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The New Agnew

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/palin-agnew.jpgSpiro Agnew and Gov. Sarah Palin (Library of Congress, WDCpix)

In recent days, political analysts have compared Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to another relatively unknown vice presidential candidate, Dan Quayle. The more apt parallel, however, would be to Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 running mate, Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew.

During earlier presidential campaigns, politicians vying for the second slot, who had far more experience than Palin, took the backseat, quietly stumping on behalf of their running mates. Consider, for example, nominees like Richard M. Nixon in 1952, and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960. But Agnew transformed the vice presidential slot into something far more visible: a party attack dog.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Agnew could sling mud and make vicious statements without hesitation, allowing the potential chief executive to assume the lofty role of statesman. Agnew saw himself as the self-proclaimed spokesman for Nixon’s Silent Majority. He fashioned himself as a populist fighting for the ordinary guy — for Joe Six-Pack and his family.

He raised verbal bellicosity to new heights. Agnew seemed to delight in the politics of resentment and division. His evocative speeches—often written by leading wordsmiths of the right, like William Safire and Patrick J. Buchanan — attacked “the Eastern Establishment,” people he disparaged as “effete snobs” and “limousine liberals.”

Agnew also repeatedly questioned the patriotism of the Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, accusing him of being “squishy soft” on communism.

Now, 40 years later, Palin has taken the job of vice presidential attack dog to a new level.

Agnew needed several months to perfect his role as lightning rod for the right. Palin did it with her first speech. In her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Palin set a combative tone by proudly likening herself to a pit bull with lipstick. She then launched attacks against Sen. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and the integrity of the entire Democratic Party.

Over the past several decades, voter surveys continually report that while Americans do not like negative campaigning, they find it highly effective. Consequently, attack dogs like Agnew and Palin can play a central role in turning the hopeful into the skeptical.

Swinging their metaphoric hatchets with glee, Agnew and now Palin delighted the GOP faithful with vicious attacks on the “liberal” media. Agnew disdained the press as “the nattering nabobs of negativity” and blasted TV commentators as “a tiny fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by the government.”

When reporters questioned the credibility of Nixon’s statements about the progress of the Vietnam War, Agnew shot back, “Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York!”

Palin, meanwhile, accused the media of belittling her because she was “not a member in good standing of the Washington elite.” As she said at the convention: “Here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators. I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this great country.”

The remarkable similarities between Agnew and Palin extend beyond their attack-dog personas. Both had a small town or suburban background. Agnew was born in Baltimore, but moved to the outlying suburbs. Palin in Sandpoint, Id., and moved to Alaska as an infant. Both had relatively large families. Agnew had three daughters and a son. Palin has three daughters and two sons.

In addition, both were active PTA parents. “Ted [Agnew’s nickname] got into politics through the PTA,” explained his wife Elinor. Palin described herself as “average hockey mom” who joined the PTA out of concern for the quality of local education. Both were chosen in the middle of a war and had a child serving — or about to serve — in the military. When Agnew was nominated, his son, Randy, 22, had served with the Navy in Vietnam for more than 5 months. Palin’s son, Track, 19, departed with his Army unit to Iraq on Sept. 11, 2008.

Seeking the second highest office in the land, both VP candidates had relatively little political experience before entry onto the national stage. Agnew’s public career started in 1957, when he was appointed to the Baltimore County Zoning Board of Appeals. He won his first election in 1962, as chief administrator of Baltimore County (1962-1966) — which did not include the city of Baltimore.

Palin served on the Wasilla city council from 1992 to 1996, and as the mayor of the small town (6,715) from 1996 to 2002. After losing a bid for lieutenant governor in 2002, she won the Alaska governorship in 2006.

Agnew and Palin also share the dubious distinction of being surprise nominees. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug 9, 1968, “Mr. Nixon surprised everyone at midday yesterday by announcing he wanted Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as his running mate.” Even Agnew confessed, “I agree with you that the name of Spiro Agnew is not a household word. I certainly hope it will become one in the next couple of months.”

Meanwhile, early on, McCain defended his choice of running mate by telling ABC, “Over time, people will compare her accomplishments with that of Sen. Obama and his are very meager. She is experienced, she’s talented and she knows how to lead. This is what Americans want.”

Nixon and McCain chose their running mates not just for their sharp tongues, but to solidify support among the party’s conservative base. Agnew was key to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” The Republican standard-bearer saw the Maryland governor as sufficiently from the South to attract Southerners, yet not so identified with South that he would lose Northern and Midwestern moderates. Nixon felt that the son of a Greek immigrant could appeal to a broad swath of urban ethnics, blue-collar workers and Southern and suburban whites**.**

In the same fashion, while McCain hopes his “maverick” image would attract independent voters, he chose Palin to engage the GOP conservative base — especially its evangelical wing. A vehement social conservative, Palin opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control, while supporting the National Rifle Assn. and the teaching of creationism in public schools.

Both Palin and Agnew talked about the importance of civility in politics, but quickly turned to vilifying their opponents. Defending Agnew’s repeated attacks on all perceived enemies of the Nixon regime, White House director of communications Herbert Klein insisted the vice president’s vituperative language was necessary ‘‘to explain in a missionary way what administration policies are and to seek support for them.”

In 2004, Palin criticized negative campaigning, saying, “Wayward ammunition causes damages when politicians run negative campaigns aimed toward opponents’ feet instead of shooting straight with voters.” Yet, in her acceptance speech, she belittled Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” Palin said, “except that you have actual responsibilities.”

After questioning Michelle Obama’s patriotism, Palin implicitly questioned the Illinois senator’s commitment to the war effort: “This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting and never use the word ‘victory’ except when he’s talking about his own campaign.”

Attacks dogs, however, can find themselves under attack. Agnew and Palin were both tainted by rumors of corruption or abuse of power. In October 1973, during his fifth year as vice president, the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore charged Agnew with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while serving as Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland and vice president.

On Oct. 10, 1973, Agnew resigned from office after pleading no contest to criminal charges of tax evasion and money laundering. In January 1983, he paid the state of Maryland nearly $270,000 as a result of a civil suit stemming from bribery charges.

Palin currently finds herself in the middle of an investigation over her alleged abuse of power while Alaska governor. She is accused of firing the state’s public safety commissioner, who claims he was terminated after refusing to fire her brother-in-law, Alaska State Trooper Michael Wooten, who was involved in a messy divorce from Palin’s sister. During her term as mayor, the city council threatened to recall her over accusations that she fired the city’s police chief and library director—who refused her suggestions concerning possible banning of books—without proper termination proceedings.

As we enter the last few weeks of the seemingly interminable election campaign, one cannot help but see not only the parallels between Agnew and Palin, but the disjuncture between a party that constantly heralds the Founding Fathers as their political guides, and a vice presidential candidate whose pronouncements seem to fly in the face of their warnings.

McCain promised that this would be a campaign of moral integrity; a campaign focused on issues and not on fear mongering. John Adams, so beloved by conservatives, would have applauded such a noble pledge. “Fear,” Adams wrote, “is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.”

Palin hopes to prove him wrong. Gloaming on to the familiar Cold War Republican mantra of fear and reassurance, she told the nation, “This world of threats and dangers, it’s not just a community and it doesn’t just need an organizer.” Obama’s ultimate goal, she argued, was “to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world.”

But will the public buy the divisive rhetoric of the GOP’s first woman vice-presidential nominee? It remains to be seen if the voters prefer candidates who emphasize issues that divide the nation or look to those who can unite the country in pursuit of the common good.

President George W. Bush, one of the most partisan presidents in U.S. history, initially aspired to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Agnew showed no such moderation. He took pleasure in making a heightened Red State-Blue State divide a self-conscious goal of the 1968 and 1972 campaigns.

Indeed, the former VP once proudly declared, “dividing the American people has been my main contribution to the national political scene since assuming the office of vice president. . . . I not only plead guilty to this charge, but I am somewhat flattered by it.”

One can only wonder if Palin will aspire to be more like Adams or Agnew.

Steven J. Ross is a professor of history at the University of Southern California. He is finishing a new book, “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.” His earlier works include “Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America.”***

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