Remembering Spiro Agnew
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, remembering Spiro Agnew. The 77 year old former Vice President died yesterday afternoon. For five years, from 1969 until he resigned in 1973, he was Richard Nixon’s outspoken point man against the media and liberals. He said things like this.
SPIRO AGNEW: Ultra-liberalism today translates into a whimpering isolationism in foreign policy, a mulish obstructionism in domestic policy, and a pusillanimous pussyfooting on the critical issue of law and order.
SPIRO AGNEW: In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.
JIM LEHRER: Now some reflections on Spiro Agnew from David Keene who was Agnew’s political assistant at the White House, he is now chairman of the American Conservative Union, and NewsHour regular Haynes Johnson, who was an assistant managing editor of the Washington Post during the Nixon-Agnew years. David Keene, how will you remember Spiro Agnew?
DAVID KEENE, Former Agnew Aide: I came to town to work for Spiro Agnew and I’ve been here ever since. Most of what you’re going to see in the next few days is going to–is going to concentrate on how he left office or what those speeches were like, but I’m going to remember him as a man who, who was close to the people that, that he worked with, who really was a politician who sort of bonded with the family of people that, that he was with.
I think that most of the people that worked with Spiro Agnew over the years considered him to be one of the best people that they’ve ever bene associated with.
JIM LEHRER: Did you like him personally?
MR. KEENE: I liked him immensely. He was a politician who was interested in ideas. That’s rare, as you know. He was inquisitive. When I worked for him, he was in the process of sort of defining himself intellectually and philosophically.
He wanted to talk not to State Party chairmen but to writers and intellectuals, and he did. He stood by his people. It was very much I think the trade of an immigrant, an ethnic who was there. He was loyal to his people, that’s right, and the people who worked with him and knew him I think returned that loyalty.
JIM LEHRER: How will you remember him, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Not that way personally because I didn’t know him that way. I traveled with him; wrote about him, and so forth, but I never had the personal relationship that David did. But I will remember him as someone who sowed cynicism and disillusionment and betrayal in the political process, a beginning of a time in our history which is a dark period.
You have to remember, Jim, just think back–in April of 1973, when the revelations were beginning about Nixon, forcing the resignation of his chief aides, and the impeachment process was then beginning, were still a year and a half away, at that moment in the spring of ’73, Spiro Agnew was 35 percent among all Republican voters to be the next Republican nominee for President of the United States.
The next person at that point, close on the Gallup Poll, was a fellow named Ronald Reagan. Nobody else measured on the whole poll, and here was a man who almost became the President of the United States.
I think he was forced out because he betrayed his trust in a fundamental way. The indictment that he pleaded to–nola contandre–no contest and he didn’t go to jail, but then they released these incredible damning documents of payoffs and someone said I’ve been paying off the Vice President in his office in cash.
It’s that kind of thing that came at a time particularly against the message of law and order, patriotic America, and all of the things you just saw on the screen about the nattering nabobs of negativism and the rest. I think it was one of the reasons that people felt very cynical about our politics, and I think it left a very bad legacy. But it’s not the personal side that David is talking about.
MR. KEENE: A lot of it, you know, during that period we looked at things differently. Many of us saw Spiro Agnew as someone who in a time of chaos was willing to stand up and speak the truth to conservatives and to many Republicans and to many in what we then called the Silent Majority in this country, later the Reagan Democrats, whatever we want to call them, Spiro Agnew was a hero.
I’ll tell you, when you look at the way it all ended, I had lunch shortly after his resignation with Jerry Landauer, you remember, with the Wall Street Journal, was–
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MR. KEENE: –the reporter who originally broke the story.
JIM LEHRER: The story about the Maryland payoffs–
MR KEENE: About the Maryland thing.
JIM LEHRER: –the Maryland bribes.
MR. KEENE: Jerry had covered Maryland for a lot of years and he said, you know, he might have been the most honest governor they had, but the was the only one who came to Washington, his point being that–well, there being two points–that the two points are that you come out of a political culture, some of which Bill Clinton is learning today because the political culture of Maryland then or Arkansas later was different from the national culture.
Secondly, Spiro Agnew got caught at a time when our political rules and mores were changing. That’s not to say he didn’t do some of the things he was charged with. I didn’t–I don’t think he did all of them. He denied doing many of them and didn’t plead guilty after all to them and they weren’t proven.
But, nevertheless, he came out of a time when were done differently and when the standards were changing and fairly or unfairly was caught.
JIM LEHRER: Two other points: Haynes, these words that we just quoted–it’s been widely reported that he didn’t write any of those words, those were not his words at all, that Bill Safire wrote some of them, Pat Buchanan wrote some of them.
MR. JOHNSON: That’s right.
JIM LEHRER: Did he believe these words?
MR. JOHNSON: I don’t know if he did or not. I traveled with him. I spent weeks doing a profile on him. I remember in ’69 I guess before you went over to work for him and he would read the texts that he had delivered. Now whether he did it himself, I don’t know, uh, but, but he certainly stood by them, and the point about it, though, he was tapping into–and the reason I think there’s such a bitter aftertaste of this, as there was with Lyndon Johnson to be fair in the betrayal of the war going North into Vietnam and when Lyndon Johnson expanded the war after saying he wasn’t, there was this sense of a man who was talking about moral values and
I remember David Broder, my dear friend and colleague, we spent a long time in ’69 traveling all over the country talking to voters, and we would talk to voters and they would say you bring up the name of Spiro Agnew and people would say, they’d laugh and they’d be a little embarrassed, boy, but they liked him. He tells it like it is. They believed him. That was the point. They believed the moral man about immorality, about drugs and promiscuousness, family values and he was the exponent of this kind of thing in our politics and I think that was–
JIM LEHRER: Then they found out he was on the take.
MR. JOHNSON: Right.
MR. KEENE: He spoke to those people and wasn’t just able to speak to them as other politicians have done but came from–he grew up in Baltimore; he went to night school; he did all of these things. But I will say this about–I wasn’t there in ’69 but by the time I got there as I said earlier, Spiro Agnew was in the process of defining himself and other people wrote those words in the 1970 campaign but Spiro Agnew didn’t give speech that didn’t have his mark on it or that he didn’t believe in and wasn’t willing to defend.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this, David. It’s common now for people to rehabilitate themselves after some shameful experience. Richard Nixon did it himself and there’s been a lot of cases. Why did Spiro Agnew–no op ed page pieces, not talk show appearances–
MR. KEENE: Never gave an interview.
JIM LEHRER: –no lecture circuit–no interviews, why?
MR. KEENE: Never talked to a reporter after he left office.
JIM LEHRER: Why? What happened?
MR. KEENE: You know, I think in part one of the difficulties in working for him he was truly a Greek with the fatalistic views and the–that things weren’t always–
JIM LEHRER: He read a lot of Greek tragedy.
MR. KEENE: Well, I think he in a sense lived it, but he in working with him, sometimes you’d say, you know, Mr. Vice President, you have to do this, this, and this to make that happen, and his reaction would be, I’ll say what I think and if it’s supposed to happen, it will.
That’s sort of the down side of that, but it also is a peculiar strength when things go wrong because you say, well, it wasn’t fated to be, and he just put the curtain down, turned his back on it, and went and lived a private life.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, that may well be the case. You knew him in a way that I didn’t, but I, I keep going back to the public imprint he left. And that was one of disillusionment and cynicism.
JIM LEHRER: And he left it there? In other words, that’s my point.
MR. JOHNSON: And he totally left it there, and he let it linger for 23 years, Jim. I went back to reread some of it–it’s amazing–the same echos now but his legacy I think in that sense was very negative.
MR. KEENE: If we talk about that–
JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry, David, we’ve got to go. Thank you both very much.