Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Personal Reminiscence: An Unresolved Question; Did AIPAC Unmask Agnew?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Personal Reminiscence: An Unresolved Question; Did AIPAC Unmask Agnew?

Article excerpt

A Personal Reminiscence: An Unresolved Question; Did AIPAC Unmask Agnew?

In the corridor just outside the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington is a glistening white marble bust, a likeness of Spiro Theodore Agnew, former vice president of the United States, who died this past fall.

Elected to that office in 1972, when Richard M. Nixon won a landslide victory for a second four-year presidential term, Agnew could reasonably have expected to become president if anything should remove Nixon from office during the following four years.

Instead, by the time the tumult arising from the Watergate scandal had brought down the Nixon presidency in 1974, Agnew himself was out of office in disgrace. Investigative reporting by newspapers had brought to public attention a corrupt practice by Agnew dating back to his service as governor of Maryland. While governor he had received kickbacks from business interests that supplied goods and services to the state of Maryland. Some payoffs continued to arrive after he became vice president.

The seamy arrangement was not unusual at the time in Maryland. The 1984 edition of the National Journal's Almanac of American Politics reports, "As for corruption, two successive governors [of Maryland] -- Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel -- ended their political careers in disgrace, as have numerous county executives and some state legislators. The evidence suggests, however, that paying off local and state officials is no longer standard operating procedure in Maryland."

Sadly, secret kickbacks were accepted by some officials of both major political parties, not just in Maryland but in other parts of the nation. The limp excuse was that official salaries were meager and the kickbacks were needed for the officials to have a decent standard of living.

In fact, Agnew, an attorney, came to prominence in Maryland in 1963 when, running as a Republican, he was elected executive of Baltimore County, succeeding a scandal-ridden Democrat.

At the Republican presidential nominating convention in Florida in 1968, Nixon astounded delegates by picking Agnew as his running mate. A delegate myself, I recall sitting with a group of journalists when Nixon's selection was announced over the hotel's loudspeaker system. The general response was, "Spiro who?" Although little known, Agnew was a talented public speaker, descendant of Greek immigrants, and Republican leader of a normally Democratic state. He likely appealed to Nixon as politically safe. Nixon passed over all of the prominent, nationally known Republicans, like Nelson Rockefeller of New York, who had vigorously competed for the presidential nomination.

"I did not visit Israel, and they have never forgiven me."

The kickback checks were Agnew's undoing. When, in early 1973, the kickbacks first hit the headlines, Nixon stood back from the scandal and let his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, work out a deal under which Agnew agreed to resign the vice presidency in exchange for the reduction of charges to a minor offense and no prison term.

Agnew's misdeeds had nothing to do with the Nixon campaign burglary of Democratic Party campaign offices in the Watergate complex in Washington, a break-in that had occurred a year before the vice president resigned.

But with Agnew gone in disgrace, a troubled Nixon, striving to protect his own administration from the growing stain of the Watergate scandal, appointed Gerald R. Ford, leader of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, as vice president.

Immensely popular and respected for his integrity, Ford won quick congressional approval. The approval process involved me in an unusual way, a bit of historical trivia. Before the House vote was taken, I found that I had become an innocent impediment in Ford's quest for congressional approval.

In my zeal over NATO affairs, I had long participated in the activities of a group called the North Atlantic Assembly, an annual meeting of legislators from the 16 member states of NATO. …

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