Strands in the Tapestry of Maryland's Political Life


Havre de Grace. -- The tapestry of Maryland political life is long and colorful, the more so because of the way some of its more durable human strands keep appearing and reappearing as the decades slip by.

Go back to the tumultuous spring of 1969, and the green Connecticut campus of Yale University. Yale students are on strike, protesting the war in Vietnam and assorted other perceived evils. They want the faculty to join them in closing the university down.

In the chapel, when a retired professor stands to challenge the idea that such an action will address the shortcomings of society, a tearful sophomore from Baltimore responds. He sobs that academic pursuits are out of the question when "my brothers and sisters are being killed in the streets." It is Kurt Schmoke.

The Yale students, and students at many other universities that emotional spring, believe they are leading a revolution. They see themselves as arrayed against imperial- ism, militarism, racism and so forth. Their enemies are all who stand in their way. Two of those enemies, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, have been especially demonized.

Agnew was the most famous Marylander of that day. He had become vice president of the United States primarily on the strength of a strident speech he had made one year before. As governor of Maryland, after Baltimore was torn by rioting in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination, he had assailed the city's black leadership for not doing more to restore order.

When he called them "Hanoi-visiting, caterwauling, riot-inciting, burn-America-down type of leaders," he got Nixon's attention, and thus a few months later the vice presidency. Kurt Schmoke, Yale sophomore, would not in 1969 have been an admirer of Spiro Agnew.

Now it is 26 years later, and Mr. Schmoke is the mayor of Baltimore. He has had a moderately successful political career, but he hasn't changed the world or significantly improved his city. He is no doubt wiser than he was as a student, but less passionate. He no longer weeps when he makes speeches.

Today Mr. Agnew is an old man, disgraced in the eyes of history. We have caught glimpses of him recently as he has come, wraithlike, out of the past to visit Annapolis and Washington, where his portrait and bust are respectively displayed. He has seemed humbled and diffident. Only the hardest of the hard core trouble to hate him now.

Spiro Agnew's fall was due less to his politics than to his venality. As governor he had accepted money, kickbacks, from contractors doing business with the state of Maryland. Some of these payments were made to him while he was vice president. Once the kickbacks were exposed, his destruction was inevitable.

His indictment ran to 40 counts. Accepting the inevitable, in October 1973 he pleaded nolo contendere to a single count of tax evasion, and resigned. For Nixon's opponents, that cleared away the biggest obstacle to forcing the president from office over the Watergate affair.

At another moment in history, a vice-presidential resignation would have been little more than an interesting footnote, but in 1973 it released forces which are still being felt today. If all politics is reaction, the Republican successes of 1994 are the direct result of Democratic excesses set in motion 20 years earlier in the Watergate euphoria.

"Promise me, Dick," said Alice Roosevelt Longworth to Richard Nixon just before the 1968 elections, "that if you're elected, you'll always make Governor Agnew travel with you on your plane." The remark was funny because it perfectly reflected a genuine Washington nightmare. Spiro Agnew has been a joke for so long that today it's hard to remember the fear he once inspired.

One reason Agnew made so many people so nervous was that he kept surprising them. In Maryland, he was elected as the liberals' choice, a Republican in the Nelson Rockefeller tradition. Then in a twinkling, when a different kind of opportunity beckoned, he metamorphosed into something very different.

He surprised the Nixon administration, too, with his lack of docility and his aggressive instincts. When asked to leave the ticket in 1972, he refused. When the incriminating Watergate tapes were discovered in the summer of 1973, he told the president that "you've got to have a bonfire, and right now."

It's curious the way events play out. At the beginning of his political career in Baltimore County, it's unlikely Spiro Agnew envisioned the governorship, let alone the White House. And if he dreamed of a place in history, it was surely not the one he finally achieved.

Kurt Schmoke has another 30 years to go before he's Spiro Agnew's age. The high point of his life and career may be yet to come. Or it may turn out to have been that emotional speech he made long ago at Yale.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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