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Ben Bradlee, Spiro Agnew and the 'Gray-Haired Grandmother Defense'

The death of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee prompted an outpouring of well-deserved and laudatory tributes from across the country. Each obituary made dutiful mention of Bradlee the Georgetown neighbor and pal of John F. Kennedy, the rock of truth behind Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate investigation, the creator of The Post's innovative Style section and the inspiration for a generation of investigative journalists.

Missing from the accolades was any acknowledgment of Ben Bradlee's critical contribution to one the biggest stories in the history of Maryland politics — the 1973 resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew for tax evasion on kickbacks that he had started to receive when he was a politician in Maryland in the 1960s.

In 2006, when we talked to Bradlee at his home in St. Mary's County about Agnew and The Washington Post's role in uncovering the wrongdoing that led to his resignation, he had already been asked thousands of times about the Watergate investigation. He seemed to enjoy reliving an overshadowed political scandal, but one that still brought down the man a "heartbeat away" from the presidency.

The case being built against Agnew in 1973 by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore was uncovered by The Post's Richard Cohen and Jules Witcover, later of the Baltimore Sun. While not as dramatic as Watergate, the media's investigation of Agnew had its moments. Mr. Cohen had learned from Bob Woodward (who got it from his FBI source Mark Felt, the legendary "Deep Throat") that Agnew was still taking bribe money from his days in Maryland politics. Dramatically, envelopes stuffed with cash were being delivered to him in the Old Executive Building, next door to and only yards away from the Oval Office.

When a federal court judge in Baltimore investigating the Agnew case subpoenaed Mr. Cohen's notes, Bradlee stood up for basic freedom of the press and the right to protect sources. He also backed his young reporter, still with his whole career ahead of him, and cautioned Mr. Cohen about traveling into Maryland for fear that he might be served with a subpoena and compelled to testify. Bradlee developed a creative defense, crafted along with the paper's CEO Katherine Graham and legal counsel Joseph Califano, to protect his young reporter.

The clever "Gray-Haired Grandmother Defense" argued that Mr. Cohen's notes on the Agnew investigation were actually the property of Graham, as his employer, and not the reporter. As Bradlee recalled colorfully in his autobiography, "The judge would throw Bradlee or Cohen in jail so fast it would make your head swim. Let's see if he has the balls to put Kay Graham in the clink."

But on the day Cohen was scheduled to appear in a Baltimore courtroom, the vice president, who had once been governor of Maryland and county executive of Baltimore County, pled no contest to tax evasion and resigned. And Agnew disappeared from public life, leaving behind a cautionary tale for future elected officials about the role of the fourth estate in keeping elected officials honest.

Sitting in his living room 30-plus years after Agnew's resignation, Bradlee still got animated when talking about the integrity of the journalistic process that helped bring the disgraced vice president to justice. He stressed the importance of giving good reporters adequate space to pursue criminal wrongdoing at the top, even if a very young journalist (Mr. Cohen) was questioning the integrity of the second most important elected official in the country. Bradlee said, "The things I would see would be at the very end of [the Agnew] reportage when it looks like we're going into the slammer ... if we make a misstep."

There were no missteps in The Post's coverage of Spiro Agnew. Just as he did in the months that would follow with Watergate, Bradlee had the courage to trust his reporters and their sources and he was willing to stand behind them. The citizens of Maryland and the country are better off because he did just that.

Charles Holden is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland; his email is cjholden@smcm.edu. Zach Messitte is the president of Ripon College in Wisconsin; his email is messittez@ripon.edu. They are writing a book about Spiro Agnew and the birth of the modern Republican Party.

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