"I AM WRITING this book," Spiro T. Agnew says, "because I am innocent of the allegations against me which compelled me to resign the vice-presidency of the United States in 1973." With that characteristically blunt, declarative sentence, a sentence out of the functional Bauhaus school of writing and so much like the sleek, streamlined, never-a-hair-out-of-place man himself, Agnew launched into his long-awaited explanation of why he resigned, why he copped a plea and why he got into trouble in the first place: He wuz framed.
A bunch of guys back in Baltimore, former political contributors, backslappers but liars all, got into trouble with the law and decided to serve up Agnew to save their own skins. They took their story to a bunch of prosecutors also back in Baltimore who were, almost to a man, Lefties, and they in turn decided for political and personal reasons (career advancement) to accept the weird tale of the liars and passed it on up to their superiors in the Justice Department of the United States. This was a place already infested with Lefties, corrupted by Watergate, peopled with the unprincipled and headed by the notorious Elliot Richardson, here characterized as weak, strong, moral, immoral, principled, bigoted, arrogant, meek and who in moments of lucidity was seeking to replace the tottering Richard Nixon with someone who would defend Israel "whatever the risk to the United States." Gasp!
"Having been beaten at the polls in the crushing defeat of the McGovern-Shriver ticket, the left-wingers determined to reverse the election results by forcing Nixon out of the presidency by a process which amounted to a coup d'etat," Agnew writes. "However, they would have gained nothing by kicking out Nixon only to have me come into power as his successor . . . So to make their revolution a success, they had to get rid of me first."
Later, of course, comes the by-now-famous threat (alleged) on Agnew's life made by Richard Nixon's Capo di Tutti Capi, Alexander Haig. But by the time that stunning assertion surfaces in the book, we are all but gasped out and nothing shocks us anymore. Agnew has by then detailed an explanation so illogical, so bereft of common sense and so fouled by character assassination, insults and basic sleaze (richardson is hostile to ethnics) that I, for one, had hardly the strength to reach one more time for the red felt pen to underline the passage. Anyway, the death threat is one of the few assertions in the book to make sense, so gaga was Agnew over the power of the White House that he might have thought the brooding Nixon could will his vice-president's heart to stop beating.
Very early in the book, Agnew leaves credibility far behind. The Baltimore prosecutors who developed the bribery-extortion-tax evasion case against him, are described in terms reminiscent of the 1950s. They are, with one exception, characterized as ideological fanatics, the proof of this being that one had worked for the presidential campaign of that raving radical. Edmund Muskie of Maine, and the other (shield your children from this) had served in the Peace Corps. In Africa yet.
This kind of nonsense permeates the book, robbing it of whatever credibility Agnew might have mustered which, I hasten to add, would probably not be much. The case against Agnew was always a very strong one. He was accused of taking bribes both as governor of Maryland and as Baltimore County executive from contractors doing business with the state. Three of the contractors and one intermediary cooperated with the government, offering testimony and evidence that was both interlocking and corroborative.
It is Agnew's assertion that the four made up their story to save their own skins. Maybe. It's true that all four were in pretty serious tax trouble with the government and they did practice what is called trading up. They offered up Agnew in the hopes, or maybe even the certainty, of a deal. Agnew himself has nothing but scorn for the practice of trading up, never seeming to realize that he did something very similar: he traded the vice presidency for a guarantee that he would not go to jail. (He pleaded no contest to a tax evasion charge.)
No matter. The core of the Agnew defense is that no one ever saw him take a bribe, that none of the four ever saw any of the others slip him the cash and there is no hard evidence -- a picture, a document -- to prove that Agnew got the goods. All this is true, but it is also true that this sort of evidence is almost never present in a bribery case. Even rarer is four witnesses saying substantially the same thing and being able to prove that they were saying it long before the Feds got nosy and served their subpoenas -- like at the time the money was allegedly changing hands.
With Agnew, though, things are never simple. He seems to be saying two things at once: He never took a bribe, but he did take money. When he took money, it was either a gift or a political donation. By his own admission, he took quite a lot -- "about twelve thousand dollars" in gifts alone, he estimates, although it's not clear if he is talking of cash or the total value of cash and other gifts. There were, you see, other gifts -- ties, cuff links, robes, jewelry, dinners and food, most of it coming from men who did business with the state and who Agnew himself acknowledged were not his close friends. Why they sould want to shower gifts upon him is a question that does not occur to Agnew, and he tells us he was totally unsuspecting when, as vice president, he was asked by one of his businessmen friends to appear before a group of bankers only to find out to his chagrin that the businessman later made a pitch for funds.I mean, the nerve!
As for Agnew himself, his reason for accepting all this largesse is clear: He was needy. "The vice president's salary of sixty five thousand dollars was only a little more than a congressman's pay today and did not begin to cover the normal expenses of a large family, plus special expenses such as entertaining politicians and dignitaries at home, or the formal clothing requirements for a state dinner.
In a sense, this is typical Agnew. He is always the victim. Instead of seeing himself as the vice president of the United States and therefore really powerful, he portrays himself as some sort of puppet, ever manipulated by more powerful forces, by left-wingers, self-serving liars, the almost homocidal media, a venal presidential staff and a weak and untrustworthy president who would not do the right and manly thing -- stand up for his vice president.
There is a bit of the Gordon Liddy in Agnew -- a real reverence for stand-up guys. The ultimate stand-up guys are (1) Spiro T. Agnew and (2) Frank Sinatra. It was Agnew who first stood up for Sinatra when the singer was identified as a mob groupie before a House committee. Later, it became Sinatra's turn and he not only stood up for Agnew, but rehabilitated him through a one-man Marshall Plan. He paid his $10,000 fine with a $30,000 check, lent him an additional $200,000 to pay off Agnew's $200,000 tax bill on the bribes (gifts) he had failed to report, lent him the use of his personal lawyer during the investigation and -- probably the most important -- stuck by Agnew through the worst, offering him ringside seats whenever he made a personal appearance. The book is dedicated to Sinatra.
Agnew himself tells a bit about his friendship with Sinatra, how they met, how their friendship blossomed and what they had in common: "Having both come from Mediterranean stock and similar humble beginnings, we had many attitudes in common." You get the sense that Sinatra, whatever his faults, is a man who values loyalty and who sees the world as basically hostile, two-faced -- a hypocritical place where the rich, the WASPs play by their own rules. It is these rules that allowed John Kennedy to dismiss Francis Albert Sinatra from Camelot -- perhaps for hanging out with men of no apparent livelihood whose names ended with vowels -- even though both of their old men were no more than one generation off the boat.
One senses that this book is Agnew's way of saying "me, too, Frank -- they got me, too." It's as if this book had to be written for one man and one man alone -- Sinatra. It is Agnew's justification, his putting down on paper what he has undoubtedly told Sinatra time and time again; The bastards did me in.
One gets the sense, though, that Agnew's heart is not in this book. It has no zip.It lacks style and aside from the opening sentence, it is neither clean nor quick, but muddled, confusing, sluggish, dragging anchors of self-justifying phrases over and over again. Still, it has its moments. Agnew paints a good picture of the duplicitous Nixon and he gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like to work in a White House where the president's men tell you to quit but the president himself asks only about the wife and then looks away.
In the end, though, the book is unconvincing. To believe Agnew, you have to believe that the government took the lives of four self-serving men, fashioned them into a political frame-up so seamless that neither Agnew nor powerful allies like Barry Goldwater or crackerjack lawyers could find a hole to wriggle out of, allowed him to be set upon by the media meanies and all but dared him to stand trial in Baltimore where he would have been all but lynched by moderate blacks still smarting from Agnew's criticism of them nearly a decade before. There are so many yeah-buts in all this (Couldn't they have asked for a change of venue? Didn't John Conally get a fair trial?) that you don't have to be a Leftie jackal of the media such as myself to conclude that he hasn't made his case. Normally, you could say that he will have his day in court. But he already has.