By the mid-fall of 1969, Spiro Agnew’s improbable Vice Presidency was—compared with the duties assigned his predecessors—turning to be very probable after all. After a campaign relegated to handle the talking points that the ticket needed to woo the lunch pail crowd—law and order; applying a giant, heavy boot to the peaceniks, be it a kick to the collective solar plexus or a slow, quiet crush beneath the heel; the promise of equality for behaved blacks while assuring the whites that no blacks—behaved or not—would follow them on their flight to the suburbs—Nixon didn’t make a prominent role for his new Vice President his highest priority. He didn’t have to. The election was over.
Instead, Agnew dutifully assumed his place in the pantheon of the mundane as did his 39 other Veeps throughout history. The tasks may have changed through the ages and administrations, but the coverage always fell to the same, remote recesses of the newspaper. For his part, Agnew was assigned to walk point on those contentious missions into Native American issues, maritime policy, and urban redevelopment (on the latter, he’d proven he understood the nuances and complexity of the challenges facing America’s cities when he said on the campaign trail, “If you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all.”)
Come October of that first year in office, a nervous President Nixon was seeing the antiwar protests for the first time migrate from the Deliberately Unwashed to the Great Unwashed; from the unkempt, criminally-disruptive Hippies that his fellow California GOP luminary Ronald Reagan said “dress like Tarzan, look like Jane, and smell like Cheetah” to Sam The Butcher and Betty The Housewife—in other words, from the Communist-sympathetic fringe to Main Street Americans. It was all to culminate on October 15, 1969, in a nationwide Moratorium, where young and old, black and white, male and female, grandparents and parents and children, all threatened to take the day off work, take to the streets, and second-guess their President’s commitment to ending the war peacefully but honorably.
This simply wouldn’t do. Nixon counted on the workaday Americans as part of his “silent majority.” God forbid that they were consorting with the dirtmongers with their silly slogans and their flowers in the guns.
To Richard Nixon, every lost voter was a betrayal. But his there was more at stake than his being aggrieved by the turncoats in his flock. His re-election started with the mid-term elections next year, which started with the polls, which started with popular perception in the media, which was controlled by the same Jews and Wasps who had their boots on his neck since he was object of their scorn as a sullen, dirt-poor boy from the bad side of the tracks in Yorba Linda.
So, as it had been his whole life, he had a battle ahead against the sons of bitches. He had to stanch the bleeding and prevent the perception that any more of his base was defecting to the other side—where pink-to-their underwear comsymps and radiclib animals who unhelpfully decried a war that even the President knew was unwinnable (beside the point) and who would or wouldn’t survive it, than about the greater good of defending the integrity of the Presidency. Specifically, Richard Nixon’s Presidency.
Thus, he had his lieutenants manning the war room and concocting every gambit they could to cut the peace offensive off at the knees.
Vice President Agnew was not immediately dispatched in the effort, and was certainly champing at the bit to enter the fray. As it was, the Vice President should have been exhilarated with his new station. After all, Agnew by all rights should have been a little over halfway into first term in the Maryland Statehouse instead of holding the second-highest elective office in the land.
But the letdown and frustration were understandable. After that unexpected anointment and the heady weeks on the campaign trail that followed, Agnew must have been seduced by the same mistress as so many other Vice Presidents—“I know what’s become of the others, but it’s going to be different for me.”
Instead, he discovered quickly that his new job was as thankless as it was toothless. Endless, dispassionate White House talking points; exhortations for money from faceless captains of industry in one unremarkable banquet hall after another; meeting the crowds feting Corn Pageant Beauty Queens and Junior Merit Scholars that Nixon wouldn’t waste his precious waking hours on if there weren’t enough mid-term and ’72 votes in it to make it worth his while.
With every descent into the mundane little different than the one or ten or one hundred that preceded it, that imagined executive order that surely placed this visit or that on the VP’s itinerary must have resonated in his mind louder and louder: “No, goddamnit. Just have Agnew do it.”
With this Moratorium nonsense looming and his public persona shrinking, the Vice President was itching to get some skin in the game. Agnew had been feeling his oats for the last few weeks on the road. He would stray off script but never off the reservation, amplifying both his vim and his venom.
On October 19, amidst the post-Moratorium spin cycle, Agnew was in New Orleans to speak at a party fund-raiser. He was loath to dispense another dismal recitation of the Administration’s goals and messages sufficient to get the attendant donors to get out their checkbooks. Instead, he decided to put a little English on his delivery and show the country, and his President, how he could break a rack of balls.
There was no shortage of English when Agnew ran the table that night with his favorite shots—law and order, the liberal media, the would-be intellectual elites. He spoke of “a spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” He called the Moratorium “an emotional purgative for those who felt the need to cleanse themselves of their lack of ability to offer a constructive solution to the problem.”
As Rick Perlstein recounts in his magnificent Nixonland, the President’s consigliore, H.R. Haldeman, was content to leave their pit bull unleashed for another week or two, dripping some opportune blood from his fangs, and showcasing some of the incendiary rhetorical flourish that would cement long and storied careers for Nixon scribes Pat Buchanan and William Safire.
His command performance was at a Pennsylvania Republican Dinner in Harrisburg on October 30.
A little over a week ago, I took a rather unusual step for a Vice President. I said something… America must recognize the dangers of constant carnival. Americans must reckon with irresponsible leadership and reckless words.
The mature and sensitive people of this country must realize that their freedom of protest is being exploited by avowed anarchists and communists who detest everything about this country and want to destroy it…they prey upon the good intentions of gullible men everywhere. They pervert honest concern to something sick and rancid. They are vultures who sit in trees and watch lions battle, knowing that win, lose, or draw, they will be fed.
Abetting the merchants of hate are the Parasites of passion. These are the men who value a cause purely for its political mileage. These are the politicians who temporize with the truth by playing both sides to their own advantage. They ooze sympathy for “the cause” but balance each sentence with equally reasoned reservations. Their interest is personal, not moral. They are ideological eunuchs whose most comfortable position is straddling the philosophical fence, soliciting votes from both sides.
Alas, of the 39 Veeps who came before him, this wasn’t the stuff of Alben Barkley or Calvin Coolidge—or even Richard Nixon. And of the entire pantheon of VPs, before and after Agnew, not even a seething Voldemort like Dick Cheney could conjure a redressing of his enemies that could so artfully incorporate the words “rancid” and “eunuchs.” All due credit to the evident pen of the young Mr. Buchanan, but Agnew was no amateur at lobbing the bombastic grenade, and it took a gifted orator to deliver an excoriation of such singular, belligerent elegance.
October 1969 was the Vice President’s American Bandstand month. He would emerge now and again with an ear-catcher that would garner front page mention and cement itself to his increasingly ignominious legacy—“nattering nabobs of negativism,” “vicars of vacillation,” and “pusillanimous pussyfooters.” He was a good soldier in the 1970 mid-terms, doing his part to help destroy the candidacies of Tennessee’s Albert Gore, Sr. and lambasting Nixon GOP enemy Charles Goodell* as ideologically emasculated, calling him “the Christine Jorgenson of the Republican Party”—perhaps the only transgender smear in national politics before or since. As 1972 approached, there were even a smattering of “Spiro Of ’76” buttons and bumperstickers touting Agnew’s ascendance after he and his President dismantled the Democrats.
It was no surprise that, as Rick Perlstein notes, Nixon listed as number six of his seven top priorities in 1972: “The Vice President…must be toned down.”
Had he survived his two terms with Nixon and not been among the first of the President’s men to take an axe in the chest, however, it’s uncertain if Agnew would have had the popular appeal to succeed to the Presidency on his own. A television news crew visited a Baltimore tavern at the height of Agnew’s law-and-order pep rally, and asked the regulars if they were proud of their former Governor and County Executive? Why, they sure were! Would they want him to become President? Well…Said one, “I don’t want the president of the United States to sound like I do after I’ve had a few beers.”
It would be years before America was ready for an independent Vice President, like Mondale or Gore, and decades before they were ready for an angry one. One would have to reach all the way back to the Jefferson White House to find a Vice President of Agnew’s independence, bearing, eloquence, opinion…and indictment. Surely none since Aaron Burr.
Since he was never destined for Mount Rushmore, perhaps it was his legacy’s misfortune that he never shot a Treasury Secretary or attempted a treasonous liaison with a foreign power, and instead only accepted bribes in the basement of the Old Senate Office Building.
His bulldog reputation preceded him in his life after politics: Nixon White House adversary Alexander Haig reportedly told his wife that if he were ever found murdered, Agnew would be among the likeliest suspects. In the 1980s, his influence landed him a job brokering a deal for Saddam Hussein to purchase uniforms for the Iraqi military from Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu.
*Nixon loathed Nelson Rockefeller, who as New York Governor had appointed Goodell to fill the slain Bobby Kennedy’s seat.