A Vice-Presidential Reminiscence
There are some curious parallels between the Presidential election of 1968 and that of 2008. In 1968, the U.S. was mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam. The U.S. economy was in trouble due to high inflation and a tremendous trade deficit. And candidate Richard M. Nixon made a very surprising choice for his Vice Presidential candidate.
Spiro T. Agnew was a very unlikely choice and remains, 40 years later, the only politician of Greek ancestry and the only politician from Maryland to ever become Vice President.
A popular saying at the time of the nomination was “Spiro Who?” and his nomination was opposed by some delegates at the Republican convention who preferred George W. Romney. However Republican conservatives and loyalists quickly lined-up behind Nixon’s choice and Agnew received the nomination. As Agnew noted at the time of his nomination, “The name of Agnew is not a household name.”
Nixon’s choice capped an astounding, even meteoric rise, for a man who had first been elected to office, as Baltimore County Executive, only 6 years earlier – an election Agnew won running as a reformer and Republican outsider. Agnew had served as Governor of Maryland for only two years before becoming Vice President.
Agnew is infamous now as the only Vice President to resign due to criminal charges. He plead “nolo contendere” to accepting over $100,000 in bribes. His resignation, in 1973, caused the first use of the 25th Amendment and Gerald Ford was chosen to become Vice President. I’ve wondered if Agnew would have become President when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, or if the prospect of an Agnew Presidency would have caused Congress to back-off during the Watergate hearings.
While in office, Agnew served as Nixon’s “hatchet man” in support of the war and was famous for alliterative insults – most of which were written by presidential speechwriters – for his political opponents. Some of these colorful epithets include: “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “pusilanimous pussyfooters,” “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history,” and my personal favorite “effete corps of impudent snobs.”
In an interesting historical coincidence, Agnew became very important to Alaska in 1973, just shortly before he was forced to resign. The Alaskan pipeline was very controversial and the measure to authorize its construction was under consideration by the U.S. Senate which deadlocked on a tie vote, 49-49. Vice President Agnew cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of building the Alaskan pipeline. The pipeline, of course, is largely responsible for Alaska’s unusually robust financial status.
In making these comparisons between 1968 and 2008 and between Agnew and Palin, I am not suggesting that Vice President Palin would eventually resign due to criminal charges. However Agnew’s career does illustrate some of the dangers inherent in selecting untried politicians for high office. Nixon himself came to dislike Agnew and thought that he did not have the necessary qualifications to become President. For political reasons, however, he kept him on the ticket for his second term, though he opposed efforts to make Agnew the next president at the end of that term. Nixon actually wanted Agnew to resign so that he could choose a Democrat, John Connally from Texas, as his Vice President.
John McCain also considered appointing a (former) Democrat for Vice President; Joseph Lieberman may well have been on his “short list.” Given the continuing negative news about Palin, one wonders if McCain, like Nixon, will come to have doubts about his recent choice for Vice President.