BY NOW, because it is years later, the voices have all blended into one. It sounds deep and uneducated, something of a cliche, maybe, full of ain'ts and double negatives, but with a certain basic point of view. He would ask a question but he really would not want an answer. He wanted to make a statement, say that there are two kinds of justice in America. There is justice for the common man and there is justice for big shots -- only the latter, he would say, ain't justice at all.
We got a lot of that back in those days, a colleague and I, because we had written a book about the resignation and investigation of Spiro T. Agnew. In the course of promoting that book, we invariably ended our day on one of those late night call-in radio shows, the shows on which the host keeps a finger on the kill button when the dirty words start flying. You sat there and you took it, an incredible amount of abuse, but always this theme came through -- the big guys get off.
This comes up now because of the deal cut yesterday in Alexandria that allows William L. Cowhig, surely the town's most indicted resident, not to mention its commonwealth's attorney, to resign his office in exchange for having the last remaining gambling-related charge against him dropped. It is a neat deal in which everyone seems to benefit. The city rids itself of a prosecutor who seems to be under constant investigation -- with more coming -- and the prosecutor gets himself a free ride on one charge. For lovers of symmetry, nothing could be finer. For lovers of history, it smells like Agnew all over again.
The comparison, however, doesn't come easy. In the first place, Cowhig himself is something of a phenomenon. He has already been tried twice on bribery and gambling charges and acquitted each time. That's more than Spiro Agnew could say, anyway -- the acquittal part, I mean. Then, too, Cowhig is by no means out of the woods. He stands accused of soliciting what is sometimes called a carnal bribe -- the wife of a defendant. This is the sort of thing that used to be confined to Maryland. Blame it on Metro.
In addition to all this, the remaining gambling case against Cowhig is not a strong one -- maybe no more than a misdemeanor. It seems something of a bargain to trade it for his resignation, especially when you bear in mind that had he not resigned he would have to work with the very police department that spent part of the summer investigating him. Finally, Cowhig's job is not just another public office, but the personification of law enforcement in Alexandria -- Mister District Attorney in George Washington's home town. A prosecutor ought to be more than just not guilty. He ought to be above reproach.
You could go on and on, making distinctions between Cowhig and Agnew, showing how it is right in these circumstances to cut the deal. God knows, this is a difficult matter, the sort of predicament in which someone, in this case the special prosecutor, winds up playing God. Either way he moves, he's going to get criticism -- either way there is no easy solution. If you want to know what's between a rock and a hard place, it's Alexandria.
But the more distinctions you make between Cowhig and Agnew, the more they begin to look alike. There are always extenuating circumstances. In Agnew's case, too, he held a critical office -- vice president at a time when the president, Richard Nixon, faced possible impeachment. He was next in line and just what would have happened, had Nixon resigned and Agnew become president, is anyone's guess. Only one thing is for sure. He would have pardoned himself and then turned with venom on the very Justice Department that nailed him. My, it would have been fun.
The point, of course, is that these are always impossible choices. With Agnew, it was enough for me that he pleaded no contest, admitted guilt at least to tax evasion, paid a fine and resigned his office in disgrace. Surely, that would be enough. Surely, any reasonable man would see the deal for what it was -- the only way out.
But the callers on the late night shows did not see it that way. They followed Agnew in the papers -- watched him wing around the world, go backstage and chat with Frank Sinatra, go on television and deny the very things he had said in court. They asked always if they could get that kind of deal for themselves and before you could answer they said, of course, that they could not.
The more you listened the more you had to conclude that a mistake had been made -- that the concept of equal justice for all had taken it on the chin. The same callers could look at the Cowhig deal, nod their head and say that once again a politician has used his office to beat the rap. It ain't justice, they would say, and about all you can do is fault their grammar.
Their logic is fine.