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    Political Junkie
    Send your questions about campaigns and elections.
    Falls From Disgrace:
    Agnew and Wright

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to
    Friday, October 1, 1999

    Question: One of Maryland's most famous political sons is Spiro Agnew, but I don't know much about his pre-vice presidential career. How did he get elected governor in this mostly Democratic state? What did he do to catch Richard Nixon's eye in 1968? Was he ever taken seriously as a potential candidate for president? – Stan Ward, Columbia, Md.

    Vice President Agnew evoked strong opinions from supporters and opponents. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    Answer: When Richard Nixon named Maryland Gov. Agnew to be his running mate at the 1968 Republican convention, the reaction was a near-unanimous "Spiro Who?" Five years and dozens of altercations later, Agnew was gone, having resigned his office in a plea-bargain deal. There was no indication when he started his political career he would be such a controversial figure.

    Agnew was the Baltimore County Executive and considered a liberal-to-moderate Republican when he launched his bid for governor in 1966. A supporter of "open housing," he made a conscious effort to get African-American votes. Race was an especially big issue in Maryland back then; just two years earlier, George Wallace ran a pro-segregation campaign in the state's Democratic presidential primary and won 43 percent of the vote.

    Agnew's fate was decided in the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial primary. George Mahoney, a perennial candidate who had lost six previous governor and Senate campaigns, ran on the slogan, "Your home is your castle -- protect it." Riding a white backlash, Mahoney eked out a narrow win against more liberal hopefuls in a multi-candidate field. Following the primary, there was a considerable defection of Democrats to the Agnew camp; many others simply sat out the election, or backed the independent candidacy of Hyman Pressman, the Baltimore city comptroller. Agnew was elected by 82,000 votes.

    As governor, Agnew was seen as a progressive. In addition, he was an early backer of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the GOP presidential nomination. But several things transpired that brought him to the attention of Nixon and his people. First, Rockefeller announced on March 21, 1968, that he would not be a candidate. This startled many Rocky supporters, none more so than Agnew, who had worked long and hard on behalf of the New Yorker. Two weeks later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The murder resulted in rioting and looting in many black communities, including Baltimore's. Agnew denounced the violence in the strongest terms and went on to lecture moderate black leaders for their "irresponsibility." The actions drew national attention because of Agnew's reputation as a racial moderate. Then, on April 30, Rockefeller -- citing the King assassination -- jumped back into the race. But Agnew pointedly refused to endorse his old ally.

    The rest is history. Agnew was selected to place Nixon's name in nomination at the Miami Beach convention. The next day Nixon picked him as his running mate, and the ticket was elected in November. Though controversial and outspoken, both as a campaigner and vice president, Agnew was seen as a certain candidate to succeed his boss in 1976; indeed, polls in early 1973 showed Agnew as the favorite for the GOP nomination. But in September of 1973 The Washington Post reported that Agnew was under investigation for taking kickbacks while serving as governor. On Oct. 10, Agnew plead no contest to charges of tax evasion and resigned his office. One Maryland postscript: the state hasn't elected a Republican governor since.

    Question: The other night on C-Span, Newt Gingrich was talking about former Speaker Jim Wright. I missed it when Wright stood up on the House floor in 1989 and resigned from office. My father told me that was the best political speech he had ever heard. Can you help me find this speech so that I can read it? – Wade Peeler, Gaffney, S.C.

    Answer: It was indeed a very dramatic moment. From the outset, there was a widespread feeling that the charges against Wright were little more than a partisan effort by backbencher-turned-Republican Whip Newt Gingrich to wound the speaker and give the GOP an issue for the 1990 elections. Or that it was an act of revenge by the GOP after President Bush's choice for Defense Secretary, John Tower, lost his bid for confirmation in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

    But the more the House ethics committee investigating Wright dug, the more they found. On April 17, 1989, the committee found "reason to believe" that Wright violated House rules in 69 instances, mostly through an effort to improperly enrich himself through a bogus book-publishing deal and other schemes.

    Republicans taunted Jim Wright with buttons promoting Majority Leader Tom Foley (D) for Speaker. The buttons proved more prophetic than the GOP imagined. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    With the House in turmoil, and with many Democrats joining a solid bloc of Republicans calling for Wright's head, the speaker went before his colleagues at 4 p.m. on May 31, 1989. Everyone knew his power had drastically eroded and none saw him lasting in his position. But until he went to the well of the House floor, no one knew for sure what he would say. Speaking for one hour before a hushed chamber, Wright defended his ethics and denounced what he called a "period of mindless cannibalism." He complained he was a victim of "self-appointed vigilantes." But he announced he would resign as Speaker rather than fight the charges. "When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication, harsh personal attacks on one another's motives and one another's character drown out the quiet logic of serious debate," he said. Wright offered his resignation as "total payment for the anger and hostility we feel toward each other."

    Question: Has there ever been a Westerner on the Democratic presidential ticket? I would define the West as the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states, thus excluding Texas (Lyndon Johnson, Lloyd Bentsen and John Nance Garner) and South Dakota (George McGovern). – David Kuhn, Rockville, Md.

    Answer: No, there hasn't. No Democrats on the ticked hailed from farther west than the four you mention -- Bentsen (vice presidential nominee in 1988), McGovern (presidential nominee, 1972), LBJ (president, 1964, and v.p., 1960), and Garner (v.p., 1932 and 1936).

    Question: I'm very impressed that George W. has quit drinking alcohol. However, I am concerned that he misuses the English language, and that his mother (the "Education First Lady") pronounces the word "mischievous" as mis-cheeee-vee-ous. Now, that worries me. – P. Stafford, San Diego, Calif.

    Answer: I haven't seen this on a list of issues voters are concerned with, but maybe this is what happens when the stock market is up and Americans aren't dying overseas. Your note about Barbara Bush reminds me of former President Gerald Ford. When Ford was in the White House, he used to pronounce the word "judgment" as if it had three syllables - JUDGE-a-ment. Drove me nuts. But as I recall, this is not what ultimately ended his tenure in office.

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

    Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1999 Ken Rudin

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