Saturday, November 20, 2010

Remembering a Pit Bull with Panache

With the omnipresent Sarah Palin weighing in on matters far afield in her latest tome, America By Heart: Reflections of Family, Faith, and Flag, including on the historic, reasoned, and rather eloquent JFK "separation of church and state" speech (which she’s now found fault with), I was reminded of a political personage from the past. His name: Spiro Agnew, at once revered and reviled by competing segments of the population.

I was an eleven-year-old boy when Agnew pleaded “no contest” to criminal charges of tax evasion and resigned as Vice President of the United States. Embroiled in a separate but more epic scandal known as Watergate, his boss, Richard Nixon, followed suit ten months later. Agnew was the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency for almost five years, and that possibility positively exhilarated a portion of the populace, while simultaneously sending frightful shivers up and down the spines of others. Not unlike Sarah, Spiro was the antithesis of a neutral personality in the antithesis of neutral times.

When Nixon selected Agnew as his running mate in 1968, it stunned most political observers and regular folks as well, who had never heard of the guy. His credentials on the eve of being tapped for bigger and better things: not quite half of a four-year term served as Maryland's governor. Does the man's résumé—or lack thereof—ring a little familiar? Still, it didn’t take Spiro very long to become nationally known on the campaign hustings, and an even more recognized personality as the Pit Bull vice president with the big vocabulary.

Nowadays, we would probably say that Agnew very shrewdly branded himself. And I believe credit should be given where credit is due. Amidst the ongoing and increasingly contentious debacle known as the Vietnam War, Spiro’s speechifying in the early 1970s assumed a life of its own. Regardless of whether one believed he was fanning the flames of division, or a welcome breath of fresh air—my father loved the guy—some of his speeches were bona fide classics. In the gutter world of politics, even calling them literary masterpieces wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Agnew had an uncanny way with words and a forensic aptitude that very few pols before, or since, have exhibited—sorry Sarah.

Political reporter Jules Witcover dubbed Agnew’s delivery “a deceptive calm” in which the vice president unleashed a fusillade of blistering attacks on those whom he perceived as the enemies, which invariably included members of the fourth estate. In the book Very Strange Bedfellows by the aforementioned Witcover, a compelling read that chronicles the improbable pairing and rocky five-year political marriage of Nixon and Agnew, the author reveals that while Spiro employed speechwriters, he also wrote some of his best and most effective lines, including an attack on the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” His frequent use of alliteration became known as “Agnewisms,” with such memorable hits as “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Really, if we are going to be subject to divisive, bloviating politicians anyway, I’d just assume be entertained along the way. And I’d like to, perhaps, learn a few new words in the process. 

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