Having started out as moderate, Agnew took circuitous route to conservatism His conversion marked him as a pragmatist, or even an opportunist

September 19, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Also in the coverage of Agnew's career, a photo caption gave an incorrect date for Agnew's confrontation with black leaders in Baltimore. It took place after the riots of 1968.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Spiro T. Agnew may be best remembered as the harsh voice of conservatism of the Nixon years who finally was silenced by his forced resignation in disgrace from the vice presidency. But that conservatism came via a circuitous route that really marked him as more a political pragmatist, or even an opportunist.

The early Agnew had a reputation for moderation approaching liberalism as Baltimore County executive. It was advanced by his gubernatorial victory over Democratic conservative George P. Mahoney, an outspoken foe of open housing who proclaimed that "a man's home is his castle."


As governor, Agnew appointed himself a one-man crusade to make the Republican liberals' liberal, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, his party's presidential nominee in 1968. Agnew's conversion to conservatism had its roots in Rockefeller's refusal to run, and in Agnew's own revulsion toward local black civil rights leaders who in his view kowtowed to extremists during and after the riots in Baltimore after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Agnew was publicly humiliated by Rockefeller's pullout. Without warning, Agnew invited the press into his Annapolis office to share with him what he expected would be Rockefeller's positive response to the Agnew "draft," and was mortified at the decision.

Around the same time, Agnew's public dressing down of some of the most prominent and moderate of African-American leaders in Baltimore set him on a course that broke with his earlier embrace of civil rights. That departure drew the interest and attention of the man who eventually made him a national figure, Richard M. Nixon.

Patrick J. Buchanan and John Sears, then two young Nixon aides, noted Agnew's disappointment in and bitterness toward Rockefeller, and his turn to the right on civil rights. They brought those developments to Nixon's attention. After the two men met, Agnew endorsed Nixon's presidential candidacy and unwittingly put himself on the road to the vice presidency.

In internal polls, Nixon was found to run best alone, so in the end he selected a relative unknown to be his running mate. As candidate and then as vice president, Agnew became a forceful and colorful spokesman of conservatism, often playing the role of partisan campaigner that had fallen to Nixon as the running mate and vice president of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Increasingly, Agnew became the voice of conservatism, hammering the law-and-order themes of Nixon in the 1968 campaign. Later he criticized liberals in general and protesters against the war in Vietnam and the news media in particular.

Agnew insisted that he remained a liberal on social issues and a fiscal conservative.

Perhaps to preserve his self-assessment as a social liberal, Agnew began to call his critics on the left "radical liberals." He shortened it to "radiclibs" in his tirades against those who criticized the Nixon administration's conduct of the war and its harsh attacks on protesters in the streets.

Before long, Agnew's talent for hitting raw nerves with his oratory, peppered with alliterations that did not always come off as playful, made him the darling of the Republican right wing.

When he jabbed at the news media especially, calling reporters and broadcasters "nattering nabobs of negativism," conservatives -- many Democrats as well as Republicans -- gleefully applauded. Sometimes others wrote the words for him, but he embraced them readily.

The notoriety clearly pleased Agnew, and he accelerated his attacks, first to the delight of Nixon and his chief strategists, but later to their impatience and disfavor as polls on Agnew began to indicate a public backlash.

It reached a point where Agnew was regarded inside the White House as too much of a good thing.

At first unable to believe the fortunate turn of events that had put him in the vice presidency, Agnew began to press within the administration for more serious assignments than being its attack dog. As a former governor, he wanted a responsible and substantive role, but was denied it.

By this time, what might have begun as opportunism in terms of Agnew's ideological posture had become heartfelt, but Nixon and his advisers did not think much of him as a political philosopher or policy shaper.

In advance of the 1972 Nixon re-election campaign, Nixon talked often with his White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, about the possibility of dropping Agnew from the ticket.

One reason was that Agnew had become a bit too controversial for their liking, but more important was Nixon's infatuation with former Texas Gov. John B. Connally, who served for a time as his secretary of the treasury and who impressed Nixon with his dynamism and decisiveness. Nixon wanted to replace Agnew on the re-election ticket with Connally.

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