JULY 25, 1970
In and about the White House these days, the inquirer finds cautious agreement with the proposition that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew has been persuaded to moderate his line of talk and generally to change his public performance for the better. This is a very sensitive subject, one that is discussed with the greatest care by the President’s and the Vice President’s assistants. They say that the President has not told his Vice President to change in any way and that neither of the only two Nixon assistants, John D. Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman, who might speak for the President to the Vice President in such a matter, has told him to, either. It is still said, as it has been ever since the Administration took office, that Mr. Nixon and Mr. Agnew seldom have or make occasion for private discussion of this or any other subject. They rarely meet, except at formal’ Cabinet and similar gatherings, and such talk as they’ have with each other is mostly by telephone. So far as anyone it the White House or in the Agnew premises across the way in the Executive Office Building admits or seems to know, Mr. Nixon has not restated to the Vice President in person the rule that the President publicly recommended to“all of the members of this Administration” at his press conference on May’8: “When the action is hot, keep the rhetoric cool.”
There has been some change in the Agnew performance since then, but not nearly as much as Ithought there had been when I began asking about it at the White House. All that it amounts to is the recent omission from Mr. Agnew’s formal speeches of references to “effete snobs,” “rotten apples,” “criminal activists,” “hard-core dissidents” and the like in terms that invite students, restive blacks, antiwar protesters and the myriad others who question this or that Nixon attitude and policy to assume that the Vice President is indicting all of them. It reflects no change at all in Mr. Agnew himself and in his conception of what a Vice President of the United States may responsibly and usefully say. He has taken a little more care with the way he says it, but in his less formal utterances he gives evidence that both the omissions and the newly discreet elisions of the same old points may be transitory. Yet the change, small and illusory though it has been, is considered at the White House to be significant, and a study of the factors that have brought it about reveals a good deal about the Vice President and about the Nixon-Agnew relationship.
The pressures upon Agnew that have led to his current show of moderation predate the Nixon establishment’s concern with the appearance it was giving of crass indifference to the dissents and divisions that trouble the country. A quite different kind of concern developed in the vicinity of Mr. Nixon’s Oval Office early this year. The concern was neither with what Agnew was saying nor with its corrosive and divisive effects upon the public and the country as such. It was with the impression, then close to becoming a fact, that Spiro T. Agnew rather than Richard Nixon was beginning to personify the Nixon Administration and to preempt, in the public mind, the President’s right and duty to declare and expound the Nixon position on major issues. The Nixon assistants who felt this concern had or at least disclosed to their associates no thought that Agnew might actually be positioning himself to compete with the President for the 1972 nomination. They did note, without pleasure, the growing assumption among Republican politicians in theSouth and elsewhere that Spiro Agnew had suddenly become so popular with his and Mr. Nixon’s Middle America that the President already had no choice but to keep him on the 1972 ticket. But the conscious and expressed concern had to do only with the Administration identity.
An episode in the weeks preceding Mr. Nixon’s March 24 statement of his school desegregation policy illustrates the nature and gravity of the concern. That statement was first conceived and drafted as a speech to be delivered by the Vice President in Atlanta. The central issues that it involved, basically whether to commit the Administration to a final drive for adequate integration in the South or—as was proposed in one of the drafts—to question whether the pains of integration were worth the social and political cost, were hotly argued within the Nixon staff. But they were overshadowed in the preliminary stage by the question, also seriously debated, of whether Agnew or Nixon should deliver so important a policy statement. The decision was that Nixon should deliver it, the Agnew speech was scrapped, and one of the reasons was that the originally intended course would have further enhanced the Vice President’s disturbingly formidable stature.
Recent happenings suggest a mutual desire to promote an appearance of both personal and philosophical separateness. Mr. Nixon must have known that? the Agnew rhetoric would come to mind when he spoke of “the generation gap” to 14,000 Jaycees and their wives in St. Louis and said to them: “I charge you, I urge you, to do everything you can, not to make the gap bigger, not to set up a hostile confrontation, but to give to young people the understanding of our system that- they need.” When the Nixon party ‘arrived in California for the latest stay at the Western White House, a pool reporter representing the entire press misunderstood the President to say in the Agnew manner that Washington journalists “talk to each other” and fall into a “sort of intellectual incest.” After a tape recording established that Mr. Nixon had actually said that “we” in Washington, himself included, suffer from “intellectual incest” and ought to get around the country, his press assistants frantically corrected the mistaken report and said they wanted to make certain that “an Agnew type of remark” was not attributed to the President. Soon after Agnew called upon a young and rather crudely outspoken black appointee to the Nixon commission on campus disorders to resign, the President’s new Counsellor,, Robert Finch, and the commission chairman, former Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, marched straight from a talk with Mr. Nixon to the White House press room in Washington and assured reporters that the President was satisfied with the appointment.
The Vice President’s former chief assistant, C. Stanley Blair, who has resigned and is running for election to Agnew’s old job as Governor of Maryland, regularly attended the senior staff meetings that begin each working day at the White House. Blair’s successor, Arthur Sommer, attends only by invitation and is seldom invited. The Agnew press spokesman, Herbert Thompson, was originally on the staff of the President’s Director of Communications, Herbert Klein. Thompson has been removed from the Klein staff and now reports only to Agnew. Tlie Vice President has diminished his dependence upon the Nixon staff of speech writers by hiring a writer of his own and shifting Thompson from press relations to speech drafting. Some of Thompson’s press duties are being assumed by Roy Goodearle, a former advance man who was transferred from the Nixon staff to the Agnew staff during the 1968 campaign. Whether Goodearle is Agnew’s man or Nixon’s man on the Agnew staff may be a moot point with White House reporters. In Jules Witcover’s account of the 1965 campaign. The Resurrection of Richard Nixon, Goodearle is quoted as saying at a staff celebration after the Nixon victory, “Why don’t we all get a member of the press and beat them up? I’m tired of being nice to them.”
Agnew’s share in the White House awakening and widened contact that followed the antiwar rally in Washington on May 9 and the student killings at Kent State University affected him as it affected everyone around Nixon. At a session in his office with Walter Heller and 10 other senior professors from the University of Minnesota, he listened with attentive respect to their protestations that his invective, the total o,age that he had been casting, had materially contributed to the deep, growing, and dangerous alienation of students and academics who by no stretch of reason could fairly be numbered with the President’s “campus bums” and Agnew’s “criminal activists.” He pleaded that he had been misrepresented and misunderstood, that he had never intended to be divisive in the way they said he had been, and he acknowledged that he perhaps had a duty to speak so that he would not be misunderstood. His staff later sent each of the professors the texts of 15 of his speeches, including four or five of the famously abrasive gems. Agnew was immensely pleased by a return letter from one of the Minnesota callers who conceded that the whole of what he had said was less offensive than the reported excerpts had been. The subsequent care with his language has not applied to the printed press and to such public figures as Senator Fulbright, former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, and retired Ambassador Averell Harriman. Some of his attacks have been as vicious, as twisted in fact and innuendo, as ever. But the victims are fair game, in a sense that the dissenting young and black and poor are not, and if the Vice President were judged only by the speeches he has delivered since early June he might be said to have undergone a constructive though modest change.
But Agnew denies himself that basis for judgment with his penchant for talking at length about himself, preferably on television. Then he documents characteristics that may be only deduced from his speeches. For all of his claims to respect the right of dissent, he is offended by any criticism of or attack upon established authority, particularly if it is the President’s authority. He rejects the notion, if it ever occurred to him, that a Vice President’s “right” of free speech may be inhibited by his position in ways that a critical professor’s or commentator’s right is not inhibited. He hungers for publicity, says whatever he has to say to get it, ignores, the possibility that a silent and unnoticed Vice President may at times be more useful than a vocal and publicized Vice President. Complaining that his “bland” speeches were poorly reported, he told a BBC interviewer: “So, in a desire to be heard, I have to throw them what people in American politics call a little red meat once in a while, and hope that in spite of the damaging context in which those remarks are often repeated, that other things that I think are very important will also appear.” The same interviewer asked .him about his notorious statement that some Americans should be separated “from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples.” Agnew answered: “There are people in our society who should be separated and discarded… We’re always going to have a certain number of people in our community who have no desire to achieve, who have no desire to even Sit in an amicable way with the rest of society; and these people should be separated from the community. Not in a callous way, but they should be separated as far as my idea that their opinion shall have any effect on the course we follow.”
There spoke a Vice President who, thanks to Richard Nixon, could be and, to say the very least, would not mind being the next President of the United States.
This article originally ran in the July 25, 1970 issue of the magazine.