How close did we come to an Agnew presidency?

November 22, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The latest disclosure in the Richard Nixon tapes -- that he talked of resigning as president more than a year before he actually stepped down in August 1974 -- is a confirmation, more than 20 years after the fact, of the wisdom of Attorney General Elliot Richardson in getting Vice President Spiro Agnew out of the line of presidential succession.

It was Richardson who led the Justice Department strategy, in a plea-bargain deal accepted by Agnew in November of 1973, to have him surrender the vice presidency in exchange for his freedom.

Kickbacks from contractors

At the time, Agnew was facing near-certain impeachment or criminal conviction on charges that he accepted payoffs from Maryland contractors as Baltimore County executive and as vice president.

Had Nixon gone ahead with his own resignation in May of 1973, which he considered in a telephone conversation with his chief ++ of staff, Alexander Haig, Agnew under the Constitution would have become president at precisely the time the Justice Department's investigation against him was coming to a head.

The charges against Agnew were not filed until the summer of 1973, and were not made public until then.

But they were known inside the administration at the time of Nixon's musing to Haig on May 25, with the pressure building on the president himself in the Watergate scandal. ''Wouldn't it be better for the country,'' Nixon wondered, ''to just check out?''

While it is not clear that Nixon knew of Agnew's dilemma at the time, he did tell Haig, according to the latest tapes made public, that Agnew was ''just panting to get at'' the Oval Office. And, as Agnew later demonstrated when the White House and Richardson first put pressure on him to resign the vice presidency, he was determined to hold onto the office that would have delivered the presidency to him, had Nixon acted on his early thoughts of resignation.

By that time, Agnew had had considerable experience as a vice-presidential survivor. In 1971 and 1972, he withstood talk by Nixon, as indicated in the later White House diaries of Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, of getting Agnew to resign before completing a first term. Nixon, the Haldeman diaries reported, wanted then to name his favorite, former Texas Gov. John B. Connally, to replace Agnew.

Mr. Justice Agnew?

Nixon also, according to the Haldeman diaries, considered at one point offering Agnew a seat on the Supreme Court to get him to step aside.

By then, Agnew's early popularity within the Nixon administration for his polarizing speeches on American society, culture and the news media had begun to wear thin. His pleas for a policy role were repeatedly rebuffed or ignored by Nixon, who also came to believe, along with his chief political advisers, that Agnew had become a political detriment.

Agnew finally yielded in November of 1973, pleading nolo contendere to income-tax evasion and receiving a suspended sentence and a modest fine in return for his resignation and removal from the line of presidential succession.

But had Nixon abruptly resigned six months earlier, there would have been no way to bar Agnew from the Oval Office.

What might have happened to the Justice Department investigation of Agnew once that happened can only be imagined. Considering Agnew's fight to retain the vice presidency until jail time was staring him squarely in the face, as president he might have dug his heels in and even beaten the rap if his prosecutors decided pressing the charges against him would create a constitutional crisis.

Richardson was roundly criticized in some quarters when the plea bargain was struck for letting Agnew walk. But the arrangement did clear the line of succession, enabling Nixon to choose Gerald R. Ford as vice president.

It put him, rather than Agnew, a heartbeat away from the presidency as Watergate inexorably closed in on Nixon.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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