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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tales of Dick and Spiggy

Last week I ran across a discarded advance “review” copy of an uncoming book by Jules Whitcover entitled Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. I couldn’t resist a stroll down a distant memory lane to a period of scandal, official mendacity, polarization and an unpopular war not entirely unlike our own. I was particularly entranced by Whitcover’s tick-tock account of Agnew’s forced resignation as vice president, likely drawn from the 1974 book he wrote with Richard Cohen (now out of print) about that particular incident.Unlike Nixon’s undoing by Watergate, which rolled out slowly over many months, Agnew’s resignation, at the time at least, seemed like a bolt from the blue. But its genesis was in a state contractor kickback scheme in Baltimore County, Maryland, which probably predated Agnew’s tenure as County Executive and certainly continued afterwards. Indeed, federal prosecutors were targeting Agnew’s Democratic successor as County Executive when one of their key witnesses alleged he had continued to pay off Agnew during his two-year governorship, and briefly, during his vice-presidency, with the final payment being ten large in cash stuffed into a brown paper bag, delivered personally to the Veep in his White House office. After repeated and futile efforts to get Nixon to quash the investigation, Agnew negotiated a deal in which he admitted to a single tax evasion charge and resigned his office, while obtaining assurances he would not go to the hoosegow. The deal enabled Agnew to spend the rest of his life claiming he did nothing wrong beyond accepting campaign contributions from the contractors. He was, he said often, the victim of a dual conspiracy between those who wanted to remove him from the presidential succession in order to make Nixon’s removal politically possible, and Nixon himself, who mistakenly thought throwing his Veep to the wolves might save his own hide. But as Whitcover (all too summarily) explains, the real smoking gun in the Agnew case was an IRS investigation of his finances that resulted in a State of Maryland demand for two hundred thousand bucks in back taxes on his illegal income–a demand Agnew satisfied via loans from his maximum buddy, Frank Sinatra. I don’t know why the Agnew saga hasn’t been the subject of a big movie. It certainly has all the drama you’d ever want: the unlikely rise of an obscure local Baltimore pol who gets elected county executive and then governor thanks to Democratic splits; his selection by Nixon as a compromise Veep choice mainly because of his combined “moderate” record and his late-career race-baiting; his startling emergence as a right-wing superstar, thanks in part to the skills of Nixon speechwriters Bill Safire and Pat Buchanan; Nixon’s constant, never-consummated efforts to replace him with Democratic apostate John Connally; his gradual development into a complete loose cannon isolated from Nixon but becoming his likely successor; his Vegas-based celebrity posse, including Sinatra; and then the whole disaster of his ouster, ultimately derived from his hunger for a degree of wealth he saw all around him but never enjoyed. There’s even a love interest, in the form of allegations (oddly echoed in Agnew’s own novel about a disgraced Veep, The Canfield Decision) that he was carrying on an expensive affair with someone in the administration. At some point, you’d expect that the parlor game of judging whether George W. Bush or Richard Nixon is the Worst President Ever would extend to a comparison of Dick Cheney and Spiro Agnew as contenders for the title of Worst Vice President Ever. Maybe then Spiggy will get his posthumous Hollywood tribute.

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