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

tags: Ben Bradlee, Spiro Agnew

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.

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...

Read entire article at Baltimore Sun

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