charges and force plea bargains.

This grim practice is compounded by draconian mandatory sentencing laws, which many judges complain they are forced to apply against their better judgment. Thus, as of 2008, there were 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and 5.1 million more under correctional control through parole or probation. After release, these people are followed by their criminal records that deny them their rights to jobs, licenses, and voting, forming a “closed circuit of perpetual marginality,” as one commentator described the phenomenon.

Alexander devotes a chapter, “The Cruel Hand,” to this point. It is particularly important, if for no other reason than post-correction reform is doable even if total reform of the other parts of the criminal justice system is elusive. Convicts lose, often for life, important rights to employment (who wants to hire an ex–offender?), housing, education, public benefits, voting, and jury service. Those “collateral consequences” make correction or rehabilitation especially difficult. More than 650,000 ex–offenders are released from prison each year and, along with those already on probation and parole, face unceasing hurdles to rehabilitation. Hapless convicts who accepted a plea bargain to avoid prison or to shorten their sentences have no realization how their decision will follow and prejudice them later.

One of the daunting tasks Alexander undertakes in her analysis is piercing common misperceptions that, even without conscious racial bias, blacks are prejudiced systemically throughout the criminal justice system. Her current data brings life to a historic U.S. Supreme Court case, Yick Wo v. Hopkins. That case involved Chinese men in San Francisco who were systematically denied laundry operating licenses. The Supreme Court ruled that “Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand … the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution.”

That century–old decision could be applied to the unequal application of criminal laws such as pretextual arrests, disparate levels of indictments, prison sentences, and racist juries if they fall without good reason on minorities. African Americans are six times more likely to be sentenced to prison as juveniles than whites for identical crimes. Alexander’s data is eye–opening. African Americans, who comprise 15 percent of drug users, are sentenced to prison for drug offenses 20 to 57 times more than whites in at least 15 states, various studies show. Alexander also cites a 2000 report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch showing that blacks compose 80 percent to 90 percent of drug offenders in prison in seven states.

Pretextual arrests—“the gateway into the criminal justice system”—cause ripple effects throughout the system, leading to prosecutions, sentences, and criminal records. Since the current Supreme Court has so circumscribed the ability to raise race as a cause for questioning the operation of the criminal justice process without direct proof of intentional individual racism (rarely provable), racial profiling and its fallout continue, Yick Wo notwithstanding.

Alexander’s book forces readers to face the ugly truth about racism in the administration of our laws. Her data provides an intolerable reflection of our justice system, as do the racially divergent reactions among black and white Americans to the acquittal of O. J. Simpson for the brutal murders of two white people and the prejudicial profiling of white athletes in the Duke lacrosse case for the alleged rape of a black victim, whose claim turned out to be specious. Both were individual cases, not systemic flaws, but they reflect cultural baggage that needs to be unloaded in the way Americans deal with each other over the impact of race on law.

Alexander’s book could not be more relevant to this consideration. In one recent issue of The New York Times, stories focused on the New York state legislature debating the racially prejudicial use of stop–and–frisk laws; the exaggerated self–defense Stand Your Ground law in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; and the guilty pleas of three white men to federal hate–crime charges in the racially motivated murder of a black man in Mississippi.

The relationship between race, crime, and justice continues to rear its ugly head. Those who care about the integrity of our criminal justice system—indeed, of our social order—will find Alexander’s book a timely prod to revisiting and revising our laws. She calls for “an honest conversation about race in America” and an “ethic of genuine care, compassion, and concern for every human being.” Alexander refers to the earlier pleas of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for a “shift from a civil rights to a human rights paradigm,” and that would be a good place to start the conversation.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C.– and Miami, Florida–based attorney, author, and literary agent. He is the author of several books on criminal justice, including Jails: The Ultimate Ghetto, Ransom: A Critique of the American Bail System, After Conviction: A Review of the American Correction System (with Linda Singer), and Crime and Publicity: The Impact of News of the Administration of Justice (with Alfred Friendly). Reach him by e–mail at rlglawlit@gmail.com.

Book cover. Nixon's Court.Nixon’s Court: His Challenge to Judicial Liberalism and Its Political Consequences
By Kevin J. McMahon
University of Chicago Press, 2011

Review by Leonard H. Becker

Despite its title, Nixon’s Court is not really about the U.S. Supreme Court during the presidency of Richard Nixon. The subject, rather, is the Nixon administration’s exploitation of the Court and its individual justices to serve as foils in turning southern whites and northern “ethnics” from their traditional adherence to the Democratic Party. With mandatory desegregation of public schools (implemented by forced busing), enhanced procedural protections for criminal defendants, removal of sectarian prayer from public school classrooms, and other such decisions, the Warren Court had created a matchless opportunity for Nixon to achieve voter realignments on a scale not seen since the advent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal some three decades earlier.

Nixon was handed more than the usual chances to reshape the high court, and hence the political landscape, in the form of four judicial vacancies during his first term in office. In 1969 Nixon nominated Warren Burger as chief justice to succeed the retiring Earl Warren after Senate Republicans blocked the confirmation of Justice Abe Fortas to the chief justice’s position during the last year of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. In 1970 Nixon nominated Harry Blackmun to fill the chair left vacant when Fortas was forced from the Court by a financial scandal. In 1971 came the nominations of William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell Jr., following the near-simultaneous retirements of Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan.

Kevin McMahon, the author of Nixon’s Court, is an associate professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He focuses to a considerable extent on Nixon’s unsuccessful efforts to fill the seat left vacant when Fortas resigned, first with Clement Haynsworth Jr. of South Carolina, and then with G. Harrold Carswell of Florida, both nominations in aid of Nixon’s “Southern strategy.”

The Senate’s rejection of these candidates led Nixon to proclaim that a “Southern moderate” could not be confirmed. Instead, Nixon turned to Blackmun, from the distinctly non-Southern Minnesota, following newly installed Chief Justice Burger’s recommendation of his close friend, whom Burger had known since childhood. Two years later, Nixon’s nomination of Powell (who was probably as close to Haynsworth in temperament and philosophy as one could get without actually cloning him) was entirely uncontroversial; the nomination of Rehnquist (a stealth candidate out of the U.S. Department of Justice) attracted only modest Senate opposition.

Of Nixon’s six nominees to the Court (including, for this purpose, the two failed candidates), four—Burger, Haynsworth, Carswell, and Blackmun—were sitting judges on federal courts of appeals when the president named them. Nowadays, eight of the nine sitting justices hail from courts of appeals, and we can be sure that their votes and opinions while serving on the lower courts were subjected to intense scrutiny before their names went to the Senate as Supreme Court nominees.

By contrast, McMahon’s account leaves the impression that the review accorded Nixon’s candidates bordered on what today would be deemed lackadaisical. Judged by today’s standards, all four of Nixon’s appointees were fairly moderate in their established viewpoints (although Carswell’s spotty judicial record, with a high rate of appellate reversals when he had been a trial judge, left a lot to be desired in a putative Supreme Court justice). To be sure, Burger harbored some fairly radical notions, which he put on internal display when he got to the Court, but his judicial colleagues largely suppressed them. It was left to Blackmun, over time, to diverge markedly from the viewpoints of his “Minnesota twin” and to fashion a record of concern for death penalty defendants and for women’s rights that nobody could have predicted upon his appointment to the Court. For his part, Rehnquist, who at the time of his appointment led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, went on to serve 34 years on the Court—15 as an associate justice and 19 as chief justice—waging a judicial struggle for over three decades to undo the legacies of the Warren Court.

McMahon’s principal thesis is that Nixon was more moderate in his views of the Court than he generally is given credit for. One difficulty with this argument is that it rests, to a large degree, on a comparison of Nixon’s public comments with those of George Wallace, the demagogic Alabama governor and arch–segregationist who did not set a high bar when it came to moderation accorded the Supreme Court. McMahon’s approach also tends to downplay the extent to which Nixon himself (in common with most presidents) kept to the high road while leaving the rough–and–tumble to surrogates like Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was sent out on the hustings to tax the Court with its alleged fostering of social “permissiveness.”

Still, McMahon’s book is valuable for insights into Nixon’s mindset in selecting his Supreme Court candidates. Most notably, McMahon comments, Nixon at one point was tempted to nominate a woman to the Court, again for the presumed political benefits, even though he harbored an intense personal antipathy toward women in public life. (In the event his advisers couldn’t find a woman with sufficient qualifications to support nomination.) Among the Nixonian gems unearthed by McMahon from the legendary White House tape recordings are these presidential aperçus (at three different points) concerning women in the public sphere:

I’m not for women, frankly, in any job. I don’t want any of them around. Thank God we don’t have any in the Cabinet…. I don’t even think women should be educated…. I don’t think women should ever be allowed to vote even.

Nixon was not alone in holding such views. As chief justice, Burger opposed Nixon’s naming a woman to the Court and threatened to resign if Nixon did so. Nixon in turn vowed to accept the resignation of the “bastard,” and would not countenance Burger’s objection to a move that, in Nixon’s view, “could have significant political benefits” in the 1972 reelection campaign. (Evidently, Burger and Nixon chatted quite a bit, not only about potential nominees to the Court, which was okay, but also about pending cases, which was not okay.)

McMahon could have said more about the Nixon administration’s efforts to reshape the Court without waiting for naturally occurring vacancies. Foremost in this regard was the successful campaign to drive Fortas from the Court. Fortas had made himself vulnerable in a number of ways, notably by accepting clandestine financial support from Louis Wolfson, a financier who had legal business before the federal courts arising from difficulties with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. McMahon notes Fortas’ resignation, but touches lightly on the administration’s role in securing the result. Among other things, then Attorney General John Mitchell “briefed” the still sitting Chief Justice Warren on the Justice Department’s “evidence” against Fortas, an assistant attorney general regularly leaked information to an enterprising reporter, and the department negotiated with Wolfson’s lawyer in a bid to elicit a statement from Wolfson that could be used to accelerate Fortas’ departure.[1]

McMahon does not mention the administration’s comparably ambitious campaign to oust Justice William Douglas, who had exposed himself to attack by accepting philanthropic support from a dubious source, in this case a businessman with extensive hotel interests in Las Vegas. John Ehrlichman, an assistant to the president and later of Watergate fame, wrote in his memoirs: “From the beginning Nixon was interested in getting rid of … Douglas; [he] … was the liberal ideologue who personified everything that was wrong with the Warren Court.”[2] The administration prodded Gerald Ford, then a member of the House of Representatives, to press for Douglas’ impeachment and fed material to Ford for use in that endeavor.[3]

By the time Nixon entered his second term as president, the Court was of his own making to a significant extent. His four nominees, coupled with the generally centrist Justices Potter Stewart and Byron White, left only Justices Douglas, William Brennan Jr., and Thurgood Marshall to carry on the fight to preserve the decisional landmarks of the Warren Court. As a leading Nixon biographer has pointed out, those four appointments

did not … lead to a reversal of the landmark decisions of the Warren Court. The Burger Court did not overturn Miranda v. Arizona, it did not restore prayer in the schools, it did not outlaw pornography, it struck down state laws that banned the distribution of contraceptives, … it upheld the rights of welfare recipients, it struck down all [of] Nixon’s attempts to soften the impact of Brown v. Topeka, it ruled in favor of busing, it refused to allow prior censorship of the Pentagon Papers, and it told the Nixon Justice Department that it had no right to wiretap domestic radicals.[4]

The Watergate scandal that ultimately consumed Nixon’s presidency culminated, ironically, in a Court that, with Rehnquist recused, unanimously ordered the president to surrender a cache of exceptionally inculpatory tape recordings. Nixon’s resignation followed 16 days after the Court’s decision.

Nixon may have lost the battle over the tapes, and he may have come up short in the doctrinal struggles before the Burger Court, but he fairly could be said to have won the longer–term war. Nixon initiated a political realignment that carried through to his own resounding reelection victory in 1972 and, ultimately, to the two–term presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Nixon also started an evolution in the high court’s approach to constitutional cases that continues today. At the Court itself, vindication of a sort came belatedly, but it did come: of the areas of constitutional law that McMahon properly identifies at the center of the Nixon administration’s hostility to the Warren Court, none stands today as it did during the Warren Court’s hegemony. For that, we can tip our hats to the changes first instituted in the Nixon presidency.

At the risk of ending this review on a down note, it’s necessary to add that McMahon has been ill–served by the proofreaders at the University of Chicago Press. The text abounds in typographical errors, omissions of words, misnaming of political figures (including, in several places, “Edwin” for Edmund Muskie), and outright misspellings. This reviewer remains available to worthy publishers as a seasoned copy editor for hire.

Len Becker served as District of Columbia Bar Counsel from 1992 to 1999 and as general counsel in the Office of Mayor Anthony A. Williams from 2003 through 2006. He clerked for Justice Potter Stewart during the Court’s October 1969 term. He resides in Washington, D.C., and may be reached at lenbecker@verizon.net.

[1] B. A. Murphy, Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice, 545–75 (1988).
[2] J. Ehrlichman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years, 116 (1982).
[3] B. A. Murphy, Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, 433–34 (2003).
[4] S. E. Ambrose, Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962–1972, at 658 (1989).

Book cover. Watergate.Watergate
By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 2012

Review By Patrick Anderson

The Watergate scandal of 1972–74 was many things. As political theater, it was both comedy and tragedy, as a band of bungling burglars carried America to the brink of a Constitutional crisis before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. For the legal profession, Watergate was both a disgrace, in that so many of the conspirators were lawyers, including Nixon himself, his first attorney general, and his White House counsel, and yet a triumph, in that ultimately the rule of law prevailed. Watergate also was a field day for journalists and moralists, and a moment of joy for legions of Nixon–haters, as well as of sorrow for the president’s shrinking contingent of loyalists.

What it has not been until now is the inspiration for a novel that is both serious and entertaining. Author Thomas Mallon sets out to humanize the Watergate saga, even as he gives us a panoramic look at a great city in crisis, and he largely succeeds. Watergate is an impressive political novel, but with the qualification that it’s a fact–based “nonfiction novel,” and as such sometimes leaves the reader puzzled about what’s real and what emerged from the author’s teeming imagination.

Mallon uses the chronology of the scandal as his framework. The story starts with a president obsessed with his real and imagined “enemies,” and hungering for “intelligence” to use against them. The spark that ignited the Watergate conflagration was the hiring of the truly crazed G. Gordon Liddy as general counsel of the Committee for the Re–election of the President, officially CRP but immortalized as CREEP. By then, Nixon’s friend and former law partner, John Mitchell, had resigned as attorney general to run CREEP.

Told to develop an “intelligence” plan, Liddy first submitted a million–dollar extravaganza that featured kidnapping teams, prostitutes to entice unwary Democratic leaders into camera range, and the wiretapping of various Democratic offices. Mitchell rejected this madness but eventually, with some reluctance, approved a “scaled–back” scheme that focused on wiretapping. And why did Mitchell approve this blatantly criminal activity? Because he knew Nixon well and believed it was what the president wanted.

Thus a group of burglars, directed by Liddy and former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt, twice entered the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex and both times bungled the job. In May 1972 they installed wiretaps that didn’t work. In June they returned to fix things and were arrested. A White House cover–up sought to buy the silence of Hunt, Liddy, and the burglars, and keep the blame from rising higher. The cover–up failed and numerous White House and CREEP officials went to prison. Nixon, who potentially faced criminal charges, resigned the presidency two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled 8–0 that he must turn over 64 White House tapes to Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski.

Mallon relates all this, but it’s only the beginning of his story. In his huge cast of characters, many of the most interesting are women who had little to do with the scandal, including First Lady Pat Nixon; John Mitchell’s outspoken, troubledwife Martha; Nixon’s fiercely loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods (who wasn’t charged for “accidentally” erasing 18 1/2 minutes of a Nixon tape); and Nixon’s friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who was nearing the age of 90 and still famed for her acid wit.

The Pat Nixon seen here is quite unlike the public image she once had of a tightly wound woman who sat on countless stages gazing at her husband with a frozen smile. Mallon’s Pat Nixon is still, at least in private, Pat Ryan, the carefree Irish girl of yesteryear, a witty woman with a mind of her own who was often furious with her husband and—in Mallon’s most daring invention—had an affair that began in 1966 when she met a charming Irish widower in a New York restaurant. It’s clear that this man, who won her heart because he actually paid attention to her, ranked higher in Pat’s affections than her husband. It’s a poignant romance, probably put forth on the premise that any woman married to Richard Nixon deserved to have a little fun.

Mallon excels in taking us inside his characters’ minds and showing us, if not how they thought, how they might have. Here’s Pat Nixon comparing herself and Martha Mitchell: “Like most drunks and flamboyant people, Martha was actually, secretly, shy, whereas Pat knew herself—however unlikely it seemed—to be naturally an extrovert. She held her real self in with discipline, the same way Martha unleashed a false one with drink.”

Unlike Mallon’s treatment of Pat Nixon, he offers no surprises on Nixon himself. He’s the same shrewd, angry, self–pitying, vindictive, awkward fellow some of us have deplored for what seems an eternity now. He dreams of the Nobel Peace Prize even as he schemes to pursue the cover–up. He even blames poor Martha Mitchell for Watergate: “She was what had distracted her husband from the campaign and allowed him to let Hunt and Liddy run wild.” Time and again we are reminded that Watergate was no aberration, but the logical conclusion to a career too often driven by paranoia, self–delusion, and hated “enemies.”

Among the other men in the scandal, Mallon focuses on two relatively minor figures he regards with some sympathy. One is Fred LaRue, a genial Mississippian whose fundraising prowess endeared him to Mitchell and who unwisely became a bagman during the cover–up. Mallon makes much of the fact LaRue was haunted by guilt because, as a young man during a drunken hunting trip, he accidentally shot and killed his father. Did he somehow want to be punished, even sent to prison, as his father had been, for fraud back in Mississippi? LaRue was a minor player in Watergate but an irresistible one for a novelist.

Insofar as Howard Hunt is sympathetic, it’s because he knew the Watergate break–in was crazy, but he went along because he needed the White House job to support his family. During the cover–up, Hunt’s wife emerges as a formidable figure, demanding and getting huge sums of money for her and her husband’s silence. Then she died in a plane crash in Chicago, leaving Hunt facing prison with little money and no caretaker for his children. His was one of many personal tragedies little noticed amid the larger political drama.

In addition to Pat Nixon’s made–up romance, Mallon treats us to a great deal of old Washington gossip, going back to the question of who fathered Mrs. Longworth’s daughter, what female politician Lyndon Johnson had an affair with, which married Washington hostess slept with various celebrated politicians, and even a rather unconvincing rumor that Nixon himself might have once dallied with a well–known Republican woman.

The novel is a little long, and LaRue is given an improbable romance, but my main complaint is that, while I usually knew what was history and what was invention, it was frustrating when sometimes I wasn’t sure to which category an event or assertion belonged. For example, it’s generally believed that the conspirators bugged the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate because the White House hoped to find dirt to discredit party chair Larry O’Brien, whom they feared as a formidable political opponent. However, Mallon suggests a different motive, one I’ve never heard before: That Hunt and even Nixon suspected that Fidel Castro was sending money to the Democrats, and they sought proof of that connection. Could even the Nixon crew, as rabidly anti–Castro as they were, have believed such nonsense? Or did Mallon just toss that in for laughs? I’d like to know, but novels don’t have footnotes.

Watergate ends strongly, with two scenes that are pure invention but dramatically on target. In the first, the ancient Mrs. Longworth visits Nixon in the White House late on the night of his resignation. She’s a tough old bird who regards Nixon as “her kindred spirit at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—so shrewd and so deplorable.”

When Nixon, in his cups, starts to whine about his fate, she snaps, “I hate self–pity.” When he persists in calling his resignation a tragedy, she adds “This is not a tragedy. It simply does not qualify as such.” But when she suggests that Nixon may succeed as ex–president in rehabilitating himself, he responds “to the mention of resurrection the way a plant does to light.” Then, turning her relentless candor on her own life, she admits she was a terrible mother and adds, accurately, “I allowed my personality to swallow whatever real person I might have been.”

The next afternoon, as the ex–president and the ex–First Lady begin their exile in San Clemente, California, “She looked at him now, a sight so painful she couldn’t conjure any image from the happier years behind them.” Abruptly, desperately, Nixon blurts out, “Do you love me?” His startled wife reflects: “Suddenly the words were out of him, making her flinch, like a firecracker thrown during a motorcade.”

Her reply? It’s a good one, but you won’t learn it here. And of course Mallon has no way of knowing if such words were ever spoken. He invented them. That’s what novelists do, even when reinventing history, and he’s done his work well.

Patrick Anderson, a novelist and journalist, reviews crime fiction for The Washington Post.