How Quayle Is Bush's Agnew

May 12, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

When it comes to the politics of vice presidential choices, I wrote the book. In fact I wrote two books. Well, make that one and a half.

In 1968, I spent 10 weeks as a reporter for The Sun covering the campaign of Democratic vice presidential candidate Edmund Muskie. I took two short leaves from that assignment to cover the vice presidential campaign of the Republican candidate, Spiro T. Agnew, while The Sun man assigned to the Agnew campaign, Gene Oishi, came onto the Muskie plane.

Subsequently I wrote biographies of both men. "Muskie," written in collaboration with Portland Press Herald political editor Don Hansen, came out in 1971. I wrote "Spiro Agnew's America" by myself. It came out in 1972.

In 1968, then-Senator Muskie -- wise, informed, decent -- was praised far and wide for the assistance he was giving the Democratic candidate for president, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Then-Governor Agnew was ridiculed far and wide for his many seemingly ignorant, insensitive statements ("If you've seen one slum, you've seen 'em all.") A Bill Mauldin cartoon summed up the conventional wisdom. Titled "Running Mates," it showed the four candidates in track suits. Richard Nixon was carrying a muzzled Agnew, racing Muskie carrying Humphrey.

A Harris Poll showed Americans favored Muskie over Agnew by 41 to 24 percent.

Of course, Nixon won. Despite Agnew? No, because of him.

At least, that was the view of pollster Lou Harris at the time. Agnew was regarded in the border states and upper South as tough on civil rights. He reinforced that view in his otherwise fumbling campaign by borrowing third-party segregationist candidate George Wallace's language and, to a degree, his views. He convinced many conservatives in "Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma," according to Harris, to vote Republican rather than for Wallace. He convinced them Nixon was on their side.

Without those voters, Wallace might have tilted the election to Humphrey or at the least cut Nixon's Electoral College vote enough to throw the decision into the Democratic House of Representatives.

That lesson applies today. Vice presidential candidates are usually chosen not so much for their abilities and general appeal as for their views and specialized appeal. They symbolize a president's pledge to honor a certain bloc or wing of the party (or even of the other party). In Dan Quayle's case, as in Agnew's, it was the right wing.

Unlike campaign rhetoric and platform planks, the choice of a running mate is irrevocable. George Bush may say "read my lips, no new taxes," and everybody knows he might still raise taxes. But when he picks Dan Quayle to placate the right, to give it a presence and an advocate in the highest councils of government and party politics, everybody knows he's there for the term.

As a rule, these choices are there for the second term, too. In fact, it is presumed to be much more politically dangerous to disappoint a bloc by dumping its hero than by not taking him in the first place. Nixon wanted to dump Agnew, but didn't dare.

I knew Ted Agnew. Ted Agnew was an acquaintance of mine. And, folks, Dan Quayle is a Ted Agnew. An object of ridicule -- deservedly so, much of the time -- but politically necessary for the president who selected him.

It will almost surely be Bush-Quayle in 1992.

Theo Lippman is a columnist and editorial writer for The Sun.


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