‘A Trump before Trump’: Drawing parallels between Nixon’s disgraced VP Spiro Agnew and our current president
SNEED: In 1973, I was given the assignment of eavesdropping on Agnew’s dinner with Frank Sinatra at the Pump Room after he left office. Here’s what happened.
It happened one night.
Of all the wacky but fun news assignments I’ve had in my long career, the one involving President Richard Nixon’s corrupt veep Spiro T. Agnew — a Trump before Trump — tops the list.
Now the star of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow’s new book “Bagman,” Agnew was a flamethrower and profligate “witch hunt” pitchman, who, Maddow suggests, broke the mold of old Republicanism, a crook who loved name calling his critics as well as those investigating him — all the while casually accepting bribes in the hallowed grounds of his White House office.
On Oct. 10, 1973, Agnew resigned from office after pleading no contest to federal income tax evasion. It was accompanied by a get-out-of-jail-free card from prosecutors in the U.S. Justice Department — and 10 months before Nixon resigned in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
Or as newspaper columnist Richard Cohen once wrote: Agnew “went down because his numbers did not add up.”
On Oct. 11, the veep who once called reporters “nattering nabobs of negativism” disappeared in a cloud of what’s next.
On the evening of Oct. 27, 1973, I got a phone call from my editor.
He had a question.
“Do you have an evening gown?”
“Do you have formal attire?”
“Ah, sure. Why?”
“Well, would you mind putting it on and meeting me at the Pump Room in one hour?”
“Spiro Agnew is expected to be Frank Sinatra’s dinner mate at the Pump Room in ONE hour and I’ve made a reservation for two at a table next to him,” chirped my boss, who wanted to know what Agnew was doing.
“Get your ear tuned up for what’s up.”
Rumors had surfaced that Sinatra and Agnew were planning to do business together, that Agnew was advising foreign governments.
Risky business, perhaps?
Years ago, I wrote: “The lights were dim and the music soft. The perfect setting at Table 43 for the golden voice and the king of barbs.
“So as Sinatra spooned creamed spinach and dolloped sauce onto his medium-rare steak, I watched Agnew, who had just resigned from office, draw an imaginary map on the tablecloth and point to a piece of saffron rice he identified as ‘Russia.’
(Or was it Saudi Arabia?)
“My boss kept asking: ‘What are they saying?’
“Hell. It was hard to understand what anyone was saying.
“So while Agnew downed curried morsels of lobster, shrimp and crabmeat and quaffed a $45 bottle of red wine, Sinatra abruptly turned toward me and loudly spouted: ‘I know a guy who kept a sign in his office which read, “Don’t discuss work.”’
“Agnew then shot a glance at me and stated: ‘I think that’s a good idea.’
(The game was up. It was over. No scoop this time.)
“Not to disappoint my boss, I attempted to corner the men when they left their table.
“‘What are you doing in Chicago?’ (How’s that for a tough question?)
“‘No comment,’ bleated Sinatra, who stuck his arm in front of Agnew.
“‘Can’t the vice president speak for himself?’ I countered.
“‘I’m here to have a good time,’ Agnew retorted.
“‘How are you feeling?’ I said.
“‘Great, just great,’ he said. ‘And you?’”
What a parry. What a thrust. What a nothing story.
Sinatra is now dead. Agnew, who never again talked to Nixon, died in 1996 although he did attend Nixon’s 1994 funeral. And my right ear has never been the same.
The feds may have sighed a relief at their ability to keep Agnew from becoming Nixon’s replacement, which came after they determined that a vice president in this case could be indicted but the president could not. But as Maddow’s new book suggests — it likely resulted in an unintended consequence: a lasting Justice Department policy that sitting presidents can’t face criminal charges, which she believes has clearly benefitted Trump.
But back then, my Agnew story of unintended consequences wound up on page one.
Sneedlings . . .
Saturday birthdays: Regina Hall, 50; Jaime Lorente, 29; and Jennifer Connelly, 50. . . . Sunday birthdays: Taylor Swift, 31; Dick Van Dyke, 95; and Christopher Plummer, 91.