Nearly half a century since Spiro Agnew departed from politics, and almost a quarter-century since he departed this earthly vale, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has exhumed the body of the Baltimore native who became the only vice president in U.S. history to resign in disgrace.
Her new book is “Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House” (Crown), and it’s getting lots of attention. Maddow and co-author Michael Yarvitz tell us there was never a national leader as divisive as Agnew until the arrival of Donald J. Trump.
As far as we know, Agnew never picked up a phone and tried to overturn an election the way this president did with Georgia officials, according to an hour-long audiotape released over the weekend.
Also, Agnew had a much better vocabulary. Trump can barely put a complete sentence together. Agnew gave us lines like “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “pusillanimous pussyfooters” to describe his enemies, of whom there were many.
It was Agnew, as governor of Maryland, who summoned Black leaders to Annapolis in the aftermath of the 1968 riots. He accused them of being “Uncle Toms,” of being fearful, shrinking men complicit by their absence in the awful days of fire and destruction following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Richard Nixon heard about Agnew’s outburst and said, “This is my kind of guy.”
Agnew became the “respectable” personification of America’s racial fault line. He wasn’t George Wallace, standing in the schoolhouse doorway; he was a man in a tailored suit, with a refined vocabulary, saying it was alright to criticize by skin color.
It was part of Nixon’s grand Southern strategy to divide racially and conquer the country.
What Nixon didn’t know was that Agnew had long since begun the pattern of payoffs from local developers – both when he was governor and Baltimore County executive – that would continue even after he became vice president.
Or as Maddow and Yarvitz characterize it, “the wild crimes, audacious cover-up, and spectacular downfall” of Agnew.
Some years back, when I wrote a book titled “Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore” (Hopkins Press), I had a long talk with former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who offered insights I’d never previously heard.
“Don’t you know I’m the guy who told Agnew he was going down?” Mandel said.
He’d heard about the investigation from a well-connected friend. This was before anybody knew about the secret probe going on in the old Calvert Street federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore.
Mandel said he told Agnew, “I don’t know what your friends might know, but the feds are giving them immunity.’ And Agnew said, ‘Nah, it can’t happen, it’s not gonna happen.’
“I said, ‘Why do you say that?’ I figured he’d say, ‘Because I haven’t done anything wrong.’ But he said, ‘Because I have an agreement with the president and the attorney general that there’ll be no immunity in my case.’ Just like that.”
Agnew thought the fix was in to protect him. He was wrong. Mandel said Agnew called him back that same day and said, “You know what? You’re right. They’re double-crossing me. They’re giving immunity.’”
And he knew why. Nixon imagined Agnew’s disgrace would slake everyone’s appetite for scandal in high places, no matter the implications of the coming Watergate mess. He figured the country wouldn’t have the stomach for it.
(Ironically, when the feds finished with Agnew, they later went after Mandel.)
Then there was the other political angle: heading the Agnew investigation was U.S. Attorney George Beall, a Republican like Agnew, whose background included a father and brother who’d been elected to the U.S. Senate. Beall was going against his own family history.
Months after Agnew’s nolo contendere (no contest) plea, I had a long talk with George Beall about the Agnew probe.
He said there had been months of intense political pressure, of phone calls from the Nixon White House as Beall and three assistants did their investigation. Then, in its aftermath, Beall remembered months when he’d get into bed each night and lie awake. When he’d finally find sleep, nightmares came. He’d awaken in a sweat, all the months of anxiety finally catching up to him.
But he was comforted knowing he’d done the right thing.
A final footnote about Agnew: on the evening he pleaded nolo contendere to federal charges, he took his family to dinner at Sabatino’s in Little Italy, where he saw Joe Canzane, who then owned the place.
“You got a job for me, Joe?” Agnew joked. “I’m out of work.”
Then, Agnew saw Al Isella, the maitre d’ at Sabatino’s who did a little bookmaking on the side. That very day, as Agnew was copping his plea at the Calvert Street federal courthouse, Isella was across the street at the city courthouse, where he was found guilty of taking bets on horses. He paid a fine and later got himself arrested scores more times on gambling charges.
“Hey,” Isella cried when he saw Agnew, “I see they got you today. What the hell, they got me, too. Don’t worry about it, boss, it don’t mean a thing.”
The irony was lost on no one: one man, pursued by police for the crime of taking amiable sports bets; the other, seemingly the straightest of men, caught with his hands under the table, pursued for the rest of his life only by history.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.