Agnew's deeper disgrace

September 22, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE EVENING of his humiliation, having pleaded no contest to tax evasion charges, having caved in to the government's case declaring thousands of dollars routinely extorted in little white envelopes, having watched his moment in American history crash into a brick wall, Spiro T. Agnew gathered his whole family about him and went to dinner at Sabatino's in Little Italy.

"Hey, governor," shouted an old acquaintance, a veteran East Baltimore bookmaker who, coincidentally, had simultaneously faced gambling charges in a federal courtroom just a few doors from Agnew's earlier that same afternoon, "I see they got you today. What the hell, they got me, too, don't worry about it."

Thus does history shrug its shoulders; what's done is done, and you move on and hope people have short memories. Agnew smiled wanly, and then he and his family went to a secluded room for dinner, where the hours passed and the conversation felt tortured and not a soul mentioned a syllable about the events of the day.

In the federal courthouse, U.S. Attorney George Beall, the man who led the Agnew prosecution, heaved a sigh, went home to bed, and commenced what he remembered later as weeks of lying awake for hours, punctuated by fitful, nightmarish sleep from which he would awaken in a sweat, full of fears and anxieties finally catching up with him.

Who can imagine the nightmares of Spiro Agnew over the last quarter-century? All those hopes, all that community pride, all those people who believed in him, and he'd let them down. He knew it, but didn't talk about it. He seemed to vanish overnight, thin lips tightly shut. The country was gearing up for Watergate, dividing everyone's attention and making Agnew's crimes look piddly. Who cared about payoffs from contractors in Baltimore when here was the scowling Nixon, trying to sneak his secrets past Justice while she had her blindfold on.

You'd hear about Agnew once in a while. He was buddying up to Frank Sinatra. There were deals with Arab businessmen. Here and there, somebody would spot Agnew on the beach at Ocean City. By now, Gerald Ford had become the president Agnew might have been. How did he feel about that? "I grit my teeth," Agnew told Baltimore friends. Then he would go away again.

Until his death Tuesday evening, at 77, on his last trip back to Ocean City, he could be a tough man to read. For all his early public posturing, for all his dramatic pronouncements, you thought you'd understood him, but then you didn't.

He became governor because voters invented a man who wasn't really there. George P. Mahoney had run against him, declaring, "Your home is your castle. Protect it." Everybody knew what it meant. It was a call to choose up sides by race.

Through that long campaign summer, you waited for Agnew to repudiate such language. He never did exactly, but he danced around the subject delicately enough that it looked like gentlemanly discretion, a desire not to participate in such unseemliness. You could fill in the silence with anything you wanted. Next to Mahoney, he looked like a statesman.

But the image went away pretty quickly. When the riots of 1968 struck Baltimore, Agnew gathered black political and community leaders in a room and furiously berated them. He felt personally betrayed. They shouldn't have let this thing happen, he told them. As if they had control of the streets. As if they might have calmed generations of pent-up rage that spilled out of the shooting of Martin Luther King. As if their grief wasn't profound enough with King's death.

But the moment made Agnew. My kind of tough guy, Richard Nixon said. Agnew became Nixon's Nixon, the attacker who freed Nixon to look dignified as he quietly picked apart the Constitution.

That's the great irony now: We remember Agnew mostly for taking money under the table the same way it had been taken by generations of politicians around here, and not for the thing that wounded the whole country. He and Nixon willfully divided us, coarsened the national debate, Nixon issuing the orders and Agnew mouthing the words, putting a chill into dissent, going after college kids, after war protesters, Nixon abusing the various police powers, and who cared if a few civil liberties were stolen?

It took awhile to learn the Agnew lesson. When Gerald Ford picked his running mate three years after Agnew's disappearance, it was Bob Dole. The thinking was: Agnew had stupidly broken the law, but he'd been pretty effective and pretty popular. Let Dole do for Ford what Agnew had done for Nixon.

It backfired. Dole, glowering, shooting from the lip ("Democrat wars") made people cringe. He might have cost Ford the election against Jimmy Carter. Now it's a new, softer, more grandfatherly Dole. Even the Agnew toughness went out of vogue.

On the night of his humiliation, Agnew and the East Baltimore bookmaker shook hands in Little Italy. The two men had been friendly for years, and now the contrast would be lost on no one: The one man, pursued by police for the crime of taking amiable sports bets; the other, seemingly the straightest of men, caught with his hands under the table, pursued for the rest of his life only by history.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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