Archives show guiding hands behind Agnew 56 boxes of papers opened for perusal

March 09, 1993|By Dan Fesperman and Jules Witcover | Dan Fesperman and Jules Witcover,Staff Writers

COLLEGE PARK -- After a 19-year wait, journalists began picking the bones of Spiro T. Agnew's archival legacy at the University of Maryland yesterday, and there were bones aplenty: 56 boxes of documents from his days as Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland and vice president of the United States.

The pickings, however, were fairly slim, especially where his vice presidential career was concerned.

One reason is that most of Mr. Agnew's vice presidential papers won't be sorted and released for several more years. Another is that Mr. Agnew got first crack at the papers, and university librarians don't know what, if anything, he might have held out of the public record.

But a third explanation can be found in the nature of his job. Vice presidents aren't paid to make history, and it's usually only bad news when they do. Witness Mr. Agnew's claim to fame -- his resignation on Oct. 10, 1973, when he pleaded "no contest" to a charge of federal tax evasion. (A chronology that accompanied an article on Mr. Agnew in Sunday's Sun incorrectly stated that he pleaded guilty.)

Even when Mr. Agnew was able to make a positive splash during his days in office, his papers indicate that it was often others who did much of the splashing for him, under the close supervision of the White House.

One portion of the Agnew papers could be subtitled "The Wisdom of Pat Buchanan and William Safire," after the two White House speech writers who later became newspaper columnists and political commentators. Mr. Buchanan even ran for president last year, losing a bid for the Republican nomination.

While already known to be the authors of some of Mr. Agnew's more famous speeches, particularly the ones where he attacked White House enemies with tart-tongued, alliterative assaults, the archives show their additional role in guiding Mr. Agnew's words in news conferences, interviews, TV talk show appearances and other public appearances.

When Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Safire weren't available, other wordsmiths filled in with similar counsel, and press accounts of Mr. Agnew's later remarks show that he could follow the suggested scripts closely.

Just before Mr. Agnew went on the David Frost television show to debate the issue of campus unrest with four college students, Mr. Buchanan wrote in a memo that one of the students would surely claim that the vice president's divisive rhetoric helped spawn campus unrest. When that happened, Mr. Buchanan suggested that the vice president answer, "There has been violence and disorder on campus long before my name became a household word."

Indeed, one of the students asked the question, and Mr. Agnew responded, "Long before I became a household word, violence was rampant in this country."

Among the other revelations in the Agnew papers was an October 1969 staff memo that informed Mr. Agnew of advice from Chief Justice Warren E. Burger on how to win Senate confirmation of President Richard M. Nixon's nomination of Judge Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. to the Supreme Court. Judge Haynsworth was under fire from Democrats at the time on conflict-of-interest allegations as well as for his conservative views, and he ultimately was rejected by the Senate.

Mr. Agnew, preparing for an appearance on a network television interview show, was advised that Chief Justice Burger had told Herbert Klein, the Nixon White House director of communications, "that Charles Evans Hughes was one of the most controversial nominees to come before the Senate in this century but prevailed and was one of the most outstanding members in [the] court's history." Mr. Agnew was advised to mention this fact.

If the measure of Mr. Agnew's mark on history can be found in how many people showed up to rummage through his records, then his mark is small. Reporters for two newspapers and four television stations dropped by, and curator Lauren Brown, the university's chief archivist, said some scholars would inevitably follow -- many of them likely seeking insights on Mr. Agnew's boss, President Nixon.

But mostly what they'll find among the vice presidential papers released yesterday are numbing compilations of White House briefing books, position papers, press statements, news clippings, travel schedules, campaign speeches, billing records and loads and loads of trivia.

We learn, for instance: that Mr. Agnew dined on lamb chops and lime sherbet during his 1973 luncheon with President Omar Bongo of Gabon; that he doled out moon rocks in 11 countries while touring the Far East in late 1969; and that in 1970 he received a silver gong from the prime minister of Thailand and a tiger's skull inlaid with silver from the deputy prime minister.

One also learns, time and again, of Mr. Agnew's ongoing battle with the news media. Perhaps the most amusing installment is a series of letters back and forth between Mr. Agnew's press secretary, Vic Gold, and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, Mel Elfin.

Mr. Elfin ends the spat by writing, tongue firmly in cheek, "Given the enormous boom in books about correspondence [between famous people], perhaps you and I can make an initial contribution to history by preserving our letters for inclusion in the Ronald Ziegler Library [Mr. Ziegler was President Nixon's press secretary], which I understand is going to be built near the tennis court of the Surf and Sand Motel at Laguna Beach."

Yesterday, history at long last acknowledged Mr. Elfin's contribution.

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