Agnew Reconsidered?

Spiro Agnew is the epitome of the inconsequential VP, who systematically blew whatever opportunities he had to influence policy. Nixon, by some accounts couldn’t stand his mere presence. But I am reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary – which is really a fun, amusing read. Unsurprising, since Moynihan was a fun, amusing politician.

Moynihan had worked in the Nixon White House, sort of a house intellectual who had seen the collapse of the New Deal Democrats, and had found an intellectual refuge amongst the Republicans. He had some interesting things to say to and about Agnew. He deplored Agnew’s aggressive, inflammatory rhetoric – but he seemed to have a certain respect for the man. In this letter to Agnew he wrote:

I have told a dozen colleagues here at Harvard that as a judge of political horseflesh I do not know your equal in American politics today, which is not to say I agree with you about many things, but simply that your judgment about who to have to lunch to talk about the world is in my view pretty damn good. But there are not half a dozen other Republicns who are in any way so disposed and so equipped. You are alone. You have no troops. No one carries on your argument, no one elaborates it, no one initiates comparable and parallel arguments. No journal of any intellectual status is open to your point of view….

If you were to ask my advice it would be this. Cease attacking. Begin talking about the complex problems we must now face… You really can help in this, and I know you would want to do so.

Perhaps just a bit of flattery as Moyhnihan tries to persuade Agnew to tone down his rhetoric? Probably – almost certainly. But now look at this (very lengthy) memo to Ehrichman and Haldeman trying to get the White House to develop a conservative intellectual approach to governance:

….Here permit me a sympathetic word about the Vice President. He alone of administrative spokesmen has sought to take up some of the intellectual issues of the time and to argue the conservative case. But it has been a disaster for the President. Many things the Vice President says are true, at least I would think so. But there does not now exist a spectrum of opinion in which his views are seen to be located in a particular point, a bit to the left of this reasonable person, a bit to the left of that one. Opinion is so concentrated on the liberal left that Agnew’s mildly conservative positions are easily portrayed as the voice of the Radical Right. The Vice President has greatly contributed to this by attacking individuals by name. It might be argued that some had it coming to them…but the main point is that the attacks enabled the opposition to the administration to ignore anything of substance he said, and to depict even his most reasoned statements as the frenzied precursors of Fascist Repression….

The Vice President has assembled an advisory group of writers and professors. I have a rough idea of the panel and I would not hesitate to state that for sheer intellectual distinction is head an shoulders above anything any Democratic candidate for President is likely to assemble for similar purposes….

So I am pretty sure that 90% of what Moynihan is writing is an attempt to get Agnew’s famously divisive rhetoric toned down. That he throws a fair amount of flattery into the mix is no surprise in the realm of court politics. Moynihan was on to something here. He saw the intellectual collapse of the New Dealers and recognized that a conservative intellectual cadre was needed for the Republicans to displace the Democrats. (This happened, not so much later.) He also recognized that a political spokesman who could articulate complex ideas in simple, popular terms, was needed. (This also happened.) With a bit of seasoning, could Agnew have done it? Was Moynihan trying to both quiet the rhetoric but also initiate a program to “train” Agnew?

Agnew had only been governor of Maryland for two years when Nixon plucked him from relative obscurity and nominated him to the vice presidency. Had he served a bit longer in office, perhaps he would have had a better sense of how to conduct himself. Or, perhaps, Agnew was doing exactly what Nixon wanted as a lightning – that Nixon had no time or inclination for a conservative intellectual project. (He certainly had the brains – Alan Greenspan says Nixon and Clinton were the two smartest presidents he worked with.)

Tough to know – of course Agnew would have been a flawed vessel for any such ambition. He was, as Jimmy Breslin stated, “A magnificent thief,” who had payments delivered to the Old Executive Office Building.

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