Bittersweet return for Spiro Agnew

May 25, 1995|By Thomas W. Waldron and Susan Baer | Thomas W. Waldron and Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a bittersweet homecoming, former Vice President Spiro Agnew returned to the city he left in disgrace 22 years ago, hoping to secure for himself a more forgiving place in history.

At a ceremony jammed with more than 300 friends, supporters and former staffers, Mr. Agnew watched as his wife, Judy, unveiled a white marble bust of himself that will be displayed in the Capitol.

Looking tanned, rested and thinner than most remember, the former Maryland governor seemed moved by the attention. His voice broke more than once during his five-minute address -- the first speech he has delivered in the 22 years since he resigned as vice president of the United States.

Later, he admitted he was nervous.

"This is the first time I've been out in public for a long time," said Mr. Agnew, 76. "I feel like I need somebody to lead me around."

The ceremony in the corridor off the Senate chamber capped years of effort by friends who said his image belonged in the Capitol along with the 42 former vice presidents, not counting Dan Quayle, whose bust is not yet installed. Capitol officials had dragged their feet on commissioning the bust since Mr. Agnew departed from his post Oct. 10, 1973, pleading no contest to a tax evasion charge.

Left out of the short, tepid tributes was the tale of bribery and official corruption that drove Mr. Agnew from office only nine months into his second term as vice president under Richard M. Nixon.

While none of the speakers acknowledged the palpable awkwardness of the occasion, Mr. Agnew did.

"I'm not blind or deaf to the fact that some people feel that this is a ceremony that should not take place," he said. "I would remind those people that, regardless of their personal view of me, this ceremony has less to do with Spiro Agnew than with the office I held, an honor conferred on me by the American people two decades ago."

In the audience were about a dozen senators -- nearly all Republicans -- three of Mr. Agnew's four children and five grandchildren, as well as Tricia Nixon Cox, the daughter of the man who tapped him to be vice president, and her husband, Edward. Also present was the sculptor, William Behrends of North Carolina.

Maryland's two Democratic senators -- Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski -- did not attend. Both claimed pressing business elsewhere.

The roster of guests -- from Baltimore advertising executive Robert Goodman, who worked on the successful 1966 gubernatorial campaign, to GOP presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan, a speech writer in the Nixon administration -- reflected Mr. Agnew's days as Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland and finally vice president.

Mr. Agnew received a standing ovation when he arrived in the grand corridor with his wife. But those who spoke mostly cited history and precedent rather than Mr. Agnew's career.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas noted that Mr. Agnew, in his constitutional capacity of Senate president, had led the Senate's deliberations more often than any vice president in history.

Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska praised Mr. Agnew for the one time he was called upon to break a tie as Senate president -- when he cast the deciding vote approving the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline. "Alaskans and all Americans are grateful to you, Ted, for that vote," Mr. Stevens said.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who was asked to speak because he served with Mr. Agnew in the Nixon administration, reminded the crowd that Mr. Agnew was the first Greek-American to serve as vice president.

Asked after the ceremony if he believed that Mr. Agnew deserved the honor, Mr. Moynihan, one of the few Democrats attending, said tersely: "It's a prescribed rule of the Senate." In 1886, the Senate passed a resolution calling for marble busts of all the vice presidents to be installed in the Capitol.

Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi said the former Maryland governor had paid an ample price for his transgressions. "He resigned his office. This is for recognition of all the things he did right."

Wearing a dark grey suit, white shirt and conservative striped tie, Mr. Agnew held court in a reception room after the ceremony. As a violin and guitar played such show tunes as "Camelot" and "Climb Every Mountain," friends lined up to shake his hand, kiss his cheek or ask for an autograph, with many saying the tribute was long overdue.

Maryland's 1994 GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, defeated narrowly in last year's election by Democrat Parris N. Glendening, said she wanted to see Mr. Agnew because she had come "within a hair's breadth of succeeding him."

She said Mr. Agnew told her: "Don't you give up. You ought to go back and try again."

Outside the room, Mr. Agnew's daughter, Kim Fisher of Peterborough, N.H., held her squirming daughter while reflecting what she said has been history's "poor" treatment of her father.

"I think with the passage of time, things will come out and he'll be regarded more favorably," she said.

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