Nixon in the Free State

April 28, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

Richard M. Nixon's bittersweet association with Maryland included a portentious visit to the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis in 1968 and the ominous moment in 1974 when then-Rep. Paul S. Sarbanes presented one four articles of impeachment to the U.S. House of Representatives.

It was a hot June night in 1968 when Mr. Nixon attended a fund-raiser at the Governor's Mansion that had been arranged to create a slush fund for Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. "The Governor's Club," it was called, and annual membership was $1,000 per fat cat.

On the mansion steps afterward, Mr. Nixon gave the first hint that Mr. Agnew's career was on the ascent.

"I assure you," Mr. Nixon said. "that if I'm elected there will be two piano players in the White House," a reference to the kitschy coincidence that both he and Mr. Agnew were amateur -- very amateur -- pianists who played by ear.

The two men had been introduced by Louise Gore, the Maryland Republican national committeewoman and party doyenne of the moment.

At the GOP convention later that summer, Rep. Rogers C. B. Morton of the Eastern shore was slouching through the lobby of the Fountainbleau Hotel at 6 o'clock on the morning after Mr. Nixon's nomination. A reporter asked Mr. Morton who the vice presidential nominee would be.

"Why don't you try Agnew?" Mr. Morton replied.

The reporter shrugged off the remark and walked away laughing, not knowing that Mr. Morton had just left the meeting where the choice had been made. Mr. Morton went on to become Mr. Nixon's secretary of the interior. Helen Delich Bentley was appointed chair of the Federal Maritime Commission and later served as a courier for some of Mr. Nixon's illicit campaign money.

Mr. Nixon lost Maryland to Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968 on the cusp of the black vote despite -- or perhaps because of -- Mr. Agnew's presence on the ticket. Humphrey carried Maryland with the help of Marvin Mandel, then Democratic party chairman, and the late political impresario Irv Kovens. Mr. Kovens was even able to persuade Frank Sinatra to come to Baltimore and put on a fund-raiser for Humphrey.

In 1970, Mr. Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) diverted $180,000 of the so-called "townhouse money" into Maryland to defeat Democrat Sen. Joseph D. Tydings with the help of anti-Tydings Democrats who instructed Republicans on the delicate art of applying "walk-around" money to Democratic political clubs.

In 1972, Mr. Mandel, by then chairman of the Democratic Governors' Caucus, became the first governor to speak out against the Watergate break-in. In a nationally televised speech to the Democratic National Convention in Miami, Mr. Mandel denounced Mr. Nixon and his aides as "a cynical power elite."

A week later, Mr. Mandel's closest political associates -- Dale Hess, Harry Rodgers and Mr. Kovens -- formed a committee called "Democrats for Nixon." Mr. Mandel protested at the time that he had no knowledge of the unnatural alliance.

By 1972 there was a movement in Republican circles to dump Mr. Agnew, who had by then developed a constituency of his own even though he was an outsider in the Nixon White House. In 1971 Mr. Agnew had confessed to an executive session of the National Governors' Conference, meeting in San Juan, P.R., that he'd been cut off by Mr. Nixon's palace guard. To strengthen his position, Mr. Agnew asked the governors to adopt a resolution formally requesting that the White House designate him liaison to the states.

In 1973, during a commencement address at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Mr. Mandel again attacked Mr. Nixon and Watergate in a speech that was circulated around the nation by the Democratic National Committee. In it, Mr. Mandel thundered that "a few grubby little men have humbled this once proud and mighty nation."

At the apogee of Mr. Nixon's Watergate troubles, Bob Hope, the comedian, organized a national day of support for the president, highlighted by a patriotic parade in Washington. Mr. Hope personally called Mr. Mandel to ask him to serve on the parade committee. Mr. Mandel refused.

But get-even time soon arrived. During the gasoline crisis of 1973, the Nixon administration punished Mr. Mandel and Maryland by setting the state's gasoline allocation at impractically low levels. But Mr. Mandel turned the crisis to his advantage. He sued the administration in federal court and became a hero by winning greater allocations and even larger headlines.

The legendary enmity between Mr. Mandel and President Jimmy Carter traces, in part, to a meeting of Democratic governors in Lake Huron, Ohio, when Mr. Carter was governor of Georgia.

On the very day after Mr. Nixon's "I am not a crook" speech, Mr. Carter arrived at the meeting with a resolution affirming Mr. Nixon's innocence and placing the Democratic governors on record as supporting the Republican president.

Mr. Mandel was outraged. He not only condemned the Carter resolution but countered with a screed of his own that denounced Mr. Nixon and the Watergate incident. Mr. Mandel's resolution was adopted unanimously by the Democratic governors except for the lone holdout of Mr. Carter.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes about Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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