& I think it’s about time for me to tell this story. It’s been 41 years since it happened, but all this fol-de-rol about the President’s bodyguards cavorting in Cartegena with some money-grubbing hookers has got me thinking about it again.
This doesn’t have anything to do with prostitutes. But it does have to do with the Secret Service. It’s not a story about one of their grandest moments. And it’s not a story, either, about a proud moment in newspapering.
It started on a day in 1971 when the chief on the City Desk walked up to my little littered ghetto in the newsroom in the San Diego Union holding an assignment slip in his hand. “The Vice President was upstairs in an editorial board interview earlier today,” he said. “He’s gone out to the La Jolla Country Club, where he’s going to play golf with Bob Hope. I want you to go out there and interview them, and a photographer’s going with you.”
“Have you got some credentials for me?” I asked. Credentials are always a big deal around Presidents and Vice Presidents. Without all sorts of important looking documents hanging on a string around your neck, you usually don’t get any closer to those guys than the adjacent zip code. That’s been particularly true since 1963, when whoever they were murdered John Kennedy in Dallas, and 1965, when they murdered Malcolm X in New York, and 1968, when they murdered Martin Luther King in Memphis and Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles. For awhile there in the 60s, it was like a shooting gallery at a carnival, and the most influential among us were the sitting ducks. The bodyguard biz’s batting average was miserable.
So the City Editor’s response that day — only two years after the most recent assassinations — was not at all what I expected: “No, you don’t need credentials,” he said, “just go on out there and tell them you want to interview Spiro Agnew and Bob Hope. ” I was a fairly new employee of the Union at that time, and the morning daily had a reputation in media and political circles as being “Dick Nixon’s newspaper.” It had, to say the least, treated the President very kindly over the years — on its opinion pages and in its news columns — thanks to the rock-solid conservative owner of the paper, James Copley. Those of us hired in the late 60s and early 70s had been told that the Union‘s past of playing footsie with the Republicans was over — its news columns, at least, were to be unbiased in their coverage of politics. We actually swallowed that line. And, as I climbed into the company car with photographer Thane McIntosh that day, I was about to begin learning the vast emptiness of my employer’s promise of “political neutrality and dedication to objectivity.”
“Do you have any credentials?” Thane asked me as he maneuvered the car out of the parking space. “Nope,” said I.
“Well,” he said, “it’s a nice day for a drive to La Jolla. We’ll get up there and they’ll turn us around and we’ll drive back.” But he was wrong.
We drove up the long entrance road into the country club. There was nothing to stop us. We drove into the clubhouse parking lot. There was nobody to stop us, just one guy standing there in the parking lot — a club functionary of some sort.
“Hello fellas,” he said cheerily as Thane unlimbered his black, long-lensed cameras from the back of the car, prominently marked with the logos of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune. “What can we do for you?
“We’re here to interview the Vice President and Bob Hope,” I said, waving my assignment slip as a justification for our presence.
“OK, maybe you’d better go over there to the clubhouse first,” he said, pointing across the parking lot. We walked into the clubhouse, where we were greeted cordially by two or three other club employees. Again, I told them who we were and our purpose for being there.
“Well, you’ll need a cart to get out there,” said one. “They’ll probably be on the 12th or 13th by the time you catch up with them.” Somebody went off to get us a cart, and somebody else gave me a map to show us how to get to the 12th hole.
“I’ve shot pictures on lots of golf courses,” Thane recalled not long ago, “but nobody ever offered me a golf cart. They always made me walk.”
We walked out to the waiting cart, climbed in, and hummed off, unaccompanied, following our map to the 12th tee. Our disbelief in our good fortune was growing by the second.
Without encountering or seeing anyone, we got to the tee of the 12th hole, and saw, far down the fairway, a knot of several carts and people around the green — obviously Agnew and his golfing party. And his Secret Service guards. Looking at the map, we could see that the duffers would have to go up a hillside to reach the tee of the 13th hole. We decided to take a shortcut, and meet the group as they came back toward the 13th hole. With Thane behind the wheel, we plunged into a jungle of vegetation, following a trail that took us up the hill to the 13th fairway.
As we neared the top of the trail, which seemed to steepen as we ascended the hillside, the terrain became so tilted that the battery-powered cart was unable to pull all the weight, so I got out to help boost it up and over the last few feet. With me pulling the cart through the heavy vegetation, and Thane with his foot on the pedal, the cart lurched over the final hump. We crashed out of the jungle into the open fairway.
Not fifty yards away, with a driver in his hand, a very surprised look on his face, and a vulnerability that could not have been greater, stood the Vice President of the United States of America. At this point in this story, my memory switches into a slow motion scene; in it, several men in suits and short haircuts, wearing very grim faces, are rising from a number of golf carts, and reaching into their jackets or other hidden places on their bodies for what must have been guns.
Not long ago, as Thane and I recalled the events of that day, we agreed that our memories of that encounter two score years ago differed only on one point: whether guns actually were flashed. I remember seeing something glint in the sunlight. I thought it might have been a gun. Thane does not remember seeing a gun, but he remembers lots of hands reaching into concealed spots.
Back to live action: We’re surrounded by a bunch of angry faces. The guy who turned out to be the manager of the La Jolla Country Club, I remember, was wearing one of those ridiculous red-jacketed checkered-pants costumes that golfers wear, the kind of outfit they’d never wear outside the confines of a golf course. The manager’s face, I also remember, was redder than his jacket, which is to say that it was really red.
Demands were shouted from many mouths: “What are you doing here?” “How’d you get here?” “You sneak in here?” “Who gave you authorization?” These quotes are purely from memory, of course, I certainly was not taking notes. I was frantically waving my little assignment slip in the face of whoever seemed to be most in control of his rage, trying to explain that we meant no ill will.
At that point, the mob around us parted, like the waters, and Agnew strolled into the scrum, still carrying his golf club. “Hi fellas,” he said cheerily, “what are you doing here?”
“Well, sir,” I said, still waving my assignment slip,”we’re here to interview you and Bob Hope — we’re from the San Diego Union.” As I remember it, my voice might have been just a bit squeaky.
“Oh,” said Agnew, “that’s Jim Copley’s paper.” He softened a bit, as did everybody in the crowd. (Well, everybody except for the manager, who I think might have popped something in his circulatory system. If that guy had been a bull, he would have gored us right there.) “But you know what,”Agnew said, “I’m on vacation, and I don’t want to do another interview. And Bob Hope’s not feeling too good today, so he didn’t join us.”
Thane asked him if we could at least get a picture of him swinging the golf club, and Agnew said that would be fine, “then you guys get the hell out of here,” which is precisely what we wanted to do, as fast as we could do it.*
Agnew took his swing, Thane shot the pic, we climbed in the cart and were escorted off the course, following a cart driven by the still-steaming red-faced redcoat. When we got to the clubhouse he demanded that we give him the film. When I said no, he threatened to call our bosses “upstairs” at the Union and get us in all kinds of trouble. I said something like he was welcome to call our bosses, and suggested he stick his demands in a place where the sun doesn’t shine. We got to the car and beat feet out of the parking lot — film still inside the camera.
Back at the paper, Thane headed for the darkroom to print a picture to go with my story, which began:
By ROBERT E. COX
Union Politics Writer
LA JOLLA — A funny thing happened to the Vice President on his way to the 13th hole at La Jolla Country Club Friday.
And that’s about as far as I got. As I sat there typing, I felt a presence behind me, looming up over my back. I swung my head around and looked up at the lanky frame of Assistant City Editor Dick Weber. He didn’t look happy.
“You aren’t gonna believe this,” he said with an air of resignation and frustration. “We ain’t gonna print it.”
“What?” I asked in disbelief. “You mean I almost got my ass shot off and you’re not going to print the story?”
“Agnew called upstairs after you guys left the golf course. They don’t want it published.”
“They don’t want it published,” I said, “because the Secret Service has egg all over its face.”
“Whatever,” said Weber, “we aren’t gonna run it.”
& With my story on the cutting room floor, what happened to that picture of Agnew swinging the golf club? I’d never known the story until I talked with Thane not long ago.
When he came out of the darkroom with his negatives, he told me, his immediate boss asked for the negatives, with some apology in the tone of his voice. McIntosh then was summoned to the office of the publisher, Victor H. (Brute) Krulak, a retired, highly decorated Marine Corps general who had had a lot of experience taking orders from and saluting presidents and vice presidents, but very little experience in publishing newspapers.
When Thane arrived at the publisher’s office, Krulak had a phone at his ear. He waved at Thane to come in to his office as he completed his phone call.
Thane, thinking Krulak was talking to the country club manager, remembers snippets of the publisher’s deferential comments into the receiver; “Well, I’m glad nobody got hurt… yes, sir, I know it’s a vacation… I fully understand … thank you for your patience.” Krulak then said his goodbye, hung up the phone, turned to McIntosh and said, “That was the Vice-President.”
Krulak then told McIntosh that he had received the negatives from his camera, and apologized to him, saying the paper would not be going to use the picture or the story. “You guys did a great job,” Thane remembers Krulak telling him, “unfortunately we shouldn’t have messed with him.”
Krulak then asked McIntosh if he would make a big print of a photo and have it mounted on a stiff backing. McIntosh did, and sent it back to Krulak. A few days later, as he recalls, Krulak summoned him to his office again, and handed him the mounted print, saying “I hope this helps you get over it.” At the bottom of the print was Agnew’s scribbled note:
“To Thane MacIntosh, with best wishes and grimaces. Spiro T. Agnew.”
& That was my first lesson in the San Diego-style definition of an objective, fearless, print-the-truth newspaper. There were many more of those unpleasant lessons to come before I finally departed the newsroom for the last time, with my middle finger raised high above my head. I have often wondered what would have happened if, in the period following that encounter, another of this country’s supposedly well-guarded national political leaders had been assassinated. Would the paper have been embarrassed for not having exposed this moment of vulnerability to the Vice President? Probably not. It was, after all, Dick Nixon’s newspaper. At the San Diego Union, Dick Nixon’s way was always the right way. (I’ve another tale along these lines — about the time I essentially forced them to print a story that Brute and the boys upstairs really didn’t want to print. I’ll write about it later.)
Thankfully, this country hasn’t had to go through the anger and angst of yet another assassination of a national political figure since Bobby Kennedy was murdered in 1968. Who knows why? Plenty of politicians have pissed off plenty of gun-toting people in days since then. Agnew himself could have himself been a target back in those days of open season on politicians — he was very fond of travelling the country saying nasty, alliterative things about people he didn’t like. (Members of the press were “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Liberals were “pusillanimous pussyfooters, or “an effete corps of impudent snobs.”)
To this nation’s good fortune, Spiro Agnew turned out to be a slick, squinty-eyed crook who resigned the vice presidency in disgrace amid a bribery scandal in 1973 — the year before his slick, squinty-eyed boss Richard (“I am not a crook”) Nixon resigned the presidency, also in disgrace. (And the Republican Party thinks it’s got troubles now?)
But, to this nation’s bad fortune, an increasing number of democracy’s Fourth Estate — the newspapers who long served the important purpose of exposing the things our governments didn’t want us to know — have followed the trail trod by those earlier bootlickers to the high and mighty, puppets like the Union bosses who pompously purported to serve the masses with the truth, and didn’t.
Too many of our newspapers — conservative, liberal, independent, Republican, Democratic, all that have abandoned their primary responsibility of telling truth to the people in order to please a few — might as well tack up a new motto over their doors, a motto first expressed by a retired, Marine Corps general — who kept working for the government when his job was to work for the people:
WE SHOULDN’T HAVE MESSED WITH THEM
& Messily and pusillanimously, I’m pussyfootin’ outta here.