He fell even faster than he'd risen, which is saying something considering that it took Spiro T. Agnew only two years to leap from Baltimore County executive to the vice presidency of the United States.
But even after revelations of long-term corruption forced his resignation in 1973, Agnew's landing was soft, thanks to a wealthy and worldly supporting cast that began with Frank Sinatra and eventually included such unlikely benefactors as Saddam Hussein.
A life that might easily have become a public misery of disgrace and indebtedness was instead sheltered and comfortable, with Agnew rarely having to travel in circles where his tarnished reputation mattered.
It was a feat he sustained to the very end. Valued mostly for his easy charm and his wealth of worldwide contacts, Agnew succeeded for 23 years in fashioning a livelihood out of his one brush with fame, even as he continued to duck the harsher light of political infamy.
At the time of his death on Tuesday, Agnew was still working as an adviser to business executive Mark McCormack, founder and chief executive of International Management Group, whose clients have included everyone from superstar athletes to the pope.
Back in October 1973, such a life would have been hard to envision. During a 1993 interview, Ron Liebman recalled one of the awkward early moments.
Liebman was one of the three eager assistants to U.S. Attorney for Maryland George Beall who tracked down the long line of cash bribes allegedly paid to Agnew. According to the "bagmen" who delivered them, the payments followed Agnew from the county executive's office in Towson to the governor's office in Annapolis to the vice president's office in the White House.
A few days after Agnew's resignation, Liebman was dining with his wife at Sabatino's in Little Italy when in walked his adversary, the ex-vice president, with his own wife and son in tow.
"He stopped and looked at me, and I didn't know what to do," Liebman said. "I was about to say something like, 'Hello, sir,' but then he just walked on. I guess he was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him."
It was the sort of scene that might have repeated itself for years, had Agnew not been equipped to deal with drastic changes.
He was jobless, an ex-lawyer facing disbarment, and his debts included legal fees, a big mortgage and a $10,000 fine for tax evasion. Other than his family, about all he had going for him was his friendship with Sinatra and his Rolodex, stuffed with the names of people he'd met during his travels as vice president.
They turned out to be more than enough.
Sinatra started him off with a $200,000 loan. He also encouraged Agnew to write a novel, then touted the idea with publishers, helping Agnew land a $100,000 contract for "The Canfield Decision" -- a thriller about a fictional vice president.
He then found Agnew a business partner -- Frank Jameson, the husband of Eva Gabor, who hired him as an international business consultant for $100,000 a year.
Agnew also had a philosophical attitude to keep him going.
Where his former boss, President Richard M. Nixon, reacted to his own forced resignation by "brooding for the next 10 years," as one confidant of both men recalled, Agnew "decided he had to get on with his life."
Agnew held a cocktail party at his home to begin cultivating clients.
Those were the days of the oil boom in the Middle East, and Agnew's party had a decidedly Middle Eastern flavor, attended by the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan, with Indonesia and Singapore represented.
Entertainer Danny Thomas was on hand to speak to guests in Arabic, if they wished, and everyone was invited aboard Jameson's corporate jet to fly to Las Vegas two days later for Sinatra concert at Caesar's Palace.
When the Jameson arrangement fell apart, Sinatra again played matchmaker, at a party he held for Jack Benny's 80th birthday. The new partner was Walter Dilbeck, an Indiana tycoon, and in April 1974 diplomatic cables announced to U.S. embassies in the Middle East that a new businessman who just happened to be a former vice president was headed their way.
With petro-dollars in abundance, it was an era of many such journeys, as one former diplomat recalled.
"Everybody was there trying to make a buck," recalled Duane Butcher, who was then an economic officer to the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia.
"All the hotels were full. People were sleeping on pool tables and sometimes paying $100 to do it. I remember finding the former governor of Oklahoma in the lobby of the Embassy one day, and he was under indictment at the time."
Notoriety didn't matter, as long as you had connections, could schmooze a little, and could keep a deal a secret. Agnew met all three conditions.
"That personal touch is crucial in most anyplace, but especially in the Middle East," said Dennis Murphy, another U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia at the time.
"The people there never did really figure out what he [Agnew] had done wrong. They were even sort of scratching their heads over Watergate."
As Agnew extended his business dealings into South America and the Far East during the following years, this aspect of his work made his frequent travels all the more appealing to a man who still avoided publicity at home.
"In many parts of the world, what is supposed to have happened in Maryland would have been greeted with a big yawn," McCormack, Agnew's latest business associate, said yesterday.
"The office [of the vice president] that he held meant far more to people in most other parts of the world than any problems he'd had before he took office. He was treated with huge respect.
"He enjoyed that, as anybody would, and I think he treated these people as he treated me, fairly and squarely."
His partnership with Dilbeck was short-lived. Dilbeck liked to blab, boasting of his deals in the works and of his famous partner. Their clients ran for cover, and so did Agnew. The partnership broke up in an exchange of angry letters released to the press.
Then a benefactor from Agnew's earlier life stepped to the fore. That would be J. Walter Jones, who had met Agnew in the mid-1950s at a meeting of the Loch Raven Kiwanis.
From then on their relationship was built upon mutual favors and mutual trust. Agnew, while on the Baltimore County zoning board, cast the tie-breaking vote in 1959 to let Jones rezone a $12,500 piece of property that eventually became a $3 million parcel.
Jones offered organizational and fund-raising help for Agnew's campaigns and a position on the board of his bank. Agnew put the county's funds in Jones' bank. And so on until 1975, when Jones moved into the breach left by Dilbeck.
By the end of the next year, their efforts had landed three construction contracts in Saudi Arabia and Iran for a Jones company, with Agnew making an $80,000 commission on one.
The more doors Agnew opened for would-be deal-makers, the more that seemed to open for him, and in 1985 he earned one of his biggest commissions, for his role in an unusual chain of contacts that now seems bizarre in light of the ensuing 11 years of history.
Agnew's client was a manufacturer of military uniforms, Pan-East Inc., owned then by a Lebanese businessman, Ahmed Habbous, who now lives in Libya.
He wanted to sell uniforms to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose army was using up its own supply at an alarming rate in its war with Iran. But the best way to bring the cost down would be to manufacture the uniforms someplace where labor was cheap, such as Romania.
Agnew wrote a former Nixon defense aide, Jack Brennan, who also had become an international middleman for businesses. Brennan wrote to Nixon, the ex-president, who then wrote Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, the despised dictator who was eventually executed by his own people, an event broadcast live on national television.
The deal went through for $181 million. Agnew walked off with a commission of $797,000.
There were setbacks as well.
Agnew filed suit in federal court in 1976 to collect a $2 million commission from a Pennsylvania defense contractor. The firm had sold a communications system to the ruling military junta in Argentina after an Agnew visit on the company's behalf. The documents emerging in the lawsuit proved to be an embarrassment.
In a letter to the ruling junta, Agnew wrote, "One can only hope that the misguided critics in the western liberal establishments will take a more objective view and ease these unjustified attacks on your country."
Several members of the junta were later convicted for human rights violations associated with torture and mass murder.
In 1977, Agnew and his wife, Judy, bought a condominium just behind the 18th green inside a walled community in Rancho Mirage, Calif., only a few blocks from where Sinatra lived. From then on they split their years between there and Maryland, spending winters in California and summers in their English Towers condominium in Ocean City.
In both locations they kept a low profile. Rancho Mirage meant quiet dinners with the Sinatras or with other friends. Ocean City meant a weekly tennis game of doubles at Bob Layton's court on 16th Street.
Once a year he got back together with former aides of the Nixon White House. He wrote another book, "Go Quietly, or Else," his version of the events leading to his resignation, and toured a few talk shows to tout it.
Otherwise, the Agnews kept to themselves, and Spiro stayed on his demanding schedule, his business trips still taking him overseas and frequently to the Far East.
He even enjoyed a political rehabilitation of sorts. Not only was his bust sculpted to stand inside the U.S. Capitol alongside those of other past vice presidents, but his official gubernatorial portrait was finally released from its exile in a basement of the Maryland Archives and placed on a wall of the State House.
But for Agnew, those were sidelights. His business trips continued right up until Friday night, when he returned wearily from yet another journey overseas.
Next month he was due to meet McCormack in Korea, off in another land where the Agnew name still meant nothing but stature and square dealing.
Pub Date: 9/19/96