Haldeman's notes show Agnew muzzled and then exploited as 'good property'

March 07, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

Except when he was deep in the heart of America setting of oratorical explosions, Spiro T. Agnew was never particularly happy with his job as vice president, and the tale of his White House woe can be found in the daily notes of presidential aide H. R. Haldeman.

More than any other member of President Richard M. Nixon's inner circle, Mr. Haldeman saw to it that Mr. Agnew was leashed and muzzled whenever on the premises. And because Mr. Haldeman was the first and last person to see the president most workdays, his notes are also a window on the thoughts of Mr. Nixon.

Yet, Mr. Haldeman and his boss also helped create the role Mr. Agnew grew to enjoy, that of the mouthpiece of grumbling armchair conservatism -- the nation's most notable nattering nabob. Forbidden from stirring the caldron of policy, he was permitted at least to stir the passions of the middle class.

Mr. Haldeman's notes, handwritten on yellow, legal-sized note pads and White House stationery, are stored with the Nixon White House archives in Alexandria, Va.

In The Sun's examination of those notes, perhaps the most telling passages were from the months leading up to Mr. Agnew's verbal bombardment of the major television networks on Nov. 13, 1969, in Des Moines, Iowa.

The speech, carried live by all three networks (though not before the White House considered asking a Texas tycoon named Ross Perot to buy the time), bashed news commentators for everything from "instant analysis" to archly raised eyebrows. It became the most celebrated event of his career.

But seven months earlier, in April, Mr. Haldeman established exactly who was behind this production -- Mr. Nixon and a handful of top advisers. He also began clamping down on Mr. Agnew's access to the president.

After Mr. Agnew made it known that he wished to see the president once a week, Mr. Haldeman wrote in April 1969, following a meeting with the president, that the vice president "must not see P. [the president] every week . . . must not be involved in making decisions . . . must get away from apparent need (obsession) to establish an independent position & must stop worrying about personal status -- ie.

Dr.-stewards-plane-offices-staff-early-invites to parties-etc."

Mr. Agnew was ill-equipped to fight back.

didn't have any stomach for government at that level," said his military adviser, Gen. John "Mike" Dunn. "You're running into buzz saws all over the place if you don't know what you're doing. And he didn't like bureaucracy."

Aides say he may also have been too much of a "regular guy" for his own good. David A. Keene, Mr. Agnew's principal political assistant, recalled, "He was just as happy playing cards with Secret Service agents as he was meeting meeting the president someone else. His wife still bowled. He did not become pompous."

But Mr. Haldeman saw possibilities in Mr. Agnew. He consistently praised the vice president's performances on national talk shows, and by the fall of that year he'd found a target for Mr. Agnew.

"Need to focus on TV -- esp. top news analysts," Mr. Haldeman wrote on Oct. 1. "get WH [White House] line . . . on key issues . . . zero in on Agnew, [and Cabinet members]."

The Des Moines speech became part of a huge propaganda campaign that fall to cast Mr. Nixon as leader of a "silent majority," encircled by a loud, liberal minority. Most of the noise concerned the Vietnam War, and only a week before Mr. Agnew's address, Mr. Nixon exhorted the silent majority to speak out. The president's speech was a triumph.

The anti-war movement, meanwhile, was reaching its climax with the Vietnam War Moratorium, a weekend of mass demonstrations and nationwide protests.

L A peripheral player in the White House effort was Mr. Perot.

The Nixon administration was already milking publicity from Mr. Perot's campaign -- United We Stand -- to drum up support for U.S. prisoners of war, but the Nixon men were also intrigued by the power of his money, and as the war moratorium approached, Mr. Haldeman wrote:

"On Moratorium -- use 2 good crews. get best TV crew we can to take the worst possible film and 4-5 still photogs -- for WH records. have Perot or Stone [not further identified] do this -- from outside of WH under orders to get the worst we can. maybe can get a network to use."

Then, on Nov. 11, two days before Mr. Agnew's speech, Mr. Haldeman noted, "Maybe buy 1/2 hr. prime for Agnew. do it on TV. have Perot pay for it."

There is no indication in Mr. Haldeman's notes that anyone took this idea further.

And once the networks saw the advance text of Mr. Agnew's speech, they decided to televise it live.

That's because it was a bombshell. Mr. Agnew railed against the concentration of news media power "in the hands of a tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one."

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