The least convincing speech Spiro T. Agnew ever made was his televised “farewell” address. Taking a charitable view, it can be dismissed as dishonest, non-responsive, self-serving, rambling and churlish. Agnew was at some pains to downgrade the media and government officials as villains, perhaps because the two networks had given him prime time to deliver his apologia while government spokesmen maintained a discreet silence. He is, he tells us, really the victim of “bribe-brokers, extortionists and conspirators,” i.e., his intimate political associates of many years in Maryland politics who were encouraged to reduce their possible punishment by accusing him. That hardly disposes of theft charges. Yet with the exception of that one unfortunate $29,500 gratuity of 1967, he insists he is innocent of any wrongdoing despite massive detailed documentation in the government’s report that he accepted at least $100,000 in bribes and perhaps more.
True, the report does not constitute proof of guilt, but by copping a plea on the one charge, Agnew made it impossible for the government to prove his guilt on the others. With this assurance he can afford to be bold and emphatic in his denials. If innocent of these other charges, he should have resigned and contested them in the courts. Granted that Maryland politics has a stench all its own, still Agnew did not take money to pay campaign expenses, but for his personal use. All he did, by his account, was to permit his “fund-raising activities” and “contract-dispensing activities” to overlap. But even candidates “who do not possess large personal fortunes” are not entitled to enhance their net worth by accepting cash and not reporting it in their income tax returns. Coming in the wake of a story in the Nashville Banner in which Agnew appeared to be convinced that Nixon had forced him out of office, his fulsome praise of the President was hypocritical and a cowardly bid for continued protection.
James Thompson, the U.S. Attorney in Cook County, summed up the government’s case against Agnew as “the strongest case of bribery and extortion I have ever seen.” Labeling Agnew “a crook,” he added: “the country is well rid of him.” And so it is, but it got rid of him by dubious means. The President initiated the plea-bargaining sessions. The President’s counsel met with Agnew’s lawyers in a Miami hotel room to work out the final details. These arrangements were then confirmed in a secret meeting in a motel and with Judge Walter E. Hoffman present. (Whatever happened to the notion that judges were supposed to listen to counsel in open court or, on some matters, in chambers?) Of course, the removal of Agnew was essentially a political task and the judicial process had to be tactfully adjusted to carry it out as quickly and quietly as possible. But this consideration should blind no one to the fact that seldom has a crook been treated with such deference. The fact that he occupied the office of Vice President does not justify the special treatment he received. If only to keep the rest of us taxpayers honest, he should have been handcuffed and carted off to serve, say, a day in jail.
In a perceptive comment in Newsweek, Stewart Alsop foresaw that, once Agnew had copped his plea, there would be “much buttery rhetoric applied to his crookery.” Early in his career, Westbrook Pegler applied the term “bleeding hearts” to misguided liberals and others who opposed child labor, capital punishment, colonial wars, flogging, child abuse and mandatory life sentences for pickpockets. Since “bleeding hearts” can be applied only to liberals, another term, say, “bleeding ulcers,” must be used to describe those who bemoan Agnew’s downfall. The President calls for compassion. Editorial writers tell us that it is “tragic” that Agnew should leave office under a cloud and facing “a financial crisis.” (Should we perhaps chip in to buy him an annuity, since he will not be receiving a pension?) Senator Goldwater is outraged at the way Agnew was treated; in Sacramento, Governor Reagan is “shocked, saddened..” Roy M. Cohn cannot understand how a man “who made courage a household word” could act in such a craven manner. The chairman and vice chairman of the Conservative Party in New York are all shook up. To the first of these, Agnew “went out with dignity”; to the second “the whole damn thing is tragic.” Tragic it might have been if Agnew had taken a leaf from the Greeks and acted like a tragic hero. But it is difficult to cast a plea-copper as a tragic hero. It would be easier to feel compassion for him if, in his farewell, he had said that he was guilty as charged and then expressed regret for what he had done. He might at least have offered his apologies to those loyal Republican ladies in Los Angeles to whom he had offered his “tormented verbal assertion” of total innocence. But he seems to be quite free of remorse. Instead of candor, there was evasiveness; in place of regrets, there, was self-pity and even an attempt at self-glorification.
Mr. Thompson is right: the country is well rid of Spiro Agnew. About the kindest thing “bleeding hearts” can say of him is that he was not involved in Watergate and leaves office less responsible for the depressing atmosphere that prevails in Washington than the man who tapped him for the Vice Presidency, used him when needed, and then eased him out.