Nixon wanted Agnew out, book says

May 18, 1994|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Richard M. Nixon considered dumping Vice President Spiro T. Agnew long before the 1972 re-election campaign and replacing him with Treasury Secretary John B. Connally, to put Connally on track for the presidency later, according to the late H. R. Haldeman, Mr. Nixon's chief of staff.

Mr. Nixon, Mr. Haldeman wrote in his diaries just published posthumously, wanted to get Mr. Agnew to resign before 1972 so he could invoke the new 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for a president to nominate someone to fill a vice presidential vacancy. Earlier reports had claimed that Mr. Nixon wanted to dump Mr. Agnew only from the 1972 ticket.

A main reason Mr. Nixon wanted to act early rather than simply say Mr. Agnew would not run with him again in 1972, Mr. Haldeman wrote, was to forestall a fight for the vice presidential nomination that Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, would likely win.

"We couldn't afford a battle," Mr. Haldeman said Mr. Nixon told him on July 20, 1971, "because out of that, Reagan would clearly come up with the nomination, which would be disastrous. Conclusion then is if Agnew is not going to be on the ticket, he must get off by resignation. Given that, the sooner the better."

But Mr. Connally, while agreeing that Mr. Agnew probably should be dumped, was cool to the idea of becoming vice president even after Mr. Nixon indicated that the position would be greatly upgraded if he agreed to take it, Mr. Haldeman wrote.

Mr. Connally told Mr. Nixon in his presence, Mr. Haldeman wrote, "that he had no ambition for the job" and "that as a matter of fact he wasn't at all sure he could stand being VP, that it seemed like a very useless job, and he was much better off as a Cabinet officer."

At that point, according to the diaries, Mr. Nixon "jumped on that, emphasized that depended totally on who the VP was and how he worked with the [president]. With the two of them and the relationship they have, the VP could be an extremely meaningful job, much more so than it's ever been in history. He would use him as an alternate P, and I'm convinced he really meant it."

In the end, Mr. Agnew stayed on the ticket and was re-elected with Mr. Nixon in 1972. But he resigned in October 1973, amid charges that he had taken kickbacks from Maryland contractors as Baltimore County executive, governor and even as vice president in his office in the White House. After Mr. Agnew's resignation, Mr. Nixon chose Gerald R. Ford to replace him.

Even as Mr. Nixon was contemplating trying to get Mr. Agnew to quit the vice presidency, he was saying it would be good politics to say he could stay on the ticket if he wanted to, Mr. Haldeman wrote.

Mr. Nixon told him on Sept. 19, 1971, his chief of staff wrote, that "it would be good to indicate his confidence in Agnew and say that if Agnew so desires, he intends to keep him on the ticket. He recalled the damage that was done to [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower in '56 by his hesitation on keeping Nixon. It raised hell with the Nixon friends and the conservatives, made Eisenhower look bad, as these people pounded on it.

"The P's view," according to Mr. Haldeman, "is that Agnew is a liability, although we can't prove it, and the only way we could check this is to run a tandem trial heat process, but he still thinks he should indicate his support, whether or not he intends to drop him later."

Mr. Nixon told him, Mr. Haldeman wrote, that "he thinks also it's a good way to get the P out of the black VP question, which is sure to arise," although there was little clamor in the Republican Party to put a black on the ticket at that time. Mr. Nixon further told him, Mr. Haldeman wrote, that "the advantages of backing Agnew now would be that it totally mutes the press on the question and it pulls the rug out from under the extreme right."

Mr. Agnew's problems with the president, who had plucked him from national obscurity at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, set in after the vice president's performance as his point man in attacking Vietnam War protesters, liberals and the news media that was highly praised by Mr. Nixon and his political associates in the first two years of his presidency. Mr. Haldeman recounted numerous meetings at which Agnew attacks were planned and approved, and applauded upon their completion.

But Mr. Haldeman also told of a growing dissatisfaction by Mr. Agnew over his failure to get involved in policy making and over being held on a short leash after his sharp and aggressive rhetoric, later often viewed as excessive within the White House, made him a household name in his own right, a darling of the party's right wing and a prospective presidential candidate himself for 1976, after a second Nixon term.

The first indication of Mr. Nixon's thoughts of dumping Mr.

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