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"[Spiro] Agnew was the Joey Buttafuoco of the Nixon administration."
--Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone
After Richard Nixon died in 1994, many pundits, historians and Republican politicians eulogized him as a great but tragic figure who had managed to achieve redemption after slithering away from the Presidency in disgrace. This portrayal is a ludicrous misrepresentation of a man who actually attempted to impose his own brand of vicious and venal fascism on America. Yet, partially due to such revisionism, Nixon is almost certain to fare better in the historical record than his first vice president Spiro Agnew, who died two weeks ago.
Agnew's death was truly mourned only by a few stalwart friends and defenders. William Safire, one of his former speechwriters, in a desperate revisionist effort even sought to excuse one of Agnew's racist comments ("What's the matter with that fat Jap?", directed towards a dozing Japanese-American journalist). Agnew's onetime campaign press secretary, Victor Gold, declared in what must have been a fit of hysteria that "Spiro Agnew was the John the Baptist for [the Reagan] revolution."
However, most of the eulogizers were not very kind to Agnew. They focused on his race-baiting as Governor of Maryland, his attacks on the press and his resignation after an investigation on charges of bribery and tax evasion.
Unlike Nixon, Agnew was not granted tragic hero status, primarily because he had nowhere to fall from. Although Agnew had rapidly risen from obscurity to national prominence like Nixon, his ascent was never considered a mark of political acumen or leadership skill. In fact, his selection as Nixon's running mate has been primarily attributed to his bitter outburst at Baltimore's black leaders and to the machinations of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. In his outburst, Agnew blamed Stokely Carmichael's presence in Baltimore for the riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Such lunacy was perhaps only exceeded by his speech condemning "insidious relativism" in July, 1968, when he declared that "[r]elativism is epitomized by the agonizing of a police officer who couldn't bring himself to kill a looter over a pair of shoes."
Perhaps Agnew deserves a better remembrance. Although he did take cash bribes while vice president, he never ruthlessly carpet-bombed Indochinese civillians, nor did he condemn American youth to die in a needless war for political reasons. He didn't illegally marshal the resources of the CIA, FBI, IRS, FCC and the Justice Department against the news media and his political opponents. Compared to Tricky Dick, J. Edgar Hoover, Henry Kissinger '50, John Mitchell and other seriously and criminally depraved goons of Nixon's administration, Agnew was a petty thug.
Agnew even managed to leave office quietly and to fade back into obscurity. Nixon thrashed about hideously for months, refusing to surrender his audio tapes and firing a special prosecutor and insisting that he was not a crook.
On the other hand, Agnew deserves harsher criticism than he has recieved. His harangues against the press did not merely "rais[e] issues of media bias, arrogance and unaccountability that are still banging around," as Lance Morrow wrote last week in Time magazine. Agnew was the point man in Nixon's crusade to gut the First Ammendment, laying the rhetorical framework for police style measures in areas such as confidentiality of sources, gag orders and prior restraint. These attacks on free speech also included extensive and illegal intimidation of the press; they were intended to cow the mass media into becoming an unquestioning purveryor of Nixon's propaganda.
In a 1973 editorial, the Crimson staff declared that Agnew's attacks on the media, war resisters and others who disagreed with him "were discredited by their illogic when they were first made" and that his resignation proved them "to be the rankest hypocrisy as well." Examining Agnew's sordid political career should discredit myths regarding the Nixon legacy and should remind hubris-crazed hypocrites that the media and free speech are not so easily trampled underfoot. The end of any human life is always a tragedy. But we must not forget the kind of life Agnew lived and the damage he caused to others.
David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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