Nixon weighed Agnew for high court

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

WASHINGTON -- President Richard M. Nixon considered nominating Spiro T. Agnew for the Supreme Court in late 1971 to get him out of the vice presidency, but decided he could not be confirmed, according to John W. Ehrlichman, the Nixon White House counselor convicted of conspiracy and perjury in the Watergate cover-up.

The Supreme Court nomination, Mr. Ehrlichman said in a telephone interview this week with The Sun, was to induce Mr. Agnew to resign the vice presidency.

That would have cleared the way for Mr. Nixon to nominate his secretary of the treasury, John B. Connally, to the post and put Mr. Connally rather than Mr. Agnew in the line of succession for the presidency.

Mr. Nixon also thought that he might get Mr. Agnew to step aside by arranging for "some high-paying job" for him, Mr. Ehrlichman said, but: "Agnew wouldn't resign."

Attorney General John N. Mitchell "became Agnew's go-between and persuaded Nixon to keep him," said Mr. Ehrlichman, who now works for an environmental firm in Atlanta.

Efforts to reach Mr. Agnew, 75, at his home in California were unsuccessful.

Mr. Ehrlichman's recollections parallel the recently published White House diaries of Mr. Nixon's late chief of staff, H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, who indicated that the president had talked to him several times about removing Mr. Agnew.

Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Ehrlichman, a leading adviser on domestic policy, were the two closest White House confidantes of Mr. Nixon.

In addition to wanting to put Mr. Connally into the line of presidential, Mr. Nixon expressed concern that Mr. Agnew was not qualified to be president.

In a July 21, 1971, entry, Mr. Haldeman wrote that Mr. Nixon had observed "that he may not live through even this term, let alone a second term, because of the possibility of accident or ill-health. That raises the question of whether Agnew is somebody that we're willing to see become P [president]. He enumerated some of his problems, that he's dogmatic, his hidebound prejudices, totally inflexible, and that he sees things in minuscule terms."

If Mr. Ehrlichman is correct, Mr. Nixon apparently did not see such flaws as barriers to service on the Supreme Court.

At the time, two vacancies were about to open on the Supreme Court with the resignations of Justice Hugo L. Black, who resigned on Sept. 17, 1971, and died a week later, and Justice John M. Harlan, who resigned on Sept. 23.

Mr. Nixon "had a notion to put Agnew on the court," Mr. Ehrlichman said, "but he remembered that he had to be confirmed."

By that time, Mr. Agnew had become a highly partisan and divisive figure because of his vocal attacks on Nixon administration critics. The Senate, which would have had to approve an Agnew court nomination, was in Democratic hands.

Among those Mr. Nixon also weighed as court nominees, according to the Haldeman diaries, were Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and William French Smith, later attorney general under President Ronald Reagan. He apparently settled tentatively on Republican Rep. Richard H. Poff of Virginia, because of his conservative civil rights views. At one point, Mr. Agnew was perceived as a liberal with a strong civil rights record. But he became a hard-liner on civil rights after 1968 when as governor he clashed with black leaders in Baltimore over how to deal with the rioting that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There is no indication in the diaries, however, whether the consideration of Mr. Agnew for the Supreme Court nomination came in a civil rights context.

The two appointments finally went to Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William H. Rehnquist, later appointed chief justice.

Mr. Ehrlichman also confirmed Haldeman diary entries indicating that Mr. Nixon, after the 1972 re-election of the Nixon-Agnew team, had talks with Mr. Connally about forming a third party on whose ticket Mr. Connally would seek the presidency in 1976.

The idea was dropped, Mr. Ehrlichman said, when Mr. Connally decided that it wouldn't work.

Its mere contemplation, however, underscored how strongly Mr. Nixon felt that Mr. Agnew, whom he had kept as his running mate in 1972, should not become president in 1976.

Aside from Mr. Nixon, Mr. Agnew at that time was probably the most popular Republican in the country and was the early front-runner for the 1976 GOP presidential nomination.

Mr. Agnew, highly regarded as a tough partisan in the early part of the first Nixon term, fell into disfavor with Mr. Nixon over the president's efforts to improve relations with China.

According to Mr. Ehrlichman, Mr. Agnew incurred Mr. Nixon's displeasure in 1971 with reports that he had been critical of those efforts in talks with foreign leaders.

Mr. Nixon sent a trusted aide to sound out Mr. Agnew on the idea of resigning in 1971, another diary entry says, and the aide reported back that he thought there was a "50-50 chance" that Mr. Agnew would agree to do so, but not until January 1972.

The entry did not indicate any inducements being offered to Mr. Agnew to step aside.

More than two years later, Mr. Nixon used the 25th Amendment to nominate House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford to be vice president.

The nomination was caused by Mr. Agnew's resignation in a plea bargain to avoid criminal prosecution and jail for allegedly accepting bribes while Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland and vice president.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.