How the 1968 riots made Agnew's career

April 05, 1998|By Theo Lippman Jr.

GOV. Spiro T. Agnew reacted to the Baltimore riots of April 1968 by severely and publicly chastising black community leaders.

Theodore McKeldin, a former Republican governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, spoke the accepted wisdom of then and now: "That speech made him the darling of the Strom Thurmond set. If he hadn't made it, Thurmond would never had heard of him, and he wouldn't have become vice president."

It's a little more complicated than that.

Agnew was, like McKeldin, a left-of-center Republican. In 1964 he was the Maryland campaign committee chairman for Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton in his futile bid to defeat Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for the presidential nomination. In early 1968 Agnew headed the national Draft Nelson Rockefeller campaign.

Like Scranton before him, Mr. Rockefeller, then New York governor, was anathema to "the Strom Thurmond set." So, too, were their supporters. Mr. Thurmond, a S.C. senator, certainly had heard of Agnew before the riots and the speech to black leaders, and would probably have opposed his being the party's vice-presidential nominee. The South was just making the historic move from Democratic to Republican. Southern Republicans wanted conservatives as party leaders.

Mr. Rockefeller embarrassed Mr. Agnew by announcing that he was not a candidate but might become one if there were "a true and meaningful draft." In other words, Mr. Agnew's effort wasn't.

Mr. Agnew displayed political wisdom. He didn't get mad. He got even. Mr. Rockefeller got back in the race, but Mr. Agnew switched his support and efforts to Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Nixon rewarded him by having Mr. Agnew nominate him for president at the Republican convention in Miami Beach. Then he rewarded him again by picking him as his running mate.

Because he was a tough law-and-order man who was notably cool to civil rights initiatives? Because of the reputation he got for his post-riot speech?

Mr. Nixon said, in his memoirs and elsewhere, that he picked Mr. Agnew because he wanted someone to handle domestic affairs while he concentrated on foreign policy. He said he wanted someone with experience in urban and suburban matters. He said he wanted a "centrist" to balance his own perceived conservatism and to keep the party's right and left wings from feuding. He said he preferred someone from a border state to blunt a George Wallace candidacy on the edge of the deep South. He said he wanted someone with ethnic appeal. (Mr. Agnew was an Episcopalian, but of Greek heritage.)

Not many candidates fit that job qualifications list. Mr. Nixon probably compiled it after he was nominated to make sure he got the man he had already decided on, Mr. Agnew. And, in fact, when he and his top advisers and party leaders met to discuss the vice-presidential nomination at the convention, they soon narrowed the list to two, Mr. Agnew and Gov. John Volpe, the Italian-American governor of Massachusetts.

Mr. Nixon went through the motions in Miami Beach to make formal his secret choice.

Mr. Thurmond said later he was unaware of Mr. Agnew's April speech to black leaders in Baltimore. That's hard to believe. What Mr. Agnew said was front page news the next day in the Washington Post. It was also the subject of a long story in the New York Times on an inside page. Both the Times and Post quoted Mr. Agnew's harsh language at length.

The speech was the subject of a much longer story beginning on the back page of The Sun, which is where local stories were displayed in 1968. The Sun also printed the text of the remarks.

But whether Mr. Thurmond read the stories then or later, only he knows for sure. For some reason, at the convention, when Mr. Thurmond gave Mr. Nixon a list of his conservative preferences for vice president (including Ronald Reagan) and of liberals he would not accept (including Mr. Rockefeller), he listed Mr. Agnew as someone he was neutral about.

Had Mr. Nixon read the speech? Almost surely. His aide Pat Buchanan saw the press accounts and clipped them out of the papers and sent them to him.

After being nominated (over liberal delegates' opposition), Mr. Agnew's campaigning for the ticket was widely viewed as disastrous. He was derided by friend and foe alike as uniformed, intolerant and lazy. In his authoritative "The Making of the President 1968," Theodore White wrote that Mr. Buchanan joined Mr. Agnew's tour for a few days in mid-campaign, then recommended to Mr. Nixon that he "ice Agnew and keep him under wraps."

Mr. Buchanan wrote Mr. Agnew a letter when he saw that and said that his only recommendation to Mr. Nixon had been that Mr. Agnew keep on doing exactly what he had been doing. By which he meant delivering Buchanan-style harsh attacks on the same targets George Wallace was attacking -- intellectuals, soft-on-crime civil rights activists. In effect, reprising part of his April speech to black leaders in Baltimore.

Mr. Buchanan also said he believed the national press was incorrect in reporting that Mr. Agnew's campaign was a flop. He said that the way the local press was reporting, Mr. Agnew's campaign speeches were "winning us votes in the border states by the carload" and "the more often we sent you through the upper South and Florida, the better our chances of pulling those states out of the Wallace column."

It worked. A post-election analysis by pollster Louis Harris showed that Mr. Wallace began to lose strength in those very states. Nixon-Agnew carried them. And their electoral votes made the difference in November.

Theo Lippman Jr., a retired Sun editorial writer, is the author of "Spiro Agnew's America."

Pub Date: 4/05/98

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