What you won't find in the Agnew papers

Frank A. DeFilippo

March 18, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

WHEN the State of Maryland finally decided to unload the Public Papers of Spiro T. Agnew, the two-volume set that was sent to his mailing address in Crofton was returned to the state archives stamped "Addressee Unknown."

Now, after a paper chase of nearly 20 years, the University of Maryland's book marms have exhumed Agnew, his 12 years of public-service-for-private-gain edited into 56 cartons of flatulence.

Suddenly, on the 20th anniversary of his fall from grace, a restoration comedy is occurring, and Agnew's everywhere: He'll soon be a marble bust in the Capitol rotunda; his moldy bigotry occupies 78 linear feet of shelf space in UM's McKeldin Library; there are 172 leftover copies of the Public Papers in the State Archives; and his Dorian Gray portrait is still banished to a basement storeroom in the State House.

In the interregnum, Agnew's been busy sunning in Rancho Mirage and Ocean City when he's not tarting himself to manic dictators around the world.

Looking through the reverse end of the telescope, it almost seems Agnew was trying to break into jail. With a liberal record and the temptation of newly found sources of money, Agnew had difficulty deciding whether he wanted to be Mahatma Gandhi or Jesse James. He soon made his choice. Nothing has changed very much since.

Somewhere in somebody's attic is a Bruegel-like 1960s class portrait of Agnew and his best buddies from the good old days in Baltimore County, their beer steins hoisted in a salute of camaraderie. This was before the journey began from PTA president to vice president of the United States.

What Agnew's public papers won't say is that high crimes and misdemeanors broke up that old gang of his. As in most cases pTC where survival instincts assert a stronger tug than loyalty or friendship, most of those in the old crowd no longer speak to each other or to Agnew. Many of them saved their own skins by copping pleas and pointing the finger of guilt directly at Agnew.

When Agnew turned Third-World broker for a military uniform manufacturer, the Jewish community was outraged, viewing his

dealings with Arab nations as an outright act of antisemitism. Agnew wrote to Gov. Marvin Mandel, his successor, asking Maryland's first Jewish governor to issue a public statement defending him against the charges.

The letter had an ironic smack. Agnew had been aware of, and in fact had assisted, the Republican Justice Department's efforts to build a case against Mandel during the 1970 election. There'll probably be no mention of that in Agnew's UM archives.

Late-blooming books are usually efforts at political taxidermy. The Public Papers of Spiro T. Agnew is freeze-dried history. Published with state funds in 1975, the cases of books were shuttled from state warehouse to state warehouse while awaiting a decision to either go public or forget they ever existed.

But in 1978, the Maryland Board of Public Works, screwing up its courage, decided to release the impounded volumes, and they were placed in the custody of the State Archives. At the time, 1,500 sets were distributed to schools around the state and to others -- including Agnew -- on the archives mailing list.

Public papers are exactly that: reliquaries for speeches, news conference transcripts and some revisionist history to create a hospitable backdrop for their princelings.

So it is with the Agnew files, but some things are missing. For example, within hours of his having received the vice presidential nomination in Miami in 1968, Agnew's press office in Annapolis was instructed to remove all telltale news conference transcripts so that what he said as governor couldn't be used against him as a vice presidential candidate.

Included in the batch was the speech that April in which Agnew berated black leaders as "cowards" in the aftershock of the Baltimore riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was that hard-line, finger-wagging speech, more than any special gift or credential, that called Agnew to the attention of Richard M. Nixon. But the folks back home knew better. Nixon and Agnew lost Maryland to Hubert H. Humphrey.

There are books -- "White Knight," by Jules Witcover, the story of Agnew and how suburban politics went big time, and "A Heartbeat Away," by Richard Cohen and Jules Witcover, that document Agnew's negotiated decline and fall. Even Agnew wrote a book in his own defense, arguing that his friends deserted him and lied to save their own scalps. Nothing comes between good friends like money.

But the most important book ever written about Agnew was the diary documenting in exquisite detail the kickback scheme that eventually was Agnew's undoing. The diarist was Jerome Wolff, lawyer, engineer and Agnew confidant from the State House to the White House, one of the architects of the scheme.

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