Rachel Maddow is one of my fave television personalities. Currently, she serves as a host of her own popular show on MSNBC. Maddow comes down on the liberal side of the political spectrum. So, it was no surprise that she came up with the idea of doing a book on the former Vice-President of the U.S., (1969-1973), the ill-fated Spiro T. Agnew.
The book’s title is a mouthful. It goes something like this: “Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House.” Writer Michael Yarvitz helped Maddow pen this very interesting tome.
As the fates would have it, I knew Agnew from my law school days at the University of Baltimore. Back then, he was a six-foot-plus, strong-voiced adjunct professor of “Tort Law.” It was in the fall of 1961. I was in my first year of law school and Agnew was one of my adjunct professors, along with the likes of the late judges, Sol Lisa and Bill O’Donnell.
At that time, Agnew was an on-the-rise politico. He was articulate, imposing, always immaculately dressed and prepared for every class. I got the impression that he was very happy to have the teaching gig. (I’m proud to say I got an “A” from him in that course.)
Agnew evolved into a middle-of-the-road Republican and soon became the County Executive for Baltimore County, (1962-1966). By most accounts, he did a solid job in that position. Agnew’s many friends called him “Ted.”
Fortuitous political events were to catapult this son of a Greek-born father into the office of the governor of the state of Maryland (1967-69). It helped his bid for office that the Democratic Party’s nominee, George P. Mahoney, wasn’t up to the task.
Maddow referred to Mahoney as a “kook and perennial candidate segregationist,” who quietly accepted the no-longer-quite so-coveted endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.” She underscored how Agnew, “a mostly unknown politico” had in six short years gone from a local official to V.P. of the United States.
On the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, riots broke out in a number of U.S. cities — Baltimore was one of them. “Six days into that crisis,” then-Governor Agnew called a meeting with “a select group of the African-American leadership.” They were shocked when Agnew “wagged his finger at the group and laid the blame for the violence at their feet.”
Most of the Black leaders walked out on Agnew. It turned out that his conduct, however, was a “hit” with the voting public. Author Maddow underscored how President Nixon viewed the program and liked what he saw. It soon became clear, the author wrote, that Agnew was a “Richard Nixon kind of man.”
In 1968, Richard M. Nixon picked Agnew up as his vice-presidential running mate. That duo won the national election. Agnew then served as V.P. from 1968-1973 – only a heartbeat away from the presidency itself.
As V.P., Agnew’s politics soon shifted to the Far Right of the political scale. He regularly castigated antiwar protesters and the liberal media as “un-American.” His “default setting,” Maddow wrote was “an attack mode.”
His bottom line, the attack-first, take-no-prisoners strategy played well with the voting public. However, when he referred to some of the antiwar protesters as “Jew-Commies,” it sparked a backlash. Some Jewish newspapers reported that they were subjected to an “avalanche of sick anti-Semitic mail “in the wake of some of Agnew’s speeches.” For a time, Agnew backed off.
The Feds had developed compelling evidence that Agnew had taken bribes from Maryland-based consulting engineers to secure state contracts when he was a county executive, governor and vice-president. His bribe-taking continued even into the Executive Office Building, just down the street from the White House itself.
More bad luck for Agnew, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore had developed three first-rate prosecutors: Barney Skolnik, Tim Baker, and Ron Liebman. They were all at the top of their game. One of the first corrupt politicos that they had brought down was the Baltimore County Executive, Dale Anderson. Agnew was soon in their sights and set to fall, a la Anderson.
Agnew facing the inevitable — read prison time — entered into “a deal” to resign from his office on October 10, 1973. He pled “no contest” to a charge of tax evasion before U.S. Judge Walter E. Hoffman and paid a $10,000 fine.
Agnew’s earth-shaking resignation took place in the then Federal Court House in Baltimore. It was located at Calvert & Fayette Streets. (I was then an Assistant City Solicitor, in City Hall, under Mayor William Donald Schafer. I regretted missing that historic proceeding since I had a case in Annapolis on that day.)
Rep. Gerald Ford (R-MI) took Agnew’s place as V.P. on December 6, 1973. When Nixon (“I’m not a crook!”) resigned because of the “Watergate” scandal, Ford on August 9, 1974, became president.
Disbarred from the practice of law, Agnew spent much of his later years either on the West Coast or in Ocean City, MD. He reportedly made a living as an international business consultant. Supposedly, Agnew once told a confidant, that kickbacks have been “going on for a thousand years.”
Most of Agnew’s local cronies had long since abandoned him, including lawyers that he had appointed to the judiciary. On the celebrity circuit, all of his former fair-weather buddies, many from Hollywood, took a hike, save one, the crooner — Frank Sinatra.
I also couldn’t help but notice how fast Agnew’s four corrupting co-conspirators were “to rat him out,” in order to save their own hides. They all escaped jail time. As a final indignity, Agnew was ordered, in 1981, to repay the state $248,735.00, with interest — the amount of the kickbacks that he had pocketed in the scheme.
Agnew died in political exile on September 17, 1996, at the age of 78. He was a veteran of WWII and had seen action in the Battle of the Bulge. He deserves some credit for his service to the Republic. Agnew is buried in a cemetery located near Timonium, MD
Finally, the story of Agnew’s rise and fall has all the makings of a tale right out of the Greek tragedies. The Maryland Court of Appeal labeled his self-destructive behavior “morally obtuse.” It could be argued that the Fates had claimed, in the foolish Agnew, yet another arrogant man whose insatiable need to deceive himself proved disastrous.
I’m giving Maddow’s book four out of five stars.
Bill Hughes is a native of Baltimore. He’s an attorney, author, professional actor and hobbyist photographer. In his salad days, he worked on the docks as a longshoreman. Bill also played on three championship soccer teams: sandlot with Jules Morstein; high school at Calvert Hall; and college at the University of Baltimore.