Agnew took rough road to VP


Texas Gov. George W. Bush's off-color characterization of a New York Times reporter this week at a campaign stop in Naperville, Ill., couldn't help but recall the battery of insensitive comments uttered during the presidential campaign of 1968, by Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, the GOP's nominee for vice president.

Such bloopers seemed to plague the early days of the 1968 campaign.

In September 1968, at a campaign stop in Chicago, Agnew referred to persons of Polish ancestry as "Polacks."

Agnew attempted to explain his remarks by saying, "I confess ignorance because my Polish friends have never apprised me of the fact that when they called each other by this appellation it was not in the friendliest context."

He attacked Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, describing the Democratic party nominee as "Soft on Communism and law and order."

"If I had known my remarks were to cast me as the Joe McCarthy of 1968, I would have turned five somersaults to avoid them," Agnew explained.

Less than a week later while aboard his campaign plane en route from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, Agnew pointed to a sleeping Japanese-American reporter, Gene Oishi of The Sun, who was covering his campaign, and asked, "What's the matter with the fat Jap?"

The remark set off a furor.

U.S. Rep. Spark M. Matsunaga, a Democrat from Hawaii, a state with many residents of Japanese ancestry, was so outraged that he criticized Agnew on the floor of the House of Representatives.

"He said he used the term 'fat Jap,' in reference to Gene Oishi, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, 'who I consider as a friend of mine because I never jest with my enemies,'" reported The Sun.

"He would not apologize to Oishi but would to all others who may have taken it as an insult," reported the newspaper.

During an island-hopping campaign swing a week later, Agnew brought up the matter again at a Republican fund-raising luau and issued a second public apology.

At the luau, Agnew said in a choked voice that he was "truly sorry" for "having jokingly called a reporter of Japanese descent a 'fat Jap.' If I have inadvertently offended anyone, I'm sorry - I am truly sorry," reported The Evening Sun.

"To those of you who have misread my words, I only say you have misread my heart," said Agnew, dramatically dabbing at his eyes with a napkin.

His staff continued to offer that the reference to Oishi was a "standing State House joke in Annapolis, but some State House observers had never heard it," reported the newspaper.

One reporter referred to the incident as "The boo-boo in a muu-muu." News reports described Agnew as "contrite but undaunted."

After local reporters in Hawaii wanted to question him about the matter, Agnew issued a statement that began, "A funny thing happened on the way to Hawaii. Maybe it wasn't so funny after all."

He explained that in his youth, members of his family, who were of Greek descent, had been the target of derisive comments about "those ------- Greeks on the block."

"Yes, we were sensitive in those days," he continued, "but thank God the United States has passed the point where we're drawn up so tight that we can't communicate with each other and our sense of humor is beginning to disappear.

"I don't think I said anything quite that harmful to my friend Gene Oishi and I don't think Gene Oishi took what I said in any sense of downgrading him."

"Mr. Agnew's pedestrian style, along with his other characteristics - such as his addiction to professional football and a fondness for the music of Lawrence Welk - have led most observers to conclude that he was the personification of a middle-aged 'Joe America,' or, as Newsweek magazine described him, 'relentlessly middle-brow.' The Governor believes in what he says - a fact that inspires his friends and frightens his critics," wrote Oishi.

Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, speaking at Morgan State, described Agnew as "Just a nice, stupid guy. I can't imagine anyone in this room who would want to see Agnew a heartbeat away from the presidency of these United States."

The Evening Sun editorialized that "Governor Agnew has himself to blame for the clown's cap he now wears nationally."

"The campaign trail was thus booby-trapped for him long before Mr. Agnew set foot on it and, when he did, explosions occurred almost daily ... and they ballooned into national headlines."

The "explosions" did not seem to make much difference at the polls, however. That November, as Richard M. Nixon's running mate, Agnew was elected. Nixon and Agnew were re-elected in 1972. The following year, Vice President Agnew resigned. He died in 1996.

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