In my lifetime, it often has seemed that the primary role of a vice president has been to make the president look more presidential by comparison.
Maybe there was a time when the vice president had more dignity, but that surely was before Spiro Agnew came along.
Agnew, who died on this day in 1996, first came to the attention of Republican leaders when he was elected governor of Maryland in 1966. In hindsight, his victory in a traditionally Democratic state can be dismissed as something of a fluke — his opponent was a perennial candidate running on a platform that opposed integration who survived an eight–candidate primary.
Consequently, many Democrats who were against segregation crossed party lines to vote for the more moderate–appearing Agnew.
Whatever the reasons for the victory were, Agnew had credentials that Nixon found appealing when he needed a running mate in 1968.
He was a Republican governor of a traditionally Democratic state that was considered by many to be a Southern border state — at a time when Nixon wanted to implement his "Southern strategy" and exploit the racial divide that was gradually ending the Democrats' century of regional dominance.
I've heard many stories about how Agnew came to be on the 1968 ticket — and I have found Theodore H. White's account in "The Making of the President 1968" to be the most plausible.
Nixon, White wrote, met during the convention with a cross section of Republican leaders — some conservative, some centrist, some liberal — to discuss prospects for the second slot on the ticket. Each side had its favorites — and absolutely would not consider the others' favorites — so he settled on Agnew (one of the "political eunuchs," in White's words).
Whatever the reasons or circumstances were, Agnew was chosen to run with Nixon — and, as a result, was elected vice president in November of 1968.
During the campaign — and later, in office — he developed a reputation for a combative, judgmental, even cold style.
"Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages," he said on one occasion.
"An intellectual is a man who doesn't know how to park a bike," he said on another.
On yet another, he observed, "[I]f you've seen one city slum you've seen them all."
He was re–elected with Nixon in 1972.
At that time, Agnew was widely seen as the heir apparent for the nomination in 1976 — but then it was revealed that he was being investigated for a veritable stew of criminal acts. In October 1973, he resigned the vice presidency and entered a plea of no contest to a single charge of income tax evasion.
Agnew insisted that the charges against him had been intended to divert public attention from Watergate — he even suggested, in his memoir, that his life was threatened if he did not "go quietly" — and he never spoke to Nixon again.
But, to my knowledge, he never said the charges were not true.
Anyway, when Nixon died in 1994, Nixon's daughters, in an expression of amity, asked the former vice president to attend the funeral, which he did. After Agnew died 15 years ago today, Nixon's daughters attended his funeral.
What I recall about the day that Agnew died was that almost no one had anything nice to say about him. No one, that is, except for Patrick Buchanan, who worked for a time as one of Nixon's speechwriters and was responsible for some of Agnew's more incendiary public remarks.
I guess it took someone who had a way with words (albeit a mean–spirited one) to find something nice to say about Agnew.
It sure wasn't easy during his lifetime.