Middleman Agnew does it his way AGNEW: After the Fall

March 07, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIF. — A chronology of events accompanying an article in Sunday's Sun incorrectly stated that former Vice President Spiro Agnew pleaded guilty on Oct. 10, 1973, to one count of federal income tax evasion. It should have stated that his plea was no contest.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- In hindsight, the deal seemworthy of the scoundrel's hall of fame, so rich in infamy was its cast of characters. But at the time it must have seemed like business as usual for Spiro T. Agnew, international middleman and ex-vice president.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The year was 1984, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was shopping for new uniforms for his floundering army, which was bloodying its old ones by the thousands in its war with Iran. Mr. Hussein got all he needed for $181 million, although not before former President Richard M. Nixon and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu helped smooth the way.

But the man who set the deal in motion was Mr. Agnew, the former vice president, the former governor of Maryland, the former Baltimore County executive -- the guy who in six dizzying years in the 1960s vaulted from the Loch Raven Kiwanis to the threshold of the White House.

If Mr. Agnew still talked to reporters, he might say that once again the world made him look bad by changing the rules. Mr. Hussein and Mr. Ceausescu were just plain old dictators then, not international pariahs. There was a switch in attitude just like the revisionism of 1973, he'd argue, when his past role in Maryland's cash-and-carry politics was unearthed, and he resigned the vice presidency.

But Mr. Agnew doesn't talk to reporters anymore. At age 74 he still travels the globe, arranging business deals as opportunities arise. But more often in these winter months he is here with his wife, Judy, in Rancho Mirage, taking it slow, a Maryland suburbanite reborn in the 70-degree sun of the Southern California desert.

A recent afternoon found him in a pose of leisure, stepping off a golf cart at his garage door, deeply tanned and still remarkably trim in a white sport shirt and blue golf slacks, his silver hair gleaming. He had just sunk the final putt of the day on the 18th green, which, conveniently, is right behind his condominium.

Tennis courts are across the street. The country club is just around the corner. And everywhere there are palms, orange trees, flowers, manicured lawns and golf carts with Rolls Royce fronts, purring along neat pathways. All is enclosed by walls and security gates, with snow-capped Mount San Jacinto rising in the distance. There is nary a cloud or weed or ne'er-do-well in sight.

Mr. Agnew blends into this setting as just another quiet neighbor paying club dues and condo fees, a nice old man who'd rather talk about grandchildren and golf than the past. The same is true when he is living at his summer home, an 11th-floor condominium at Ocean City.

And that is the way he likes it.

Because even as his old boss, Mr. Nixon, has crept back into the public arena as an elder sage of foreign policy, Mr. Agnew has spent the past two decades diligently pursuing obscurity. When asked a few weeks ago for an interview, he politely demurred. "I haven't given an interview in 19 years," he said, "and I don't see any reason to start now."

Yet, as the Iraq transaction and other business deals illustrate, Mr. Agnew's yearning for anonymity hasn't kept him from building wealth on the basis of his one fling with fame. He continues to trade on vice-presidential contacts, and that makes for some notable alliances.

Besides Mr. Hussein and Mr. Ceausescu, people associated with him since he left office include members of an Argentine junta who led a bloody campaign of repression, singer and longtime friend Frank Sinatra, a Swiss entrepreneur with roles in government scandals on two continents, and a man said to be the world's most powerful figure in professional sports.

The price of such company is that Mr. Agnew's doings have occasionally spilled into the public record, and the result has been a slow, tiny leak of information from his carefully built bubble of privacy.

By gathering such information from court files and other documents, and by interviewing more than 60 friends and associates, it is possible to steal a look into Mr. Agnew's life after politics. In doing so, one also discovers fresh insights on his whirlwind in public life, when three twists of political fortune almost turned a middling lawyer into the 38th president of the United States.

The thunderbolt strikes

It has been a long, strange, uniquely American journey for Spiro T. Agnew. As Mr. Sinatra might put it, Mr. Agnew has done it his way.

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