Now Agnew's home is HIS castle

Baltimore Glimpses

March 16, 1993|By Gilbert Sandler

WITH the opening of his papers to public view at th University of Maryland (and a major article in the Sunday Sun by Dan Fesperman), Spiro Agnew is back in the news big-time.

The former food market personnel manager (Schreiber's, downtown) who made it to within a heartbeat of the presidency only to lose everything two decades ago, has been making gobs of money as an international broker of such things as arms and military uniforms.

Agnew is the perfect person about whom to play the game of What If.

What if George P. Mahoney, in a hare-brained scheme to run for Maryland governor in 1966, had not used the slogan "Your Home Is Your Castle . . . Protect It."

It was 1966. Gov. Millard Tawes could not succeed himself and Maryland's Democrats were having one of those shoot-yourself-in-the-foot campaigns for which they are famous. They fielded four candidates in the primary: Thomas Finan, Carlton R. Sickles, Clarence W. Miles -- and a six-time loser named Mahoney. Baltimore City Comptroller Hyman Pressman ran as an independent.

The Republicans fielded only one serious candidate, Baltimore County Executive Spiro T. Agnew. He was perceived as a solid, clear-thinking and progressive public servant. But this Democrat-turned-Republican (in a solidly Democratic state) was able to take advantage of the fractious Democrats.

In a bruising primary, to the surprise of many, Mahoney won by just 2,000 votes and became the Democratic candidate. He pressed a single issue: race. Riding a wave of racial fear no doubt engendered by Alabama's George C. Wallace, Mahoney went about the state in a van with "Mahoney for Governor: Your Home Is Your Castle" emblazoned on both sides and the back. Bradford Jacobs, former editorial page editor of The Evening Sun and biographer of former Gov. Marvin Mandel, says Mahoney got the idea from political strategist Horace ("Buff") Elias.

And it seemed to work, at least at first. It forced a couple of his opponents, Sickles and Miles, to soften liberal stands on open housing. Agnew, who eventually would stand solidly behind President Nixon's thoroughly divisive "Southern strategy," saw the window of opportunity and jumped right through it. He ran as a liberal, eschewing race division, espousing harmony.

He came out strongly for open housing legislation that would apply to all new houses and apartments, not to existing real estate.

"It's easier," Agnew said, "to make [open housing] work in a new neighbor hood. Everyone is a stranger, there are no built-in attitudes or prejudices. Everybody is starting out together."

But at least he had a plan. He came across as the voice of sweet -- and moderate and progressive, even liberal -- reason.

Mr. Jacobs knew Agnew well: "He was awfully smooth -- and not just as a politician. I was always impressed by how immaculately he dressed. His hair was smooth, and so were his trousers. When he sat down, he never crossed his legs, so as not to crease his pants. But I would not have predicted either his victory or the pattern his career took. He rode the currents very well."

Agnew got a bigger part of the black vote than anyone coulhave imagined in a normal election. That, combined with the votes of liberal whites, gave him 455,000 votes to Mahoney's 374,000 and Pressman's 91,000.

And so, thanks to Mahoney's ill-considered campaign and Pressman's splitting of the vote, Agnew became Maryland's new governor. The rest, as they say, is history.

And Agnew is still making history. He plays a lot of golf at Rancho Mirage, Calif., and consorts with his good friend Frank Sinatra. His golf course-side home is said to be beautiful.

Something of a castle.

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