Nixon was axing Agnew, Haldeman diaries reveal

ON POLITICS

May 18, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The just-published diaries of Nixon White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman reveal the telling saga of the rise and fall of Vice President Spiro Agnew within the Nixon administration even before his forced resignation in October 1973.

Haldeman's diaries paint Agnew as a man who first won praise by President Richard Nixon as hard-knuckle point man against Vietnam War protesters, liberal critics and the news media, but then got so out of hand that Nixon wanted to dump him even before the 1972 election, in favor of John B. Connally, his Treasury secretary.

Haldeman portrays Agnew as a sometimes loose cannon who made himself a household name with his strong and alliterative rhetoric but balked about not being brought into policy-making, and eventually was seen by Nixon as a detriment.

According to the diaries, as early as April 7, 1971, Nixon told Haldeman of his dissatisfaction with Agnew. In a discussion about the shortcomings of his Cabinet, Haldeman wrote, Nixon "got to talking about Connally and the VP, and revealed his thought that the way out of the whole deal is to have the VP resign later this year, which then gives the P [Nixon] the dTC opportunity to appoint a new VP under the new law of succession [the 25th Amendment]. This [is] subject to a majority approval of both houses of Congress. He [Nixon] would then appoint Connally, which would set him up for succession" to the presidency.

On July 20, Nixon told Haldeman, according to the diaries, that it was important that Agnew resign well before the next campaign so that he could pick Connally quickly and forestall a fight in the party for the 1972 vice presidential nomination, out of fear that "[Ronald] 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 he resigns, the better."

Nixon told Haldeman to start building up Connally, and on April 20, after Agnew had been critical of Nixon's so-called "Ping-Pong diplomacy" facilitating an exchange of table tennis players with China, Haldeman wrote that Nixon had told him "Agnew shows qualities here that are very damaging. He wants me to talk privately with Connally, and to move very, very slowly, but to start getting him with it, in this area of possible Vice Presidential candidate."

On June 27, Haldeman discussed the office with Connally, who told him "he is inclined to agree that he [Agnew] is more of a liability than an asset, and that replacement would probably be a good idea if it could be done without creating a stir."

In July, trusted Nixon aide Bryce Harlow was placed on Agnew's plane and reported that "there's a three-out-of-four chance that of his own volition, the VP will withdraw from the ticket, probably in January or so, and that he has some very lucrative outside offers that he'd like to take on, and wants to take on the battle of the press from outside the government, so that thing looks as if it's pretty much lined up."

On July 19, according to the diaries, Nixon talked to Connally directly and then told Haldeman he "took him to the mountaintop, by which he meant he talked to him about the Vice Presidency." The next day, Haldeman wrote, Nixon told Connally that he was "the only man who can be P." Connally replied that "he had no ambition for the job . . . as a matter of fact, he wasn't at all sure he could stand being VP, that it seemed a very useless job and he was much better off as a Cabinet officer."

But Nixon told him, Haldeman wrote, that with "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 means that."

Still, Nixon told Haldeman on Sept. 19 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 . . . whether or not he intends to drop him later, and he thinks also it's a good way to get the P out of the black VP question, which is sure to arise."

In the end, Nixon dropped the plan and Agnew stayed -- until he was forced to resign while pleading no contest to a charge of income tax evasion.

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