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Lance Morrow On The Death Of Agnew

Naysayer to the Nattering Nabobs

Spiro T. Agnew, 1918-1996

By Lance Morrow

(TIME, September 30) -- Once upon a time in the '60s, in the days when the culture wars began, there lived an obscure first-term Governor of Maryland--a sleek-looking silvery man who wore sharkskin suits and had hooded eyes that got very small when he was angry. At such moments he looked like a bullet. His name was Spiro Agnew.

Everyone in America was angry in the spring of 1968. After Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, there were riots in many American cities, including Baltimore. Governor Agnew called in the city's black civil-rights leaders and gave them holy hell. The tongue lashing caught the attention of Richard Nixon. At the Republican Convention that summer, when it came time for him to pick a Vice President, he surprised everyone by coming up with Spiro Agnew. In Nixon's calculus, Agnew was a safe-bet border-state novice with no heavy baggage and a Greek-immigrant father, which would help with the ethnic vote. He had been known as a Republican moderate, based on his campaign for Governor against a Democrat who ran on what was then a racially inflammatory slogan: "Your home is your castle." But Agnew could also talk tough. The press said, "Spiro who?"

Agnew did not remain obscure for long. Every Vice President must invent a life for himself. Nixon and Agnew played good cop-bad cop. Agnew created his role as a menacing though semisatirical rabble-rouser of the much-maligned love-it-or-leave-it Silent Majority of Americans who wished, against their mounting disquiet, to believe in their government's war. The struggle defined itself in cultural conflict. Alabama's Governor George Wallace had gone national as an angry outsider-populist and blue-collar backlasher. Agnew became a kind of insider Establishment populist, attacking "elites," meaning the media and intellectuals emerging as the liberal-minded new class of the information age. With the help of White House speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire, Agnew developed a distinctive, jeering speech style that mixed some heavy fun into the contempt.

In a 1969 speech against war protesters, he said, "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." "In the United States today," Agnew told a 1970 audience in San Diego, "we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism." He went after "pusillanimous pussyfooters" and "vicars of vacillation" and "the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history."

In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, drafted by Buchanan, Agnew took on the press, which he said was dominated by a "tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one." It was a frontal assault, raising issues of media bias, arrogance and unaccountability that are still banging around in the American mind.

The nattering nabobs kept their ears open and reported Agnew's verbal misdemeanors of political incorrectness. On a campaign plane, Agnew saw a Japanese-American reporter dozing, and asked someone amiably, "What's the matter with the fat Jap?" Consternation ensued among the ethnically sensitive. Indignation again flared up after Agnew memorably declared, "To some extent, if you've seen one city slum, you've seen them all." That thought made it into Bartlett's.

After Spiro Agnew died last week of acute leukemia at the age of 77, his onetime campaign press secretary Victor Gold said, "We speak of the Ronald Reagan revolution...Spiro Agnew was the John the Baptist for that revolution."

But Agnew was also the forerunner of the Richard Nixon collapse. The Watergate break-in occurred in June 1972, as the Nixon-Agnew ticket was on its way to a landslide victory over George McGovern and Sargent Shriver. A month after the second Nixon-Agnew Inaugural, it came out that a grand jury in Baltimore was investigating Agnew on charges of bribery and tax evasion dating from his earlier career in Maryland.

Rough days for Agnew. An old friend, Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, called to commiserate. The allegations were retailed to his old enemies in the press, and after first trying to stop the leaks, Agnew capitulated. In October 1973 he made a deal with the prosecutors: he pleaded no contest to one count of income-tax evasion and resigned his office--the first Vice President ever to be forced from office for legal reasons. The government agreed not to pursue Agnew further. But in a Maryland taxpayers' suit, a civil court found in 1981 that Agnew had solicited $147,500 in bribes as Baltimore county executive and as Governor--and that he had accepted the final $17,500 in cash when he was Vice President.

Agnew then vanished from public life, maintaining his innocence and resenting the fact that Nixon had done nothing to protect him from his accusers. He did, however, re-emerge briefly to attend Nixon's funeral in 1994. Agnew built a new career brokering international business deals, some of which involved Arab states. He accumulated enough wealth to buy a house in Rancho Mirage, California.

One would see him ghosting through airports from time to time, and when one's eyes would lock on his for an instant, in recognition, Agnew's face would flicker with a secret, wolfish, almost subliminal smile. Then he would turn and disappear.

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