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When well-educated politicians cry 'snob'

With the Republican presidential nomination contest in high gear, Marylanders might be forgiven for smiling. The word "snob" has returned with full force to presidential politics after a four-decade hiatus. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Penn State University '80, University of Pittsburgh '81, Dickinson School of Law '86), in an old-fashioned beat-down on higher education, recently informed us that President Barack Obama is "a snob" for wanting Americans to go to college, where they would be indoctrinated by "some liberal college professor."

Trying to win swing votes in the 1970 midterm elections, Maryland's own Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced a prevailing liberal "spirit of national masochism … encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." In a Des Moines, Iowa, speech, Agnew proclaimed, "I do not accept the proposition that every American boy and girl should go to a four-year college."

Despite the race to claim the true legacy of Ronald Reagan, Mr. Santorum's remarks are just the latest in a series of backhanded tributes to Richard Nixon's scandalized vice president. The former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor's broadsides on intellectuals during his time on the national stage set the standard for smacking the eggheads.

Consider Professor Newt Gingrich, (Emory University '65, Tulane University '71), a former resident in the ivory tower who has called for "a revolution on campus," an end to tenure, and for state legislatures to take action "against lunatic professors" on behalf of the taxpayers. Why? "Because the American left has an entire litany of despising America."

Even Mitt Romney (Brigham Young University '71, Harvard University JD and MBA '75) has denounced President Obama for being too much "like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better."

Not to be out flanked politically, President Obama (Columbia University '83, Harvard University JD '91), the former University of Chicago adjunct law professor who occasionally veers away from the cultivated ESPN-hoops-and-beers image, has also put colleges on notice. The president has warned that if "you can't stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down," a proposal that paradoxically guarantees tuition would continue to rise. Despite a reputation for eloquence reminiscent of fellow Illinoisan and intellectual Adlai Stevenson, President Obama is fully aware that eggheads don't sing Al Green.

How did the liberal arts, graduate degrees and engaging in intellectual thought become political liabilities? As Richard Hofstadter explained in the aftermath of McCarthyism, show yourself to be too much of a pointy-head and you get blamed for "everything from the income tax to the attack on Pearl Harbor."

Alabama governor and four-time presidential candidate George Wallace understood the power of the anti-intellectual message. He had hoped to run in the 1964 Democratic primaries against John F. Kennedy and his "best and brightest." When fate intervened and Lyndon B. Johnson became the nominee, Wallace ran anyway and finished a close second in the Maryland primary, winning a majority of the state's white vote.

Crowded out by the likes of political highbrows who quoted Aeschylus (Bobby Kennedy), believed in civil rights (Hubert Humphrey) and published poems (Eugene McCarthy), Wallace in 1968 ran as an independent and won five states with nearly 10 million votes.

Agnew made his triumphant entrance onto the national scene at the same moment and proved a worthy competitor to Wallace in the contest to bash the eggheads. A little-known governor of Maryland only halfway through his first term, Agnew had been a poor student who dropped out of Johns Hopkins and later returned to get a University of Baltimore law degree in night school. A surprise choice for the ticket, Agnew helped blunt Wallace's own foray into the rich vein of white, working-class voters who resented the Great Society and the civil rights movement's success. Wallace clucked happily about Agnew's speeches: "They're talking like we do."

But in the end, it was the Nixon-Agnew team that carried the election in 1968 and Agnew who emerged by the early 1970s as the most vociferous critic of permissive, enabling, liberal intellectuals.

The same tired dynamic is at work in the 2012 presidential contest among some very well-educated men. Spiro Agnew would be proud.

Charles J. Holden (cjholden@smcm.edu) is a history professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Zach Messitte (zpmessitte@ou.edu), formerly of St. Mary's College, is dean of the College of International Studies and William J. Crowe Chair in Geopolitics at the University of Oklahoma.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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