The unlucky legacies of a lucky man

September 22, 1996|By BARRY RASCOVAR

"MY KIND OF GUY, Ted Agnew is . . . my kind of guy." Ah, those were the days . . . when Spiro T. Agnew was considered the lone hope of the liberal establishment in Maryland . . . when Ted Agnew was regarded as an effective and moderate Baltimore County executive who valiantly stood up for right and justice against the dark, racist sloganeering of the Democratic Party's nominee for governor, George P. Mahoney.

That Agnew won the governor's race in 1966 was a political fluke, as had been his election as county executive in 1962. He had the good fortune to run for office at a time when local Democrats were bitterly split. He and Richard Nixon also had the good fortune to run for president and vice president in 1968 at a time when national Democrats were bitterly splintered over the war in Vietnam.

Luck runs out

Ted Agnew was a lucky man. His luck ran out when federal prosecutors inadvertently uncovered a bribery and kickback scheme run for Agnew while he was county executive (and later governor). That infamy followed him to his grave last week.

There were two sides to Ted Agnew. The good Ted pushed through a civil-rights bill in a conservative and narrow-minded suburban county. The son of Greek immigrant Theofrastos Anagnostopopoulos was praised for his far-sighted work on the county zoning board. The new governor helped to implement a progressive income tax (the Cooper-Hughes-Agnew-Lee bill).

Then there was the bad Ted, denouncing protests at segregated Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, and rebuking his own human-rights commission for siding with the protesters. There was his harsh criticism of black leaders for ''allowing'' the Baltimore riots of 1968. And there was the mean-spirited, negative campaign he conducted as Richard Nixon's hatchet man. He was the precursor to Rush Limbaugh, the first conservative in such high office to cruelly attack those who disagreed.

Hubert Humphrey was ''squishy-soft on communism;'' anti-war protesters were ''the delegation from Hanoi.'' He said, ''When you've seen one city slum, you've seen them all.'' He joked about liberal fags, ridiculed prominent Democrats and essentially told off anyone he saw as a threat to white middle-class America.

There is a nastiness, indeed a viciousness, in some of today's conservative Republican politics that traces its lineage through Ted Agnew. When elevated to the national scene, he found an audience that loved to hear him excoriate his foes, painting them as evil threats to America's security. The super-heated, JTC destructive rhetoric of zealous conservatives, sadly, is one of Agnew's legacies.

His larger legacy is of corruption in high office. He shattered many Americans' illusions about the purity of our very top elected leaders. Public cynicism toward politicians flows from Agnew's criminality.

Agnew responds

To the end, Ted Agnew deeply resented any implication he was a crook or had been found ''guilty'' in a court of law -- even though the sentencing judge said his nolo contendere plea was tantamount to an admission of guilt. A year ago, Agnew wrote to me after reading a column of mine on this page defending the decision by Gov. Parris Glendening to finally hang Agnew's portrait in the State House reception room. Here are excerpts:

''What disturbs me is that the facts have become distorted over [22] years due to repetitions of errors in reporting. For example, I never extorted money from contractors and have never been convicted of that crime or of bribery. I was convicted of a single count of tax evasion. . . .

''With regard to your reference to my 'blunders on civil-rights matters,' I would remind you that I fought very hard for public accommodations during the Gwynn Oak Park disturbances, and for open housing, even though such stands were highly unpopular in Baltimore County. . . .

''Also, I have a hard time understanding the selective outrage that resulted from my seeking political contributions from those doing business with the state government. That the money did not go into my pocket was evident from the fact that I left office broke and had to borrow [from Frank Sinatra] to re-establish myself.

''Certainly, it was wrong, but where was the clamor about McKeldin and Tawes. Everyone on your paper was fully aware [that they] . . . sold every political appointment. . . . The same procedures were in place under [Agnew's predecessors] in Baltimore County. I never sold an appointment or a job. . . .

''Sometimes I wonder whether it ever occurs to editorialists and cartoonists that the hurt they inflict over a long period of time extends to the target's family.

''I have been married for [54] years to a wonderful woman, who has suffered immensely and silently because she happens to be Spiro Agnew's wife. The hurt has also touched my children and grand-children. Isn't it time to ease up on the vicious barbs and cartooning? . . .''

For Ted Agnew, the battle to defend his honor is over. The barbs have finally ceased. In time, history will render its judgment.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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