- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

An up-front disclaimer: I was a speech writer for President Richard M. Nixon and, in the 1972 campaign, for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. I believe that on balance their useful contributions to our nation far outweighed the serious damage brought about by their personal faults. The following review should be read with these facts in mind.

Seven years ago, Van Smith, a reviewer in the Baltimore City Paper, wrote of veteran journalist Jules Witcover that he “suffered from genuine feeling, passion, even outrage, which in his writing he quietly rooted in a solid bed of facts to produce incisive analysis. Rather than leave his personal values at the door in order to prop up the illusion of objectivity, Witcover brought a moral framework — and thus a hint of activism — to his job.”

The bed of facts Mr. Witcover uses in “Very Strange Bedfellows” is Procrustean, for he doesn’t even attempt to create an illusion of objectivity, and his strong animus against — one might say detestation of — his two subjects suggests he is motivated by something more ideologically fervent than a hint of activism. “Very Strange Bedfellows” is red-meat, unapologetic, non-revisionist Nixon-Agnew bashing; it’s almost endearing in its nostalgic, Sixties-type unexamined belief in the left-liberal view of the world.

Ideological differences aside, I found things to admire in the book. Mr. Witcover is an old pro and his crisp, clear writing style keeps things moving in a fast-paced, organized way. The author clearly relishes reporting the day-to-day nonsense that takes up so much time in Washington, including the devious means employed each year by Nixon and Agnew trying to manipulate each other into attending the Gridiron Dinner. This is funny stuff indeed. And it is evident on every page that Mr. Witcover loves politics, warts and all (perhaps only warts and all).

Having said that, however, the book has a fatal flaw: While Mr. Witcover has plenty to write about, knows the subject well and feels deeply about what he writes, he has nothing new or interesting to say about Nixon and Agnew or the times they lived in. We’ve heard all of it before; in fact, we’ve heard it from Mr. Witcover himself. The first five chapters contain 189 footnotes. Of these, 117 refer to books Mr. Witcover has written.

He makes reference to a few books written by others, and he has recently interviewed some aides of Nixon and Agnew, but, again, there’s nothing particularly new here. I think Mr. Witcover may have been seduced by the promise of something exciting in transcripts of the taped Oval Office conversations he uses. But even conceding that some of the transcripts will be of interest to political junkies, much of what is said is banal, delivered in a back-and-forth, fragmented chatter that gets old very quickly.

In their (taped) conversations, they talk past each other, engaging in Oval Office-speak, unfailingly polite but devoid of human warmth or even a good joke now and then. Reading those passages, I was reminded of the title of a book by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan: “Two Solitudes.” But even if they had they been models of political friendship, the same tensions would have existed, because in the White House there can be only one boss.

As for the relationship between Nixon and Agnew, which, after all, is the main subject of the book, Mr. Witcover has nothing to tell us beyond the elementary facts, known to every schoolchild and journalist, that presidents and vice presidents often do not get along, vice presidents always feel they should have something important to do and vice presidents often feel slighted by real and perceived snubs. Yes, Agnew was a strange man and so was Nixon.

In the introduction, Mr. Witcover sets the tone of the book by describing Nixon as “a Red-baiting character assassin.” In Chapter Two, he tells us Nixon had a “transparent inferiority complex,” possessed a “debilitating sense of inferiority” and “seemed to question his own manliness.” I believe readers might have benefitted if the author had concentrated less on his layman’s opinions on Nixon’s possible complexes and more on his real complexities. But it is Spiro Agnew, not Nixon, who is at the heart of the book.

Mr. Witcover is clearly fascinated (as I was) by the imperturbable, well-dressed, preternaturally self-controlled Agnew, a man who could deliver scalding rhetoric without raising his voice or his pulse rate. The author traces Agnew’s swift, improbable rise from Baltimore county executive to Maryland governor to controversial vice presidential candidate, infamous — and ridiculed — for his verbal “gaffes.” As vice president, Agnew unleashed scathing rhetorical attacks (deplored by Mr. Witcover) on left-liberal dominance of the media, and he became the darling of conservatives.

Mr. Witcover indignantly writes that Agnew and Nixon “exploited public cynicism and resentment toward” the press, but in his relentless pursuit of his beasts in view, he does not pause to wonder why the public was so cynical and resentful in the first place. In any event, many observers (myself among them) believed Agnew was the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. But then, in a Baltimore courtroom in 1973, it all came crashing down.

Agnew resigned his high office and pleaded nolo contendere to one count of tax evasion after making a deal with government prosecutors in order to escape almost certain imprisonment for taking kickbacks from Maryland contractors. Shortly thereafter Nixon resigned in disgrace.

Toward the end of the book, Mr. Witcover tells about his last meeting with Agnew, in a Washington restaurant. “I walked over and, admittedly somewhat mischievously, proposed that I write another book telling his side of the resignation story.” More than 30 years later, for Mr. Witcover to write, with glee, about his baiting of a man who was down and out is (to use a word Mr. Agnew would have loved) unseemly.

William F. Gavin is a novelist and reviewer living in the Washington area.



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