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What you won't find in the Agnew papers


WHEN the State of Maryland finally decided to unload the Public Papers of Spiro T. Agnew, the two-volume set that was sent to his mailing address in Crofton was returned to the state archives stamped "Addressee Unknown."

Now, after a paper chase of nearly 20 years, the University of Maryland's book marms have exhumed Agnew, his 12 years of public-service-for-private-gain edited into 56 cartons of flatulence.

Suddenly, on the 20th anniversary of his fall from grace, a restoration comedy is occurring, and Agnew's everywhere: He'll soon be a marble bust in the Capitol rotunda; his moldy bigotry occupies 78 linear feet of shelf space in UM's McKeldin Library; there are 172 leftover copies of the Public Papers in the State Archives; and his Dorian Gray portrait is still banished to a basement storeroom in the State House.

In the interregnum, Agnew's been busy sunning in Rancho Mirage and Ocean City when he's not tarting himself to manic dictators around the world.

Looking through the reverse end of the telescope, it almost seems Agnew was trying to break into jail. With a liberal record and the temptation of newly found sources of money, Agnew had difficulty deciding whether he wanted to be Mahatma Gandhi or Jesse James. He soon made his choice. Nothing has changed very much since.

Somewhere in somebody's attic is a Bruegel-like 1960s class portrait of Agnew and his best buddies from the good old days in Baltimore County, their beer steins hoisted in a salute of camaraderie. This was before the journey began from PTA president to vice president of the United States.

What Agnew's public papers won't say is that high crimes and misdemeanors broke up that old gang of his. As in most cases pTC where survival instincts assert a stronger tug than loyalty or friendship, most of those in the old crowd no longer speak to each other or to Agnew. Many of them saved their own skins by copping pleas and pointing the finger of guilt directly at Agnew.

When Agnew turned Third-World broker for a military uniform manufacturer, the Jewish community was outraged, viewing his

dealings with Arab nations as an outright act of antisemitism. Agnew wrote to Gov. Marvin Mandel, his successor, asking Maryland's first Jewish governor to issue a public statement defending him against the charges.

The letter had an ironic smack. Agnew had been aware of, and in fact had assisted, the Republican Justice Department's efforts to build a case against Mandel during the 1970 election. There'll probably be no mention of that in Agnew's UM archives.

Late-blooming books are usually efforts at political taxidermy. The Public Papers of Spiro T. Agnew is freeze-dried history. Published with state funds in 1975, the cases of books were shuttled from state warehouse to state warehouse while awaiting a decision to either go public or forget they ever existed.

But in 1978, the Maryland Board of Public Works, screwing up its courage, decided to release the impounded volumes, and they were placed in the custody of the State Archives. At the time, 1,500 sets were distributed to schools around the state and to others -- including Agnew -- on the archives mailing list.

Public papers are exactly that: reliquaries for speeches, news conference transcripts and some revisionist history to create a hospitable backdrop for their princelings.

So it is with the Agnew files, but some things are missing. For example, within hours of his having received the vice presidential nomination in Miami in 1968, Agnew's press office in Annapolis was instructed to remove all telltale news conference transcripts so that what he said as governor couldn't be used against him as a vice presidential candidate.

Included in the batch was the speech that April in which Agnew berated black leaders as "cowards" in the aftershock of the Baltimore riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was that hard-line, finger-wagging speech, more than any special gift or credential, that called Agnew to the attention of Richard M. Nixon. But the folks back home knew better. Nixon and Agnew lost Maryland to Hubert H. Humphrey.

There are books -- "White Knight," by Jules Witcover, the story of Agnew and how suburban politics went big time, and "A Heartbeat Away," by Richard Cohen and Jules Witcover, that document Agnew's negotiated decline and fall. Even Agnew wrote a book in his own defense, arguing that his friends deserted him and lied to save their own scalps. Nothing comes between good friends like money.

But the most important book ever written about Agnew was the diary documenting in exquisite detail the kickback scheme that eventually was Agnew's undoing. The diarist was Jerome Wolff, lawyer, engineer and Agnew confidant from the State House to the White House, one of the architects of the scheme.

Wolff was Agnew's state roads commissioner, and I.H. "Bud" Hammerman and J. Walter Jones were his bagmen. Wolff awarded the contracts, Agnew approved them, Jones and Hammerman collected the kickbacks at the recommended rate of five percent of the contract from architects, engineers and contractors. According to Wolff's diaries, the bagmen received 25 percent of the boodle, Wolff's cut was 25 percent, and 50 percent went into the very deep pockets of Spiro T. Agnew. The scheme had begun as a small-change operation when Agnew was executive of Baltimore County. It escalated when he became governor and became very big business when he was installed as vice president. Wolff's diary won't make it to the Agnew archives.

As governor, Agnew allowed his name to appear on the letterhead as a director of a bank in Baltimore County that his friend Jones had chartered. He invested with a group of wealthy friends in a condominium development in St. Croix. He endorsed the establishment of a Governor's Club by his wealthy friends, who contributed $1,000 each year to support Agnew's new and expensive habits. And he had a lawyer's inability to distinguish between illegal and immoral. To Agnew, legal meant not getting caught.

But Agnew finally did get grabbed with his fingers in the tambourine. On the evening of Aug. 6, 1973, he called Mandel in Annapolis to say that he was under investigation by his very own federal government and would hold a news conference the next day to declare his innocence.

Two short months later, on Oct. 11, Agnew, in a plea-bargain appearance that was as orchestrated as a Mozart concerto, stood in the dock in federal court in Baltimore and resigned the vice presidency on minor charges of income tax evasion.

Of course, none of this is in the Agnew archives.

Frank A. DeFilippo, former press secretary to Governor Mandel, writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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