Three Books About the Rise and Fall of Spiro Agnew

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation on October 10, 1973. Strangely, I just checked Twitter and #agnew is not trending.

The morality tale of Spiro Agnew is an incredible story that deserves more attention than it currently gets. I’m honoring the anniversary here by reviewing the three major books that lay out all the facts in fascinating detail, even though all three books are currently out of print. The world may have forgotten Spiro Agnew, but his story is highly relevant, and the messy milieu of federal politics that enabled the Agnew affair is still very much with us today.

White Knight: The Rise of Spiro Agnew by Jules Witcover

White Knight was published in 1972, just before the Watergate scandal broke. It’s a fascinating study of Spiro Agnew at the peak of his glory, written by Jules Witcover, a Washington Post journalist who built his career as an Agnew-watcher. Unlike the two books below, White Knight describes an innocent Agnew, controversial but untainted by scandal, a dominating force in the Republican Party and a likely candidate for President in 1976.

The book offers the “rise” in the rise and fall of Spiro Agnew, and it amounts to a truly thrilling, surprising story. His rise was just as improbable as his fall, and this book is even more exciting than the follow-up volume Witcover would write with Richard Cohen after Agnew’s resignation. If you plan to read only one book about Spiro Agnew, it should be this one.

Spiro Agnew’s career begins with a glowing origin story, which he would later employ as the heartening fable of a self-made man. He was raised in a tight apartment in downtown Baltimore, the dutiful son of a hardworking immigrant Greek small restaurant owner named Theodore Spiros Anagnostopoulos.

Ted Agnew grew up just a few blocks away from the state government buildings where he would eventually reign as Governor (as well as the court building where he would eventually face up to his public disgrace, though that juxtaposition is beyond the scope of this mid-career biography).

Agnew’s urban ethnic background — a scrappy ruffian from the streets who pulled himself up, joined the Army, went to law school — was the first key to his appealing persona as a tough, taciturn but warm-blooded regular guy politician. But it took a few years as a back room lawyer for a modest Baltimore supermarket chain before Agnew began to find his calling. His early years were earnest but listless, and he spent much longer than any future Vice President of the United States ever should persuading neighborhood shoplifters to give back the cans of tuna they were hiding.

Agnew found his calling when he moved to the suburbs north of Baltimore and got involved in public real estate administration. His immense likability and canny intelligence won him a power seat as Baltimore County Executive (Baltimore County does not include the city of Baltimore, but rather encompasses a wide variety of wealthy and non-wealthy suburbs around the city core). He quickly won a reputation as a fair and judicious leader, a strong quiet presence who could govern with firm authority.

He and his wife Judy thrived as Maryland suburbanites, and the scenes of the Agnews chilling with their friends around backyard barbecues and shag-carpeted piano parlors have a sort of martini-soaked John Updike flavor. Spiro Agnew kept rising in stature — after a short stint as County Executive, everybody started noticing that he looked like a Governor — and his stolid likability remained his main asset. He was clearly not a political ideologue (indeed, his views were often liberal in these early years), and showed no early interest in being outspoken or controversial.

He was also not a numbers guy or a details guy. You wouldn’t find Spiro Agnew in the back room scratching pencils on charts — you’d find him on the patio grilling the steaks, and ensuring everyone else on the patio that the numbers guys would get it all figured out soon. (Years later, when Agnew would be charged with accepting bribes during his Maryland years, the fact that he was more of a public face than a back-room schemer helped to take some edge off the charges — it was clear that Agnew participated in whatever funny-money operations kept Baltimore County and the State of Maryland rolling, but he would not have been the mastermind behind any bribery plan.)

Agnew was a great talker, though — quick-witted, golden-tongued. He would later become famous for dreaming up some awesomely alliterative insults (“pusillanimous pussyfooters”, “nattering nabobs of negativism”) with the Nixon speechwriting staff, and we can only wonder how many bon mots were scattered to the winds during Agnew’s early decades. He cultivated a moderate intellectual curiosity, though in a thoroughly manly and all-American way. He liked to call attention to his Greek roots, and would later keep a bust of Socrates behind his Vice Presidential desk.

Jules Witcover paints a portrait of Agnew as friendly and likable in the first half of White Knight, but the tone changes when Agnew is elected Governor of Maryland in 1966. Thunder begins to echo from the distant skies, and a dark side begins to emerge. This dark side explains the book’s title White Knight, because the public controversy that would launch Spiro Agnew to national prominence was the controversy over America’s racial problems. This was the heated era of H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, and Spiro Agnew was able to fill a needed role for conservative America by speaking out loud about the behavior of the protestors.

Before he became Governor, Spiro Agnew had always gotten along with everybody. He positioned himself as a civil rights moderate and enjoyed the support of the African-American community in Baltimore and Maryland (his opponent for Governor in 1966 was a virulent racist, and Agnew was the good guy in the race). But few of those who elected him Governor expected him to start speaking out about Black Power movements in harsh, critical terms.

Widening his focus from Baltimore to Maryland stirred something within Spiro Agnew. Maryland may be the most demographically diverse state in the United States of America, encompassing both deep-country Appalachian mountain ranges and ocean beaches, quaint old country villages and wealthy modern suburbs — and one giant metropolis with vast inner-city ghettos. It also had a run-down public college called Bowie State University where a group of African American students began a protest movement, possibly with the help of outside agitators. Agnew shocked many of his African-American friends in state government by attacking the Bowie State student protesters directly and forcefully. It turned out to be the right move for his political career.

Suddenly Agnew was a hard-liner, and his many liberal friends were stunned and betrayed. It appears that Baltimore’s innocent golden child had grown into an ambitious politician, because according to Jules Witcover’s book it was ambition — not any deep-seated political beliefs or racial animosity — that inspired Spiro Agnew’s sudden transformation into an outspoken social reformer.

When Spiro Agnew spoke out about civil rights, he had a single message: protesters and activists had no right to break laws or to offend public decency. He presented himself as sympathetic to their cause, but stern in criticism of their methods. The disruptive methods even of the peaceful Martin Luther King, Agnew argued over and over, were counter-productive and undemocratic.

Agnew surely felt the rightness of this message in his heart, even if Witcover is right that he also saw the opportunity to become a public spokesman for all Americans who felt disgusted or alienated by current protest movements. If it was a calculated move on Agnew’s part, he calculated well. His strong derision for the styles and methods of civil rights protestors applied just as well to Vietnam War protestors, and Agnew’s proud stance against the new fashion in youthful street activism gave him a small platform from which to become a major public voice.

The new Spiro Agnew was a hit — especially to Republican party insiders, whom he coveted shamelessly. He was particularly a hit around the bar at the Republican Governors’s Association parties (the Republican Governors Association seemed to have a lot of parties back then) where everybody agreed that this new guy from Maryland had some serious potential. Even an equally promising and equally charming Governor from California named Ronald Reagan agreed, and Reagan and Agnew became fast friends.

Spiro Agnew played Republican party politics smoothly and to his own advantage. He worked behind the scenes for Nelson Rockefeller’s Presidential campaign, then did a quick switch to Richard Nixon in time to become Nixon’s running mate on the 1968 presidential ticket. Agnew’s bull-headed persona was not a big hit at first with the American people, and many political pundits quickly wrote Agnew off as a lightweight, a political amateur and a loose cannon.

It was not clear at first whether Nixon had made a good choice or not. Agnew never really won the respect of the Beltway crowd, though he did win the respect of a large segment of regular America. He had a rock-solid position with the American conservative base, and probably helped Nixon win a landslide re-election in 1972. And then it all started to fall apart for Agnew and Nixon.

A Heartbeat Away – The Investigation & Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew by Richard M. Cohen and Jules Witcover

Watergate happened. In a big, big way. Agnew was doomed the moment President Nixon became doomed, even though he was nowhere near the espionage-crazed circle of White House aides that engineered the Watergate break-in, nor a part of the bumbling cover-up legal team that tried to wish the disaster away. He was doomed because of who he was, because of the position he held.

Everybody knew that Agnew was a talker, not a schemer, and that he had played no role in the Watergate mess. But he would have to be punished for Watergate, because nobody wanted to go to all the trouble of throwing Tricky Dick out of the White House only to see his bombastic silver-haired doppelganger move in. That ending to the Watergate story would not satisfy anyone, and something had to be done.

There was a convenient little scandal brewing in Baltimore County, where Agnew had once been County Executive. Bribery and construction kickbacks in Baltimore County? What a shock! The team of local public attorneys handling the case in early 1973 understood the significance of the evidence they were developing, though, and they could barely contain their excitement when they grilled a couple of the principal beneficiaries of the construction bribery scheme, Lester Matz and Jerome Woolf, and heard whispers of Spiro Agnew’s name.

It’s standard procedure to offer small players in a criminal scheme immunity from prosecution in return for evidence against the big targets, and A Heartbeat Away describes the careful, painstaking work that public attorneys George Beall, Russell Baker, Barnet Skolnick and Ronald Leibman had to do to get Matz and Woolf and several other Baltimore businessmen, architects and engineers to agree to testify against their old friend Spiro Agnew. The moment of truth came when these prosecutors presented their case to the Attorney General of the United States, Elliot Richardson.

Richardson would become the key decision-maker in the prosecution of Spiro Agnew, and his decision was a quick one: go, go, go. Richardson also made it clear from the beginning that the goal of the prosecution would not be to put Spiro Agnew in jail. The goal would be to force Agnew to resign the Vice Presidency in exchange for a lenient sentence (this is exactly what would eventually happen).

A Heartbeat Away adds further weight to the growing stature of Elliot Richardson as a central figure in the Watergate affair. The Agnew scandal was only the lesser of the two crises he was juggling at the time; he was also dealing with Richard Nixon, who was uncomfortably both his boss and his target in the Watergate investigations. It’s not hard to see why Richardson chose to handle Agnew so decisively and neatly (and with so little regard). Richardson was handling Nixon at the same time. That’s a lot to handle.

Indeed, it would be on October 20, 1973, only ten days after the final resignation and plea bargain of Spiro Agnew, that Attorney General Elliot Richardson would resign his own office in protest against Richard Nixon’s attempts to squash his Watergate investigation, kicking off a chaotic chain of events now known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Richardson has won great praise for his handling of the entire constitutional crisis of Watergate, and A Heartbeat Away shows that he also handled the Agnew case with deft resolve. But history’s judgement cannot salve what must have been the terribly hurt feelings of Spiro Agnew, who must not have known what the hell hit him when this whole mess began.

Unlike the entire Watergate affair, with its amazing cast of colorful characters and long, drawn-out deceptions and counter-narratives, the Agnew bribery scandal was quick and clean, a pinprick of history. This helps to seal the case that many of Agnew’s critics had always made that Agnew was a lightweight in the tough game of federal politics, an amateur elevated to high office only by the machinations of others. Nixon was a poker player extraordinaire, and he clung to the presidency with fiendish concentration. Agnew was a tourist in this high-stakes game, barely aware of the rules of play. A Heartbeat Away shows how he was knocked off the table in a single round.

But where did this leave his vast fan club, the proud Agnew faithful, the Archie Bunkers, the Silent Majority? What effect did the stunning speed of Agnew’s fall have on his conservative base, who (like Agnew) barely got a chance to process the newspaper headlines before the Vice President suddenly vanished from sight? There must have been an extreme sense of cognitive dissonance all over hard-hat America, though Witcover and Cohen barely explore this side of the Agnew story in A Heartbeat Away.

While I loved Jules Witcover’s White Knight, a book written with leisurely fascination following years of research, I was less thrilled by Witcover and Cohen’s A Heartbeat Away, which was rushed to print in February 1974 and clearly lusted to be the kind of major bestseller that a concurrent volume called All The President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was shaping up to be. It’s amusing that Witcover and Cohen were reporters for the Washington Post like Woodward and Bernstein, and that they pose in a classic Woodward/Bernstein newsroom shot for the hardcover edition’s back cover. The Woodward/Bernstein style of this book becomes arch at moments like this:

In dress and demeanor, the two men could not have been less alike. Matz, flamboyant and outgoing, affected the mod look — the latest double-knit suits, wide lapels and flap breast pocket. The lawyer who greeted him was pale and boyish-looking, his hair parted in the best prep-school fashion. His suit, too, was conservative — dark, double-breasted. Matz, forty-nine, was trying to look younger. Kaplan, thirty-six, was trying to look older.

This book’s principal personalities, unfortunately, can’t compare to those of All The President’s Men, and Paul Newman and Richard Dreyfus would not be starring in the movie version of A Heartbeat Away. (Richard Cohen would go on to greater fame as a Washington Post political columnist, and remains active today.) Just as Nixon’s grand disgrace eclipsed Agnew, Woodward and Bernstein would far eclipse Witcover and Cohen. The book is worth reading for the story it tells, but even with its exciting plot the legal details are often dull, and the cast of characters remains small. The Vice President, it turns out, didn’t have many men.

Was Elliot Richardson right or wrong to take the opportunity to knock the Vice President of the United States out of office on a dusty old bribery charge? History has been kind to Richardson (who also appears in Thomas Mallon’s recent novelization Watergate), and it’s hard to imagine how the United States of America would have been better off with the explosive and amateurish Spiro Agnew succeeding Richard Nixon in 1974 instead of the mild-mannered professional Gerald Ford, who at least knew that his first job was to calm everybody down. Agnew might have had the people-smarts to realize the same thing in 1974 (as White Knight shows, Agnew was people-smart), but his controversial persona would have made it impossible for him to do so.

Go Quietly … Or Else by Spiro Agnew

Spiro Agnew finally told his side of the story seven years later, in an unremarkable and disappointing book called Go Quietly … or Else. The most exciting thing about the book is the dedication to Frank Sinatra, Agnew’s good friend, who always stood by him even in the darkest moments. It’s easy to see what Sinatra and Agnew had in common: two ethnic-American city tough guys, silver-haired and masculine as hell, both misunderstood for a few minor past crimes or associations that really didn’t need to be spoken about. The dedication to Frank Sinatra is fun to look at, but Agnew’s book begins to disappoint quickly in the pages to follow.

The book is disappointing because it doesn’t even show off the positive side of Spiro Agnew as the often critical biography White Knight does. There is no sign here of the dapper, affable suburbanite, the energetic scrappy city politician, the humorous wordsmith who once held speechwriting jam sessions with William Safire. There is also no sign of the honest, optimistic son of an immigrant Greek restaurant owner who might have gotten corrupted by Baltimore politics because he was so starry-eyed with the American dream. Agnew might have written a good book if he tried to tell this story.

Instead, Spiro Agnew adopts his most strident tone in Go Quietly … or Else. The angry prose doesn’t play to Agnew’s advantage in making his case or clearing his name, because the author is unable in these pages to be fully honest about the reasons for his fall. As Agnew tells it, he was removed from office because he had too many enemies. This really isn’t true: he was removed from office because Richard Nixon had too many enemies. The warrior inside Spiro Agnew appears unwilling to accept the fact of his own historical insignificance. It’s bad enough to be booted by history for your own great offences — it’s worse to be unceremoniously dumped by history for somebody else’s.

Agnew denies taking bribes from construction and engineering firms in this book, though he does admit that he handled campaign contributions in cold hard cash from executives that his county and state did business with. Of course, anybody who studies the case against Spiro Agnew today has to wonder how hard it would have been for a Vice President to quickly squash an old bribery investigation that did not occur under the hot cloud of a major Presidential scandal. The reason many believe that Agnew was railroaded is not that they believe he was innocent of a common crime, but rather that they know a sitting Vice President would have many ways to crush an ordinary graft investigation of this middling magnitude under normal circumstances.

But Agnew doesn’t “get real” with his readers about this, and this adds to the book’s general lack of believability. We can read between the lines to see what Agnew is saying about the criminal case that destroyed him, but Agnew is unwilling to lay it out in plain terms. We don’t want to hear Agnew tell us he was innocent, because we know he wasn’t. We want to hear him tell us that he was mugged by government prosecutors, because we know he was. But that isn’t the story he wants to tell.

Agnew does rail against the common prosecutorial practice of offering plea bargains to criminals in return for evidence against higher-value targets, and scores some personal points here against his accusers Lester Matz and Jerry Woolf. Certainly it must have been uncomfortable for Spiro Agnew to find himself on the receiving end of this treatment, though Agnew’s harping against the practice (and against the accusers themselves, whom Agnew clearly has not forgiven) doesn’t land with much effect. It’s easy to imagine that Agnew would have approved of this widely-used prosecutorial approach if he were not its victim.

Agnew’s golden tongue also fails him at times in this humorless book. Earlier in his career, Agnew was caught in a widely publicized gaffe when he jokingly referred to a press corps photographer as a “fat Jap”. There is actually little evidence that Agnew ever held hateful attitudes towards any ethnic groups. As a Greek-American, he was a proud “ethnic” himself, and thus may have felt entitled to crack ethnic jokes. But he lacked the judgement to realize that the kind of racial humor that might play well in a backyard barbecue in Towson, Maryland would not play well on the national stage. In the early pages of Go Quietly he echoes his “fat Jap” gaffe with a groaning joke that has North Vietnam’s Communist leader Ho Chi Minh delivering the punchline: “Big Minh make big mistake.”

Indeed, Big Agnew make big mistake, and Go Quietly … or Else did little to improve the author’s public reputation. Spiro Agnew died in 1996, still largely a figure of disgrace, his reputation below that even of Richard Nixon’s, whose post-resignation books were also not very good.

The overall effect of Go Quietly … or Else is so depressing that it left me with no wish to read The Canfield Decision, the novel Spiro Agnew published in 1976, four years before this memoir. The novel is apparently a lightly disguised fiction about an innocent conservative honest-guy caught in bad Washington DC. This was clearly Agnew’s first attempt to process the ordeal of his brief moment as a political shooting star.

I may read The Canfield Decision someday, or I may not. I still sense that the entire United States of America has not yet fully processed the morality tale of Spiro Agnew in order to extract all of its hidden meanings. But, then, there are enough current maelstroms of corruption and whirlpools of dishonesty in Washington DC today that we may never have the chance to look backward long enough to do so.

12 Responses

  1. “This book’s cast of
    “This book’s cast of characters, unfortunately, can’t compare to that of All The President’s Men, and Paul Newman and Richard Dreyfus would not be starring in the movie version of A Heartbeat Away.”

    Neither would Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who starred in the film adaptation of All The President’s Men.

  2. Yes, that’s exactly what I
    Yes, that’s exactly what I had in mind! I bet Witcover and Cohen dreamed about it, though.

  3. Top notch reviewing, Mr. Levi
    Top notch reviewing, Mr. Levi Asher. Almost like reading Hunter S. Thompson’s political analyses, but without anyone turning into a lizard. You put the Kick in Lit.

  4. Riveting read – very
    Riveting read – very interesting perspectives on a figure I really had not given that much thought to.

  5. Bill, I guess my sense of
    Bill, I guess my sense of humor is misfiring!

    What I meant is that Witcover and Cohen’s book was trying to be like Woodward and Bernstein’s book. Woodward and Bernstein’s book was made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, so a copycat movie based on a copycat book might star Paul Newman and Richard Dreyfus (reasonable equivalents of Redford and Hoffman).

    I don’t think it would have been funny if I said that Redford/Hoffman would never play Witcover/Cohen, since obviously Redford/Hoffman had already played Woodward/Bernstein. So that would make no sense.

    But … is this mic on? Hello, hello? I guess there’s a reason I never got a job as a comedian.

  6. Levi, In the words of G.
    Levi, In the words of G. Gordon Liddy, never explain, never apologize!

  7. This is a fascinating read.
    This is a fascinating read. Do you think, then, that Agnew was more susceptible to being “starry-eyed with the American dream” and corruptible because he was the son of an immigrant?

    Many Greek Americans have entered politics:

    and I wonder how Agnew compares and contrasts with them. And, I wonder how Agnew is perceived by the Greek American community at large—particularly in relation to the current state of both Greece’s and America’s politics.

  8. Thanks, Stephanie! And
    Thanks, Stephanie! And thanks also for taking me up on the Greek heritage aspects of this (knowing your interest in this topic, I’d be disappointed if you didn’t).

    Well, I know a lot of Greek-Americans (including you) and I don’t think this ethnic background signifies anything specific at all in current times. But I do get the feeling from reading these books about Agnew’s upbringing that his Greek heritage was a big deal in his own time. He definitely played up the Greek identity — interestingly, his name was always “Ted Agnew” during his early years. It was only after he started rising in the world of politics that he became “Spiro”.

    I guess I do think that a child of a poor immigrant might be starry-eyed with the American dream. It was true of Jack Kerouac too, wasn’t it? This might have more to do with “poor” and “immigrant” than with “Greek” though.

  9. Enjoyed your article and I
    Enjoyed your article and I agree about both the Witcover books. The Canfield Decision is a very strange, terribly-written erotic political thriller where Agnew’s stand-in saves the world from an Arab-Jewish-liberal oil fixing conspiracy. Lots of Arab-bashing, anti-Semitism and poor written sex scenes. Worth reading for its utter strangeness, though Agnew’s awful prose makes it a chore.

  10. Having just read “ Bagman” by
    Having just read “ Bagman” by Rachel Maddox, I can only say the above article really tries to whitewash Spiro Agnew. He has left a lasting roadmap for all future corrupt politicians. Just go after the investigators with a vengeance, sparing no lies or conspiracy theories & confuse the public with untruthful messaging!

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