Nixon had long association with Md.

April 23, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

In the early 1970s, federal prosecutors in Baltimore trained their sights on Gov. Marvin Mandel, only to discover that they had to shift the cross-hairs from Annapolis to Washington for the man Richard M. Nixon had rescued from what history may well judge as well-deserved obscurity.

The new target was Mr. Mandel's predecessor, Spiro T. Agnew. He had been Baltimore county executive and governor. By then he was the vice president. He stands as the most enduring example of Mr. Nixon's involvement with the state of Maryland, an association that stretches back nearly half a century to a small farm north of Baltimore.

On Aug. 8, 1968, Mr. Nixon, the freshly minted Republican candidate for president, tapped Mr. Agnew, less than two years into his term as the state's chief executive, to be his running mate at the GOP's national convention in Miami Beach, Fla.

The selection was best described by Mr. Agnew himself as "a bolt out of the blue," one that triggered cries of "Who's he?"

During the 1968 race, Mr. Agnew played the same role for Mr. Nixon that Mr. Nixon had filled for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, that of the few-holds-barred partisan, the lightning rod that let the candidate at the top of the ticket campaign as a statesman.

Mr. Agnew, a border state governor, also became a key figure in Mr. Nixon's so-called "Southern strategy," his effort to woo voters in the South, for the most part solidly Democratic since Reconstruction.

Mr. Nixon saw Mr. Agnew as a political moderate, one who might appeal to Democrats, though he had moved to the right since defeating Democrat George P. Mahoney in 1966, winning the support of liberals and others uncomfortable with Mr. Mahoney's racially tinged "Your home is your castle" campaign.

Four years later, Mr. Agnew -- increasingly conservative and combative -- was again unleashed against the Democrats by Mr. Nixon.

With Mr. Agnew beside him, Mr. Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968 and trounced George S. McGovern in 1972, the GOP jubilation of election night 1972 drowning out the distant rumblings of Watergate, still two years away from achieving critical mass.

On that long ago night, however, even the most finely tuned ears were deaf to another sound with historic implications -- the sound of adding machines as federal investigators went through the tax records of Maryland engineering and architectural consultants who did business with the state.

A year later, the adding machines fell silent and the lawyers took over. Led by U.S. Attorney George Beall, the son of a former Republican senator and the brother of a sitting one, the prosecutors paid a call on Mr. Agnew.

On Oct. 10, 1973, Mr. Agnew introduced a stunned nation to a new phrase, one that remained in vogue for a few months: "Nolo contendere," Latin for no contest. His plea to a tax evasion charge.

In return for that plea and for Mr. Agnew relinquishing the second-highest office in the land, Mr. Beall agreed not to bring felony charges against him. But prosecutors did release a 40-page statement of evidence which portrayed Mr. Agnew as a bribe-taker of Olympian proportions. Mr. Agnew denied the allegations.

The state, thanks to Mr. Nixon's surprise choice five years earlier, was disgraced. Governor Mandel took a back seat to no one in his outrage. Maryland, he said, had become "a postmark for corruption," although he had his own ticket stamped not long after, a conviction later overturned.

Mr. Nixon was on hand in happier times for Maryland. On April 15, 1954, he threw out the first pitch at Memorial Stadium, the day on which Baltimore ended 52 years in the minors as the Orioles bested the Chicago White Sox.

Mr. Nixon, as a California congressman, made a sojourn into Maryland in 1948 as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee that burnished his growing reputation as a fierce anti-Communist and moved him onto the national political stage.

The trip was to the Carroll County farm of ex-Time magazine editor and one-time Soviet espionage agent Whittaker Chambers. From a hollowed-out pumpkin in a small garden, Mr. Chambers produced for Mr. Nixon and other HUAC investigators three small aluminum canisters containing five strips of 35mm film.

The film came to be known as the "Pumpkin Papers," used by Mr. Chambers to support his charge that Alger Hiss, a prominent Baltimorean and respected State Department official, was a Communist agent.

As a result, Mr. Hiss was convicted in 1950 of lying about being a secret Communist spy during his days in the Roosevelt administration. He went to jail for nearly four years, always denying his guilt. His conviction fed the climate of fear and suspicion that characterized those early days of the Cold War.

Mr. Nixon, for his part, flourished politically in the aftermath of the "Pumpkin Papers" episode, so much so that in 1952 he was tapped by Mr. Eisenhower to be his running mate.

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