History Thread: The Literary Genius of Spiro T. Agnew

Spiro Agnew was a man of many talents. A modestly effective Baltimore County executive, he became a race-baiting Governor of Maryland and Richard Nixon’s alliteratively-insulting Vice President, raining hellfire on hippies, reporters, activists and “radiclibs.” As Vice President, he was driven from office when the Justice Department, investigating a minor-league graft scheme in Baltimore, discovered that Agnew had been receiving kickbacks from contractors – and was still receiving payments as Vice President, sometimes in his office. With Nixon beleaguered by Watergate, Agnew was thrown to the wolves, resigning in October 1973 and pleading no lo contendre to a charge of income tax evasion.

As Nixon’s presidency reached its climax, Agnew vanished from the public eye, golfing with Frank Sinatra and hiding from creditors and hostile reporters. Until 1976, when Spiro reappeared, not as a tribune of the Silent Majority but a novelist. He published an erotic political thriller called The Canfield Decision, a monstrous lump of sub-Robert Ludlum pabulum about an ambitious Vice President done in by an international cabal of Jews, Arabs, Soviets, conniving women and, of course, those goddamn liberals. Along that way, the Vice President, and those around him, have a lot of sex.

Spiro T. Agnew

Today, politicians (failed or otherwise) often publish fiction: both Clintons have recently co-authored novels, Jimmy Carter once tried his hand at historical fiction and Stacey Abrams has built a respectable literary career. These books are rarely memorable but usually no worse than your average James Patterson or Dean Koontz book. The Canfield Decision, however, is a horse of a different color: the purblind fantasies of an angry, middle-aged, middle-class man in post-Watergate America, bemoaning what the Sixties hath wrought.

Perusing Agnew’s prose style (he was quite adamant he wrote this novel himself, without help from ghostwriters), it’s clear how much his denunciations of “nattering nabobs” and “impudent snobs” owed to the stylings of William Safire and Pat Buchanan. He makes fellow Nixon goon-novelist Howard Hunt1 sound like Gore Vidal. Let’s see how Spiro describes a political rally early in the novel:

“In the front ranks most stood patiently, the young with tots in arms and tykes firmly in hand, and the elderly displaying the stolid stamina that always surprises their juniors. At the rear there was spasmodic movement, with late arrivals jockeying for position and roving youths strutting for mutual approval. To one side were the organized groups, ready to wave their homemade signs and banners at the proper moment.”

Agnew has a similar eye for nuanced characterization, as when he introduces us to a rock-jawed Secret Service agent:

He shifted his 205 pounds to a more comfortable position. He wasn’t quite in the shape he used to maintain during his basketball days at Columbia, but the muscle tone was a lot better than that of most forty-two-year-olds.

And Agnew also has a keen ability for writing sensitive portraits of women, especially professional women making their way in a man’s world:

The plane was leaning over into its final approach course when Kathy Dryden, Canfield’s personal secretary, entered the cabin, shorthand pad ready. How cool and fresh she looks, thought Galdari. Sexy, but more heavenly sexy than earthy sexy…. She was, he said to himself, a very sensitive lady.

Agnew’s book is a mixture of the parboiled and the prurient. His constipated prose and inept plotting combines with improbable sex scenes that read like the fantasies of a pen-pushing middle manager. Consider Canfield’s wistful reminiscence of his high school sweetheart, written with all the erotic power of a gearhead writing letters to Popular Mechanics:

He could still remember the night noises and the smell of honeysuckle, and the indelible sight of a very eager Wanda, skirt rucked high on tan thighs and breasts brushing his face as she moved into the automobile position.

His inexperienced, blundering early crescendo mortified him and might have left him with much to overcome in the future, but her matter-of-fact patience and experience reerected the fallen structure. In time, he drove her home proudly, colors flying.

But Agnew wasn’t just a horny, pen-pushing middle manager, he was the Vice President of the United States. Surely he knows something about how the world works? Well, maybe, but you wouldn’t know it from a book where he claims Las Vegas resides in New Mexico, or that Islamic fundamentalists regularly toast each other with alcohol. He does take some thinly veiled shots at his old boss, depicting Canfield’s President as a soft-head who unwisely pursues détente with the Communists. Agnew helpfully explicates how America is controlled by a cabal of Zionists, nefarious Jew lobbyists who “will stop at nothing, even at murder” to ensure America remains friendly to Israel.

For Agnew was a Vice President who has it out for hippies, Jews, Blacks and just about anyone who isn’t exactly like Spiro T. Agnew. When he’s not ranting about the Jewish cabal that’s destroying the world, he’s spinning tales of a nefarious Arab terrorist organization called DAMN, whose supporters are buying television networks and want to sell America out “for dirty oil money.” Somehow these dread forces, along with the Soviet Union, initiate a horrible, murky scheme to initiate World War III, which the Vice President unwisely finds himself drawn into at the cost of his political career.

The Canfield Decision is set in 1983, a decade after Agnew’s resignation and presumably long after the liberals who drove him from office have turned America into a depraved Gomorrah. “Why did they always have to cram their angelic attitudes down your throat?” Canfield wonders about his liberal adversaries, who dare believe that African Americans are human, women deserve rights and homosexuals dare to exist. Why, Canfield’s long-suffering wife can’t look out her window without spotting two hippies who “ground their bodies together in open sexuality,” on her nice Republican lawn! Clearly, a world without Agnew is a world gone mad.

Published by Playboy, Agnew’s book was a best-seller despite a collection of terrible reviews (the nicest blurb the authors could find was Merv Griffin proclaiming it “interesting”). Agnew was impressed enough with its reception, financial if not critical, that he contemplated a film version, produced by Frank Sinatra and starring…Spiro T. Agnew. Sadly, that wild idea never panned out; Agnew wrote an equally-unreadable memoir, became a business consultant and periodically resurfaced for making anti-Semitic comments to journalists. He died in 1996, long since having been reduced to a historical joke.