HAVRE DE GRACE -- Time, as the old hymn says, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away. Now it has at last borne away Spiro T. Agnew, too, who had been gone from public view so long that many were startled by his obituary, having assumed him dead for many years.
As politicians go, he was personally neither an especially nice nor an especially interesting man, but neither was he the evil figure caricatured over the years by many who should have known better, including me. His short career probably deserves more attention, particularly the detached sort that only historical distance makes possible.
As the extraordinary election in which he became governor was my own introduction to the comic-book world of Maryland politics, and as his vice-presidential campaign two years later gave me and a handful of other Annapolis reporters an unexpected crack at a major national political story, perhaps I overestimate his importance.
But it seems to me his career is valuable to reconsider in the Clinton age because it shows with exceptional clarity something we find again and again in public life: a politician with more ambition than principle trying to become what he thinks his constituents expect him to be.
This is unusually apparent in Agnew's case because he underwent not one total makeover, but two. In 1966, running for governor against a Democrat trying to cash in on racial antagonisms, he allowed himself to be portrayed as a classic liberal. But in 1968, after astutely recognizing that opportunity lay elsewhere, he galloped quickly to the right in order to seize it.
Thus he came to state office as the candidate of those who considered themselves progressives, including most of the press, and left it to become a prominent spokesman for those who thought quite differently. The ideas of his old associates, he now determined, weren't really progressive after all. They were a voguish liberal intellectualism that was corroding the foundations the country.
Before, during and after the 1968 presidential campaign, he said many things -- usually, though not always, in words written for him by William Safire and other writers on the Nixon staff -- which made him controversial. Some of his comments were considered incendiary at the time, although in hindsight they seem far less alarming.
He was sent out by the campaign to court white, blue-collar voters, the people who later would become known as Reagan Democrats. They were disgusted with their party for many reasons, and it was his mission to draw them toward Richard Nixon and away from George Wallace.
Agnew did that well. I went with him on a campaign swing to places like Woodbridge, New Jersey; Youngstown, Ohio; and Detroit, where he wearily remarked on a television interview that "if you've seen one slum you've seen them all." The press saw him as Nixon's attack dog, which was fair enough, and resented it when he was well received.
In return, he mocked the national press as "an effete corps of impudent snobs," which was considered scandalously rude. But while the label of effeteness, which implies a kind of sterile decadence, may have been a bit off the mark, the rest was on target. Two decades later, it's widely recognized that some of the most prominent poobahs of big-time journalism regularly mistake snobbery for sophistication and impudence for independence.
Agnew's downfall was brought about by the exposure of his participation, as governor, in small-time but still gross and shameless financial corruption. He deserved his disgrace, which embarrassed the state just as the activities of his successor Marvin Mandel did a few years later. But the exultation it produced on the part of his enemies said as much about them as it did about him.
For discrediting Agnew did seem, for a time, to reflect discredit on his ideas -- or the ideas with which he had identified himself. If Agnew was corrupt, then all critics of the press, and maybe all who supported the policies of Richard Nixon, must be corrupt, too. When Watergate brought Nixon down a few months after Agnew's departure, this view seemed further vindicated.
But unlike Nixon, who survived disgrace to become in his later years an eminent and influential analyst of public policy, once Agnew was gone from office he effectively vanished. He published a bad novel about a vice president, consorted with rich friends, and made a comfortable private life for himself, mostly in California. But that was all.
It's nice, in a way, that he came back to Maryland to die, and it would be appropriate for Marylanders to treat his memory with dignity. He was no worse a governor than some who followed him, and probably less corrupt than others who have attained national office. That's not much of an epitaph, but he could do worse.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 9/19/96