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Ehrlichman Was Right --This Time

August 04, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

The Landing: A Novel of Washington and World War II by Haynes Johnson and Howard Simons (Villard Press: $17.95)

My father's most anguished oath used to be, "Well, I'll be a dirty, lousy Republican!" My ex-husband's most scathing insult to me used to be: "You were born in the same week as Nixon, and you probably even vote for him!" If, during the Watergate days, a $2 fortuneteller had told me that I'd agree with John Ehrlichman on any issue at all, I'd have sneered derisively and snatched back my $2. But here it is.

Ehrlichman, former top Nixon aide, was given "The Landing" to review for another newspaper; he pronounced this novel far too dull and far too long and basically indigestible. Since "The Landing" was written by two journalistic hotshots from the Washington Post--the paper that was so instrumental in bringing the Watergate participants down--that review may not have been totally objective. . . ..

But if it weren't for the story around the story of this novel and for the relative fame of one of its reviewers, "The Landing" would already be far down in the cosmic mail chute, hurtling toward obscurity. "The Landing" is billed as "a Novel of Washington and World War II," and when a novel needs a subtitle, you know somebody's already worried about it.

Here's the plot: Two high-level Nazi agents (who kill Jewish prisoners one by one for practice, just to get used to it), are being trained for a top-secret mission to Washington, which may change the course of the war. One agent is Willi, who is seen as fairly human; the other is Gunther, a dangerous sociopath who has spent time in the seminary, has a homosexual past and a bad personality. When these boys get to Washington--traveling separately, for the convenience of the authors--they reach a city that only a few years ago was a sleepy, swampy town and now is bustling with naive, energetic people who are sure they're going to win the war--even though Gunther can see that the German war machine is far superior in every respect.

Unlikely Threesome

Living in Washington at this time are three "important" characters: The first, Henry Eaton, a white Protestant with a Boston background, pines that he's stuck in a naval desk job instead of "seeing action" like his younger brother, Quincy. The second, Leon Thomas, one of Washington's first black policemen, is furious all the time, and able to quote black poets on demand. Leon's wife puts fresh flowers on the table, and Leon's son promises to be a great deal more furious than his dad. (You can just tell that young Thomas is going to be a handful in the '60s!)

The third--now hold on to your hats for this one!--is a beautiful woman, who works for the FBI, comes from the South, spends hours straightening the seams of her Mojud stockings, and thinks in sentences like this after she's fallen in love: "Now I'm one of the government girls myself. . . . I do my stockings with Lux in my room at night; I show my pass to get into the office every morning; I go to Hall's in Southwest on Saturday night dates for crabs from the Chesapeake Bay; I go to the cocktail lounge at the Mayflower Saturday afternoons, when I can get away, and stand in line for tables and a chance to dance the Lindy Hop; I go to the free Sunset Symphonies on that shell the WPA built by water's edge and sit on those steps beneath the Lincoln Memorial and listen to the National Symphony raise my morale; I eat lunch at the Bureau cafeteria at Justice . . . where most of the government girls started out as capital Grade Two stenographers at $1,440 a year and then advanced to a top of Grade Three at $1,620 or $31.15 a week. . . ."

I could go on with that quote--heaven knows the authors did--but perhaps it's best to say that Safeway stores are named and that Constance recalls how much a half-pint of whipping cream is selling for (23 cents). But if the reader wants to know why a beautiful Southern secretary with an aristocratic background who's madly in love with Henry Eaton and up to her ears in an assassination plot knows about whipping cream, the reader will have to go somewhere else. The bare, sad truth is that these co-authors have done a lot of research for this book: They've found out the price of whipping cream, and now where are they going to put that fact? They can't have Gunther ponder this price; he's too busy strangling innocent strangers with a thin chain. They can't have Henry Eaton worrying about it; he's too busy worrying about the perfidy of the FBI and their constant wiretappings. (Little does Henry Eaton know some of these taps have been ordered by the President himself!)

On Hold for the Facts

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