Watergate Noir: When Cain Met Broder Met Agnew

Noir writer James M. Cain was no stranger to intrigue. His book Double Indemnity served as the source for the subsequent film classic which followed Los Angeles insurance salesman Walter Huff’s (Walter Neff in the film) descent into adultery, conspiracy, and murder. From his first encounter with Phyllis Nirdlinger (Phyliss Dietrichson in the movie), the wife of the book’s murder victim and eventual criminal accomplice, Huff understood the proverbial score: “You sell as many people as I do, you don’t go by what they say. You feel it, how the deal is going. And after a while I knew this woman didn’t care anything about the Automobile Club.” When she asks about accident insurance, Huff feels “a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair.”

Political scandal rarely results in murder, a notable difference between the life of Cain’s fictional characters and that of living politicians. One might also argue ferreting out motivations of politicians with the varying pressures and interests accosting them remains a more difficult task than uncovering conspiracy in noir. The Watergate affair serves as one such example, so murky in the moment that it even rattled Cain, who in April 1973 wrote to award-winning Washington Post journalist David Broder to both complain and inquire about the straits of the Nixon Administration.

“Your round-up of Watergate, on Page 1 of today’s paper, strikes one reader as outstanding for clarity, info, and most of all for restraint,” Cain began. The noir writer was referring to Broder’s front page story from April 22, 1973, in which Broder wrote: “Under unrelenting pressure the carefully constructed façade of cool White House control has begun to crack … Nixon’s political history has been as pockmarked by controversy as Eisenhower’s was by smoothed by affection.”

With the exception of the Washington Post’s metro desk the print media had largely ignored the story. Between the June 17, 1972 break-in and the November 7, 1972 presidential election, Nixon held four press conferences during which journalists asked only three questions regarding the scandal. However, due to acting F.B.I. Director L. Patrick Gray III’s failed confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 1973, interest sprung anew.

Unlikely as it was since it both preceded the Senate Watergate hearings by weeks and seemed unrelated to the burgeoning controversy, in his testimony Gray revealed that the F.B.I. had provided the White House with “unevaluated, or raw, investigative material and other F.B.I. data.” According to historian Keith W. Olson, J. Edgar Hoover, Gray’s predecessor and the only previous F.B.I. Director in the agency’s history, had refused to do so for any previous administration. Additionally, White House counsel John Dean, Gray testified, had also sat in on over a dozen F.B.I. interviews of White House aides — another violation of the agency’s traditional protocol. “By mid-march, the skin was starting to peel off the cover-up apple, exposing more dark patches of White House involvement every day,” wrote New York Times journalist J. Anthony Lukas.

Cain wrote Broder less than a month before the Senate Investigative Committee’s hearings, right at the juncture of Gray’s revelations and those that would follow in May. Like any good noir character, he had some information but not enough. According to a Gallup poll at the time, Cain represented one of four out of every ten Americans that believed Nixon had known about the Watergate issue in advance. “The King doesn’t have any clothes on,” he wrote Broder. “It is time we had done [sic] with the pretense that Mr. Nixon isn’t ‘involved’ in this matter … For despite his much described ‘isolation,’ his distaste for consultation, his addiction to solo decisions, he is notoriously a politician, sharp, ruthless, and practiced and one distinguishing mark of the breed is a passion for inside stuff, knowledge of what goes on.”

The famed noir author refused to believe that either Attorney General John Mitchell nor President Nixon, both known for their controlling ways, could have been unaware of the conspiratorial currents around them. “That any such bizarre scheme could have been cooked without [Nixon’s] hearing about it simply passes belief.” For Cain, Nixon’s actions were “not only impeachable, but indictable.” In order to save the nation embarrassment, the president must resign.

For all his insight regarding the president, however, Cain proved mistaken in his appraisal of the combative Vice President Spiro Agnew. Famed for his abrasive rhetoric, Agnew functioned as Nixon’s proverbial attack dog, particularly in regard to the media and those on the left. He once warned an audience “[a] sniveling, hand wringing power structure deserves the violent rebellion it encourages. If my generation doesn’t stop cringing, yours will inherit a lawless society where emotion and muscle displace reason.”

Indeed, Agnew cut quite the figure in the Nixon administration, one moment battling rhetorically with a hostile press, the next lounging with Frank Sinatra at the singer’s Palm Springs home, and in another, visiting the Baltimore Colts locker room after a victory. As one Colt put it, “he knows everybody by their first name, and generally has a word for most of the guys.” Cain too thought Agnew a solid leader: “Spiro Agnew, tactless and rough though he be, has one great attribute in his favor: he’s honest, so far as the record shows.”

Unfortunately, at the same time Cain wrote to Broder, the legal landscape beneath the vice president’s feet was already shifting. The Baltimore U.S. Attorney had begun digging into Agnew’s political history and discovered corruption stretching back to 1962 when the Vice President had been Baltimore County executive.

Much of this would remain largely out of the news until the summer. Even then, Agnew attempted to dismiss it. “I’m going to be indicted, it looks like,” he told the president on June 14. “This thing they’re calling a ‘Little Watergate.’ And this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.” Behind the scenes, unbeknownst to Agnew, Nixon was already prepared to cut the cord. “I’m going to have to get rid of him,” he told John Ehrlichman during their final conversation in May. “They’ve got the evidence. Agnew has been on the take all the time he’s been here.” On October 10, 1973, Agnew resigned and pleaded no contest to charges of income tax evasion. He received three years of unsupervised probation and a $10,00 fine.

The old adage often goes, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Perhaps, but in this case, truth is more complicated than noir, particularly in regard to the political scandal and intrigue that surrounded Watergate.