To you, happy birthday to you, happy...


November 09, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Spir-o, happy birthday to you.

Yes, today the most famous and successful Maryland politician of all time turns 73.

I suppose I have to explain to some of you who he is. Time fugits. Tempus flies. Last Tuesday in states with elections some people voted who were not yet born when, on Oct. 10, 1973, Spiro T. Agnew stood erect and immaculate in a federal courtroom in Baltimore and resigned the vice presidency of the United States in return for not going to jail for income tax evasion.

Agnew's rise was almost as breathtaking as his fall. In 1962, he was a private and not very successful lawyer who had just been thrown off the Baltimore County Board of Zoning Appeals. He couldn't get a job in any of the big law firms. But in a series of flukes, he was elected county executive that year, governor in 1966, vice president in 1968, re-elected in 1972 and immediately groomed for president, appeared likely in 1973 to make it to the White House even before 1977, when a posse of impeachers closed in on President Richard Nixon, then had to plea bargain away his office and right of succession to stay out of prison for not paying taxes on kickbacks and bribes.

...* * *

I thought of Agnew the other day when David Duke called Edwin Edwards "a radical liberal."

No, no, NO, I am not calling Agnew a Ku Kluxer or a Nazi. It is just that that phrase "radical liberal" is pure Agnew.

He began using it over and over in 1970 when President Nixon sent him out to campaign for Republicans trying to unseat liberal Democratic senators.

Agnew and a group of high-octane speech writers assigned by the White House -- including Pat Buchanan and William Safire, who have since gone straight and become journalists -- came up with the phrase as a description of senators on the target list. Agnew, himself, created the portmanteau version -- "radiclib" -- and employed it with gusto. But without the desired impact. Republicans registered a net gain of two senators; the announced goal was seven.

This "attack journalism" was much decried in those days. Agnew became the left's favorite whipping boy. Because he was often on the same side of the racial debate as real racists, he was accused of being in sympathy with them.

We see this today. Because George Bush, for example, often criticizes some forms of affirmative action, some of his opponents yoke him and David Duke and other racists. I think that's a mistake, not only because it's wrong, but also and primarily because its principal effect is not to hurt the Bushes of politics but to help the Dukes. A lot of citizens who flatly reject racism reason, well, if what Duke is saying is just another version of what Bush is saying, then maybe it's not so bad, and they vote for him.

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