Unloved by the corporate elite’s media, Spiro Agnew suffered the slings and arrows of poisoned liberal pens while he held America’s second highest office (1969-1973) and after his time in office and at his time of passing was ignored as if the Agnew Vice Presidency never happened. So it is no surprise that Agnew’s name draws a blank stare from so many today.
But in many ways the Nixon era was more about Spiro Agnew than it was about Nixon himself. Spiro Agnew clearly expressed more of a rebuttal to the far left protest, destructive counter culturalism and social disintegration than President Nixon would ever articulate. In fact, those of us well to the right of center do not see Nixon, from a historical perspective, as much of a conservative. His near abandonment of Taiwan for détentewith the Chinese Communists would have been denounced as virtual treason if his unsuccessful rivals Senator Mc Govern or Vice President Humphrey had engineered these policies.
Similarly, the wage and price freezes enacted by the Nixon Administration were from the John Maynard Keynes school of interventionist economics, not from any theory of economics that Republicans usually embrace.
Nixon was also member of the leading globalist think tank organization for years, the United World Federalists, an organization which advocates the imposition of a supernational legal structure over existing national governments to limit the potential for wars. This "one worldism’ is in fact not representative of most of the "Silent Majority’ of America’s heartland from which the GOP drew its support. They weren’t the folks Spiro Agnew was directing his comments to. Nixon was closer to the silk stocking Rockefeller Republicans, and even adopted Henry Kissinger from the elite, Rockefeller sponsored Council on Foreign Relations to provide him with National Security advice and, despite his rough edges, was as much an insider in the elite world as one could be.
Agnew represented something else. While Nixon attended Duke University law School and represented Pepsi as its counsel, Agnew worked his way through evening law school in a grocery store. From a humble Greek immigrant family, Spiro Agnew began to personify the middle class reaction to an America that began to disappoint those who cherished its glory, prosperity and decency.
Recall, if you can, America in 1969, when the Nixon Agnew team took office. Student protesters were tearing America apart over the unpopular war in Vietnam. On Boston Common, or even on Washington Mall, the Viet Cong flag, the flag of our enemy, was a common sight Avowedly communist groups such as SDS and the Weathermen, were rioting and bombing on campuses, and taking over University administration buildings.
The so-called ‘flower power: of the hippie days, turned into the blood soaked ‘Helter Skelter’ of the Manson murders in California, when a drug addled tribe of cultists raided the homes of wealthy celebrities in Beverly Hills and committed the most atrocious murders. This was a counter culture that no longer was about ‘peace and love."
To make matters worse, the country fell into recession. Stock market woes, unemployment and inflation plagued the country during many of the Nixon Agnew years.
Liberal opponents of the President, then as now, made constant partisan attacks on our policies and had the press pretty much in its pocket.
But Agnew spoke directly to America in language it could understand about issues that clearly hit a raw nerve, answering the defeatism of the press by referring to journalists as " nattering nabobs of negativity" and as an " effete corps of impudent snobs." While the sophomores at Harvard and New York University might have a felt a moral superiority, the voters in 1972 liked the Nixon Agnew team enough to reject the challenge of George McGovern’s student led insurgency and returned the Nixon Agnew team to the White House.
He correctly pointed out that the student led anti-war movement was influenced by seditious elements and, while being a strong advocate of civil rights, cautioned against the extremism that some in the civil rights movement gravitated to. For this he was vilified by the press and turned into a punch line on such shows as Laugh In and the Smothers Brothers. But the Hollywood cultural elite and Eastern seaboard media now keep Agnew in a historical memory hole.
Spiro Agnew’s greatest service to the nation arguably was about challenging the media. He targeted the Washington Post, Newsweek and the New York Times, pointing out the concentration of power, the diversity of media they owned, and the unfairness of the use of corporate media power to drill home one point of view to the American people. This he said all the while pointing out how he understood that while the First Amendment protected them, it also protected him, and that he would not be deterred by the opposition’s shrill whining.
To be true to the record, Spiro Agnew did make some unpleasant remarks occasionally which could be considered bigoted and callous. There can be no excuse for calling a reporter a ‘ Fat Jap.’ or saying , when asked to visit an underprivileged neighborhood " You’ve seen one slum you’ve seen ‘em all." But Orthodox Jews appreciated him. His long time support for Israel was welcomed by the segment of the Jewish community that understood he was a friend, at least while in office. After leaving office, his expressed sympathies changed dramatically and he lobbied for Kuwaiti interests.
Unfortunately, in the end, Vice -President Agnew’s moral compass appeared to have been in a direction other than straight. Indictments for tax evasion and extortion resulting from kickbacks from his days in Maryland politics brought about his resignation and replacement. Bitter at opponents and believing himself to be unfairly deprived of a chance at the White House, Agnew retired to sunny Rancho Mirage, California living out the remainder of his life as a business consultant and hanging on the golf course with neighbors such as Frank Sinatra.
Despite his flaws, Spiro Agnew was a figure that Republicans can learn much from. Middle America loved Spiro Agnew because he stood up to the power elite in the mass media and slammed them. He knew that the liberals at the Washington Post and elsewhere did not have the agreement of most Americans and that is why, of course, we have had so many center-right Republican victories in Presidential elections.
The real lesson, then can be succintly stated: Agnew was great because he fought back.
The author is Chairman of the Hull, Massachusetts Republican Town Committee. He practices law in Newton.