A little help from his friends Success: Despite the scandal that ousted him from public office, Agnew became prosperous as a broker of international business deals.

September 19, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

He fell even faster than he'd risen, which is saying something considering that it took Spiro T. Agnew only two years to leap from Baltimore County executive to the vice presidency of the United States.

But even after revelations of long-term corruption forced his resignation in 1973, Agnew's landing was soft, thanks to a wealthy and worldly supporting cast that began with Frank Sinatra and eventually included such unlikely benefactors as Saddam Hussein.

A life that might easily have become a public misery of disgrace and indebtedness was instead sheltered and comfortable, with Agnew rarely having to travel in circles where his tarnished reputation mattered.

It was a feat he sustained to the very end. Valued mostly for his easy charm and his wealth of worldwide contacts, Agnew succeeded for 23 years in fashioning a livelihood out of his one brush with fame, even as he continued to duck the harsher light of political infamy.

At the time of his death on Tuesday, Agnew was still working as an adviser to business executive Mark McCormack, founder and chief executive of International Management Group, whose clients have included everyone from superstar athletes to the pope.

Back in October 1973, such a life would have been hard to envision. During a 1993 interview, Ron Liebman recalled one of the awkward early moments.

Liebman was one of the three eager assistants to U.S. Attorney for Maryland George Beall who tracked down the long line of cash bribes allegedly paid to Agnew. According to the "bagmen" who delivered them, the payments followed Agnew from the county executive's office in Towson to the governor's office in Annapolis to the vice president's office in the White House.

A few days after Agnew's resignation, Liebman was dining with his wife at Sabatino's in Little Italy when in walked his adversary, the ex-vice president, with his own wife and son in tow.

"He stopped and looked at me, and I didn't know what to do," Liebman said. "I was about to say something like, 'Hello, sir,' but then he just walked on. I guess he was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him."

It was the sort of scene that might have repeated itself for years, had Agnew not been equipped to deal with drastic changes.

He was jobless, an ex-lawyer facing disbarment, and his debts included legal fees, a big mortgage and a $10,000 fine for tax evasion. Other than his family, about all he had going for him was his friendship with Sinatra and his Rolodex, stuffed with the names of people he'd met during his travels as vice president.

They turned out to be more than enough.

Sinatra started him off with a $200,000 loan. He also encouraged Agnew to write a novel, then touted the idea with publishers, helping Agnew land a $100,000 contract for "The Canfield Decision" -- a thriller about a fictional vice president.

He then found Agnew a business partner -- Frank Jameson, the husband of Eva Gabor, who hired him as an international business consultant for $100,000 a year.

Agnew also had a philosophical attitude to keep him going.

Where his former boss, President Richard M. Nixon, reacted to his own forced resignation by "brooding for the next 10 years," as one confidant of both men recalled, Agnew "decided he had to get on with his life."

Agnew held a cocktail party at his home to begin cultivating clients.

Those were the days of the oil boom in the Middle East, and Agnew's party had a decidedly Middle Eastern flavor, attended by the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan, with Indonesia and Singapore represented.

Entertainer Danny Thomas was on hand to speak to guests in Arabic, if they wished, and everyone was invited aboard Jameson's corporate jet to fly to Las Vegas two days later for Sinatra concert at Caesar's Palace.

When the Jameson arrangement fell apart, Sinatra again played matchmaker, at a party he held for Jack Benny's 80th birthday. The new partner was Walter Dilbeck, an Indiana tycoon, and in April 1974 diplomatic cables announced to U.S. embassies in the Middle East that a new businessman who just happened to be a former vice president was headed their way.

With petro-dollars in abundance, it was an era of many such journeys, as one former diplomat recalled.

"Everybody was there trying to make a buck," recalled Duane Butcher, who was then an economic officer to the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

"All the hotels were full. People were sleeping on pool tables and sometimes paying $100 to do it. I remember finding the former governor of Oklahoma in the lobby of the Embassy one day, and he was under indictment at the time."

Notoriety didn't matter, as long as you had connections, could schmooze a little, and could keep a deal a secret. Agnew met all three conditions.

"That personal touch is crucial in most anyplace, but especially in the Middle East," said Dennis Murphy, another U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia at the time.

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