The Canfield Decision by Spiro T. Agnew Playboy Press; 344 pp., $8.95
IF HE HAD committed his crimes in a less corrupt regime, Spiro Agnew would have earned himself a prominent place in the history texts: The Vice President Who Resigned in Ignominy. As it is, he will be recorded merely as a footnote to Watergate. The speed with which he was forgotten was remarkable; after he left Washington on October 10, 1973, there were no prayers offered by Rabbi Korff, no million dollar interviews with David Frost, no Woodward and Bernstein account of his (and Judy's) final hours. It was not long before many had forgotten that he had not been felled by the Watergate scandals but had pleabargained his office away in exchange for immunity from prosecution for having accepted cash payoffs during his years in public office. Agnew suffered with cruelest political fate: he was disgraced, then forgotten.
But Agnew is back, at least temporarily, as the author of a novel. The Canfield Decision, the former Vice President's first work of fiction, leads one to believe that Agnew's career as a writer will be about as successful as his career as a politician. There is no question that the book would have remained unpublished if anyone else had written it. The editors at Playboy Press (if there are editors at Playboy Press, and not just photo-retouchers) appear to have adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward the manuscript, which at 344 tedious pages is too long by half. They probably assumed that the book would sell as a novelty, like a celebrity cook book, in spite of its content. Still, Agnew's book is interesting for what it reveals about his limited imagination and as one more example of the kind of mentality he helped foster in the late sixties.
UNLIKE JOHN EHRLICHMAN'S recently excerpted "novel," the characters of which are closely based on members of the Nixon Administration, Agnew's book is not based on his own experience. It does concern a Vice President's fall from grace, but under different cirumstances and for different reasons. The Canfield Decision tells the story of Porter Newton Canfield ("handsome, with aristocratic features"), Princeton '57 (cum laude), University of Virginia Law School '60, elected to Congress in 1968 and to the Senate in 1972 appointed Vice President upon the death of the incumbent VP in 1979 and elected to serve a full term as Vice President in 1980. The novel opens in 1983 with Canfield feuding with the President about military aid to Israel. The Vice President believes his stand on this issue can win him the presidential nomination and election in 1984, so he publicly proposes that the United States give Israel nuclear arms. This not only gets him in trouble with the cautious President (a cross between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Hugh Scott), but threatens to upset the fragile balance of world power. Spies and agents provocateurs appear on the scene.
Meanwhile, Canfield, growing increasingly tired of his boring, upper crust wife (who Agnew writes comes from "North Philadelphia," which happens to be that city's largest black ghetto), falls for Meredith Lord, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Lord, who is beautiful as well as political ("The cloth clung to and outlined her shapely legs with every sinuous stride"), is interested in Canfield not only for his aristocratic good looks but because he can help her obtain funding for her pet program, a medical-aid bill known as THC (Total Health Care).
Irving Wallace, or Arthur Hailey, or any of the other neo-realists in the supermarket-check-out-counter-school of modern American fiction might have been able to go somewhere with this plot, but Agnew simply does not know where to start. Nothing happens for the first two hundred pages. Agnew introduces his characters with an almost Proustian verve for description, but his idea of expressing meaningful detail is to inform the reader every time a character shaves, or brushes his teeth. Then, when the action finally takes place--most of it in the final fifty pages--Agnew makes up for lost time and all hell breaks loose. Old friends become antagonists overnight; radical extremists blackmail high government officials in the Executive Office Buildings formerly faithful wives contribute to their husbands' downfalls; innocent bystanders are shot; and in a scene probably included as a memorial to Agnew's former boss, a long forgotten voice-activated tape recorder is found in a closet. In all fairness, Agnew deserves credit for one imaginative twist in the plot. But the vast majority of "suspenseful" scenes in the book strain credulity; at the end of some chapters one expects to read, "And then I woke up."
The patchwork nature of the plot also makes it difficult to divine morals from the tale. Canfield is both guilty and a victim of circumstance. One is tempted to look for similarities between Canfield's fate and Agnew's, but there are simply too few parallels between the two cases and not enough clues in the book.
More important than the book's moral--if it has one--is the presence of Agnew's old, anti-liberal venom. Though he has scrapped his polysyllabic, alliterative invectives, Agnew still displays contempt for students, activists, professors, welfare mothers and the rest of that crew. He displays his feelings about the media, and about Jews, with special gusto.
On the third page of the book, a sympathetic, intelligent Secret Service agent ponders the press of 1983:
During Galdari's early days in the Service the press had been much more professional and objective. In the mid-Sixties, they had been just as tough, but seldom ready to jump into print without verification. Accusations then were the raw material for quiet investigation. Now they were bombs to be used against political enemies or defused for political friends.
Canfield entertains similar thoughts about the national media:
The sad thing was that they exerted an almost hypnotic influence on millions of Americans. Their empty-headed mouthings were accepted without question, without analysis--and in time the listener was infected by the illogic they imparted. But never lose sight of one fact: They were powerful, powerful enough to destroy any public man or woman.
In The Canfield Decision, the "media conspiracy" Agnew ranted about when he was in office becomes a reality. The most influential members of the media belong to "Operation Torch," a collection of "media people who would secretly cooperate on the big issues so that America 'would not come apart at the seams.' " Finally, Agnew assures us that reporters have the table manners of goats.
Though Canfield champions Israel's cause, and admires the tenacity of the Israeli people, he has less positive feelings toward American Jews. He believes that
the American Zionists wanted the American sword to rattle every time a potential attacker made the slightest threat toward their darling. They, who had been the strongest advocates of abandoning Southeast Asia to the communists, were perfectly willing to send war materials, advisors and even armed troops if Israel were attacked.
Agnew sympathizes with the analysis of a Persian anti-communist leader:
American Jews exert an influence on American opinion that is far heavier than their numbers would indicate. They are the strongest single influence on the big media...They control much of the financial community, and through it, large segments of the academic community...Oh, they scream anti-Semitism whenever anyone mentions their power, but it's true.
The same character later says, "One thing the Jews understand is the power of money."
One reason the Jews can control the press so easily, we learn, is that eighty-five per cent of the press--at least of those reporters who travel with the Vice President--is Jewish. Still, all members of Agnew's media aren't Jewish. The most sympathetic journalist in the book ("a sharp and experienced reporter") is Bruce Atherton, while the most obnoxious, a reporter who tries to put words into people's mouths, is Sid Winehart.
Along with the belief in the media cabal and the Jewish-intellectual business conspiracy, Agnew promotes a view of recent history in which the United States' power--and perhaps more important, its image--were sold down the river during the late sixties. Loss of manhood is a frequent theme: the President mourns "the emasculation of the CIA," while Galdari, the sensitive Secret Service agent says, "The American resolve was shattered from within. The political genuises, assisted by the news media, had emasculated the greatest power in the world." Foreigners are especially hard on the country; the prime minister of Singapore tells Canfield, "The United States has become impotent because it is no longer controlled by its government, but by its propagandists." A Russian diplomat says, "Most international observers agree that America is now on the wane. The country is under attack by professional critics with an unlimited supply of ink and microphones."
AGNEW'S BOOK is propaganda, but propaganda too clumsily written to provoke outrage or even concern. Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley both understand that for propaganda novels to work, the novels have to be as effective as the politics. Agnew should have taken lessons from them.
In an article about Agnew's post-resignation life, the New York Times Magazine revealed that Agnew's business partner had left him and that the former Vice President's jet-setting around the world, especially the Arab world, had generated no business. It is sad indeed to think that there are men so limited in ability they are unable to handle anything more challenging than the Vice Presidency. After Agnew finishes his publicity tour for The Canfield Decision, we probably will not hear from him for some time. But inevitably, around the year 2000, the wire services will carry a short story telling of his death. History will then repeat itself, as citizens turn to each other and ask, "Spiro who?"