Agnew's papers provide bits of the bad old days ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

March 11, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

COLLEGE PARK -- When the first batch of the papers of Spiro T. Agnew, the first American vice president to resign in disgrace, were opened to researchers at the University of Maryland the other day, you might have expected at least a respectable showing of the curious. But only three newspaper reporters and some television cameramen to do quickie interviews turned out for the occasion.

The rest of American journalism must have been tipped off. The files of Agnew's tenure as Baltimore County executive, governor and vice president were almost entirely boilerplate stuff -- public speeches, press releases, trip itineraries, lists of official gifts received, and the like. Agnew's having screened the papers before their release should have been a signal that no treasure trove of new information would be found.

Still, there were a few items that brought back the bad old days of a Nixon administration that majored in hard-knuckle politics, with Agnew as its most vocal purveyor. One was a memo from Pat Buchanan, then a Nixon White House speech writer and later a newspaper columnist, television commentator and, last year, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Buchanan informed Agnew that a planned 1971 White House Conference on Youth was going to be "thrown over the side" by "decentralizing it to death." Buchanan then provided Agnew with a statement the gist of which was that the administration wanted to guarantee that the conference represented all aspects of American youth by reaching out beyond campus leaders, who at that time were in the forefront of the Vietnam War protest. The conference finally was held in a remote park in Colorado, but in spite of efforts to defang it, the attendees wound up hammering Nixon on Vietnam and calling for amnesty for all draft violators and exiles.

Other memos to Agnew from Buchanan and William Safire, now a New York Times columnist, proposed answers to questions he might expect in television interview shows and other forums.

Regarding Nixon's nocturnal visit to the Lincoln Memorial in February 1971, when Nixon engaged Vietnam War protesters in sports talk, Safire advised Agnew to defend Nixon as simply being civil.

"I do not think that either you or I should enter into a conversation with a chip on our shoulders, looking to take offense," Safire advised the frequently chip-shouldered vice president to say. "There is a civility in life that helps communication, and does not hinder it." This to one whose language was widely criticized as harsh and offensive toward his targets.

Safire and Buchanan were, in fact, the authors of some of Agnew's most biting and critical speeches, including the vituperative alliterations for which Agnew became famous. In another memo, Safire offered Agnew an answer if asked whether he used "a lot of big words and catchy alliteration . . . [as] just an attempt to confuse people, or make fun of people," and why he couldn't "use plain English."

After giving Agnew catchy phrases used by earlier political figures, including "pussyfooters" by Theodore Roosevelt and "snollygosters" by Harry Truman, Safire suggested that Agnew say: "This isn't vicious or underhanded -- it's political combat. The people who complain about it most are usually those who can't come up with the colorful language themselves." Thus wrote the speech writer who came up with the colorful language for Agnew, including "pusillanimous pussyfooters."

Buchanan's proposed answers were the same mixture of tough talk and biting sarcasm for which he has become known as a political commentator and candidate.

To a theoretical question about spending billions "for going to the moon when people are starving and dying in the United States," Buchanan suggested that Agnew say: "Suppose a group around Isabella had said, 'Don't give that money to Columbus for his crazy adventure; let's spend it on a Head Start program in Barcelona.' Would the world be better off?"

One thing not anywhere to be found in the Agnew papers was any indication that he thought he had done anything wrong warranting his removal from office. Another batch is to be released later, but don't hold your breath.

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