Agnew finds quiet rest, memorial

September 27, 1996|By Matthew Scully

IT WAS A QUIET send-off for a man who once was wildly cheered in convention halls, immortalized on campaign buttons, and on editorial pages pronounced a menace to the republic.

Maybe a hundred people standing round a small tent at Dulaney Valley Memorial Cemetery. A marble urn bearing the ashes. Some words from the minister about the life to come. A gravestone reflecting confidence that passersby would remember the name. "AGNEW, Spiro T. 1918-1996." An honor guard and 21-gun salute. Taps. And with that, goodbye to the 39th Vice President of the United States.

Except in Maryland, there wasn't even much in the way of commentary at his passing. And what there was tended to be a little too high-minded for the occasion, as if Spiro Agnew's death were a fitting moment for another round of sermons on the faults and troubles he suffered in life.

A New York Times reporter wrote that Agnew had "coarsened political discourse" in America. In Washington, one of the local pharisees wondered if the flags at federal buildings should really be put at half-mast in honor of such a man. It fell to George McGovern, one of the few reliably gracious figures in American politics, to show some class with a simple "I mourn his passing," leaving it at that.

I mourn his passing too, though I met Agnew just a few times, and then only in the last few years.

A correspondence began in 1990 when I was working at National Review magazine. I'd read that President Bush had been at the Capitol to see his vice presidential bust formally installed. Every former vice president had been honored with a marble bust, said the article, except Spiro Agnew.

Why had poor old Agnew been left out? There were different stories: No one had ever requested one. The Capitol architect's office, which handles these matters, didn't have his address. And so on.

So the National Review took up his cause. It was a small thing, but somehow in its smallness all the more galling. The argument was not complicated: Every vice president of the United States, had a bust. Spiro Agnew, now getting on in years, was vice president of the United States. So, quit the stalling and give him the bust.

Agnew wrote to thank us, insisting that he would not himself ask for the honor. "I have already received a few hate letters castigating me for having the temerity to desire such recognition," he wrote.

The Senate architect's office held firm: If Agnew wanted the honor, he'd have to ask for it.

In the bureaucratic melodrama that followed -- a few petty tyrants trying to stick it to Agnew, now 74, and Agnew wanting the honor without wanting to seek it -- I came to like and admire him.

Despite the "I will not ask" stance, he would now and then send me letters and documents supporting his right to the honor, which I would then note in editorials prodding the architect's office. "Someone has sent me the exact procedure to be followed," he wrote in late 1991. "Please note pp 1. Nowhere is it required that the V.P. or his family petition the Senate or the Capitol Architect."

On the photocopy itself he carefully underlined the relevant passage, lest I miss it.

There was something about all this (and I hope it doesn't sound patronizing -- he endured enough of that in life) that I found quite touching. It really meant a lot to him. He had lost his office and big moment long ago. Lost his reputation. Lost his pension. Lost his profession in disbarment.

His official governor's portrait was at the time still hidden in a broom closet somewhere in the Maryland State House -- until Gov. Parris Glendening ordered it hung in its rightful place. Here was a man who one commanded big crowds and national attention, jetted around the world on Air Force Two, now reduced to proving his historical existence and right to be remembered.

The obituaries detailed his later life as corporate consultant, leaving the image of a guy interested in the money all along who, even after resigning, had made out quite well.

The bigger point, in any case, was that some losses cannot be recovered in dollars. It was a small thing -- one doubts Bush or Mondale thought much about their busts before or since. But I have the feeling it seemed to Agnew the one tangible thing that could still be taken back -- just that little memorial to affirm what Spiro Agnew had been.

I cherish the letters he sent to update me on the progress of the bust when, after a year or so of haggling, the Senate architect's office relented. "Today," he reported triumphantly, "I wrote to (Senator Ted) Stevens indicating that I would be pleased if he would proceed with the matter."

"The bust is coming along fine," he wrote a year later. "The sculptor came to California once and Maryland twice for sittings. . . If all goes well, it should be done by next summer. Judy and I are pleased with his work."

After the Nixon funeral, I sent him a piece by Tom Shales of the Washington Post, who described Agnew as having in old age taken on the look of a "boulevardier."

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