March 11, 2004

Spiro Agnew: Novelist Extraordinaire

Posted by Ed

I have a horrible confession to make: For the last week or two, as I worked my way through newspaper accounts of Soviet hooliganism and books discussing Weber and Foucault, one of my guilty pleasures has been reading an obscure 1976 novel called The Canfield Decision. That book is, in many ways, a typical (if byzantine) political thriller: it describes the downfall of Vice President Porter Canfield after his White House bid becomes entangled in an Iranian/Jewish attempt to derail detente. One detail makes the novel extremely unusual, however: it was written by former Vice President Spiro Agnew.

I wish I could tell you that Agnew was a better novelist than he was a vice president. Unfortunately, however, The Canfield Decision is pedestrian at its best and embarrassing at its worst. The dialogue is atrocious. The sex scenes are hilarious. The writing style resembles that of a new-comer to creative writing; Agnew seems to have thought that he'd look smart if he used lots of adjectives and pretended to understand big words like "esurience." The book can be entertaining in small doses, but if you read too much at a time, you can get a really bad headache. That's why I've only read about the first third of the novel, as well as a bunch of random chapters from later in the book.

What's really interesting about the novel isn't the writing, however--it's the way it helps us understand Agnew's view of politics. How did Agnew think the world would look less than a decade after he took up his pen? In The Canfield Decision, the domino theory has hit Southeast Asia, resulting in Thailand's fall to Communism. The book's villains include members of a radical Jewish group--an unseemly plot device, to say the least. The news media are as unscrupulous as ever. (In the first chapter alone, Agnew complains about the rise of "advocacy journalism" and about how "revisionist" journalist are "sanctifying" past liberal presidents, for example.) Liberal intellectuals, finally, are often cast in a negative light: one major character is a college professor and presidential adviser who isn't as smart as he thinks he is.

I don't know much about Spiro Agnew, but this novel confirms my sense that he wasn't one of the great visionaries of American politics. His portrait of American politics and world affairs seems narrow and unimaginative: reading The Canfield Decision, you almost get the sense that Agnew actually believed some of the sillier things he said, but couldn't develop his prejudices into a more detailed vision of American politics. (At one 1968 campaign rally, he told the crowd that "To a certain extent, if you've seen one city slum you've seen them all," for example, and he was known for his criticism of the news media.) The plot of The Canfield Decision is byzantine and preposterous, but from what I've seen so far, it isn't terribly amusing; the story just seems to be a parade of uninteresting conservative stereotypes. If this is how Agnew really viewed the world, then we should be very glad that he never became president.

Nevertheless, The Canfield Decision does make me wonder if the Nixon presidency deserves a rethinking. Fans of the Kennedy administration liked to point out that even the postmaster general, Edward Day, had written a novel, but the Nixon administration's literary pretensions were just as large. After all, John Ehrlichman has written three political thrillers (The China Card, The Company, and The Whole Truth), and Chuck Colson's political novels make Agnew's book seem restrained. Have other presidential aides tried their hand at potboiler fiction?

Posted by Ed at March 11, 2004 04:17 PM
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