A soon-to-come biography may reveal the real Agnew

The Argument

The stained and privileged life of a major political figure is overdue for full examination

May 30, 2004|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,Special to the Sun

Does Spiro T. Agnew deserve oblivion? He was, after all, the first vice president forced from office on corruption charges, thus marching into history trailed by clouds of notoriety comparable to America's third vice president, the treasonous Aaron Burr. In his meteoric, improbable career, Agnew was the quintessential suburban politician, the icon of white voters pouring into white doughnuts that surrounded increasingly black cities after World War II.

Agnew reflected a changing dynamic of American politics. Republicans and Democrats were in a long process of exchanging positions on race, protectionism and their geographical base. The suburbs, by sheer force of numbers, rode and ruled shifting cultural tides with power far beyond the political realm.

Born in Baltimore City, the son of a Greek-American restaurant owner, Agnew moved to the suburbs at the first opportunity after the war. He joined the Kiwanis Club and the PTA, became a model husband and father, switched to the Republican Party and in the course of one decade rose from the Baltimore County zoning board to county executive to governor of Maryland to the vice presidency.

In his heyday at the beginning of the '70s, having wowed the populist right by denouncing elitist intellectuals and media nabobs, black power leaders and Vietnam war protesters, he was a front-runner for the White House in 1976.

No vice president -- not even Richard Nixon -- had ever played such a constant, out-front role in national affairs. The Gallup Poll found Agnew to be the third most admired man in America and the sixth most admired man in the whole wide world. Then came Watergate, with Nixon contemptuously regarding Agnew and the prospect of an Agnew presidency as his best insurance against impeachment or ouster.

But then, before Watergate reached its climax, Agnew himself was out of office for having indulged in what he claimed was the old Maryland practice of taking kickbacks from contractors and developers. The door to the White House, so tantalizingly ajar, slammed shut. Inoffensive, unelected Gerald Ford was where Spiro Agnew might have been as Nixon flew off to San Clemente.

Since those hectic days, books written on Nixon and his era have become a cottage industry. They fill yards of library shelves. Nixon revisionism and re-revisionism (ranging from monster dictator to paymaster for the Great Society) have reached the point where Plato's cave analogy comes into play. The shadow, i.e., the image, becomes more important than the person.

In contrast, the Agnew bookshelf is empty save for a half-dozen volumes written while he was still flamboyantly in office and one good investigative work, A Heartbeat Away: The Investigation and Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, by Richard M. Cohen and Jules Witcover, that came out soon after the scandal that did him in. Otherwise nothing, other than occasional chapters in academic works. Is such ostracism justified? An aging generation still smarting over his transgressions might say yes. But a younger, more detached generation is getting interested.

Last year, the University of North Carolina Press published a book by Kenneth D. Durr entitled Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980 (University of North Carolina, 320 pages, $55). This is a political scientist's work. It is Durr's contention that white neighborhoods on both sides of the Baltimore City-County border became "Spiro Agnew Country" as the vice president articulated fears of crime and racial integration.

"Spiro Agnew had never been a civil rights proponent and his own position on open housing had been one of lukewarm acceptance at best," Durr stated. He noted that as Agnew accepted the GOP vice presidential nomination in 1968, "a bit of the 1966 social liberal resurfaced" in his condemnations of racial bias. But what Durr called "the new Agnew" soon won out as the Marylander declared that "anarchy, rioting and even civil disobedience have no constructive purpose in a constitutional republic."

A more sympathetic Agnew will soon appear in a full-fledged biography now being written by Justin P. Coffey, a 32-year-old Midwesterner who says he has come to like Agnew after several years of research. He contends Agnew was "a regular guy," a man devoid of side or pretension who kept to the same circle of friends he always had, who treated state troopers and Secret Service guards as human beings rather than factotums, who kept his 20-yard-line seat for Baltimore Colts games until security forced him into the mid-field boxes.

A glimpse of Coffey's work-in-progress appeared in the winter issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine under the title, "Spiro T. Agnew and Middle Ground Politics." It is not revisionism, because there are no Agnew biographies to revise. But it is much at odds with commonly held impressions about the first Marylander elected to national office.

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