I started Jules Witcover’s 2007 book, Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. I’ll use as my starting-point something that Witcover says on page 37. The setting is the 1968 Presidential election.
“At the same time, the Nixon strategists decided it was also imperative to shore up Agnew’s centrist credentials in the eyes of the rest of the electorate. For this reason, on his first campaign swing he was sent to the Midwest, where he spoke to the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Detroit and addressed not the Vietnam War but social justice at home.
“‘You know how strongly I feel about the absolute necessity for respect of law,’ he told the predominantly white audience, ‘but that’s not the whole answer. With law and order must come justice and equal opportunity. Law and order must mean to all of our people the protection of the innocent—-not, to some people, the cracking of black skulls.’ In words that almost sounded as if he were lecturing himself for his outburst against the Baltimore black leaders, Agnew said: ‘In our frailty and human selfishness, we have too often shut our minds and our consciences to our black countrymen. We need to respond to conscience rather than react to violence. We must aggressively move for progress—-not out of fear of reprisal, but out of certain faith that it is right.'”
Spiro Agnew was a Republican Governor of Maryland, who initially supported the liberal Nelson Rockefeller for the 1968 Republican nomination for President, only later to support Nixon. Agnew had won the race for governor against a Democratic opponent who was an ardent segregationist, and Agnew had a fairly progressive record on racial equality. As a lawyer, he won “strong contracts for 500 black fishermen” (page 32). Later, he was in favor of a ban on housing discrimination. (I talk about Agnew’s record on civil rights in my post here, as I write about Dean Kotlowski’s Nixon’s Civil Rights.) Yet, according to Witcover, Agnew’s record as a moderate was “disputed by liberal Democrats” (page 33).
Nixon chose Agnew to be his running mate for a variety of reasons. First, Nixon liked Agnew’s tough stance on unrest in the cities. Witcover in the passage that I quoted above referred to Agnew’s outburst against African-American leaders from Baltimore. What Witcover has in mind there is the time when Governor Agnew chewed out moderate African-American leaders for failing to stand up assertively against the riots in Baltimore. Nixon saw Agnew as strong in the field of domestic policy. Second, Nixon viewed Agnew as somewhat of a moderate. And yet, third, Nixon hoped that Agnew would keep Presidential candidate George Wallace of Alabama from getting too many votes, since Agnew was from a southern state (albeit not one in the Deep South), Maryland. And, fourth, Nixon was drawn to Agnew’s confidence. According to Witcover, Nixon was rather insecure and thus was drawn to confident men, which Agnew was, even though Agnew, like Nixon, was not the most social guy in the world. At the same time, Nixon did not want a running mate who would upstage him. This paradox would carry over into Nixon’s Administration, as Nixon often admired Agnew’s attack-dog rhetoric, which gained Agnew fame and support, while also wanting to make sure that Agnew knew that his job was to promote the President.
Agnew in the speech that Witcover quotes makes a reference to cracking black skulls. Of course, Agnew’s point is that law and order is not about that! Yet, Agnew did not make his point very delicately. According to Witcover, Agnew often had this sort of problem. Agnew would toss around offensive racial epithets, such as “Polack” and “fat Jap”. He would manage to offend women. Agnew had his assets, but also his liabilities when it came to the ticket.
In Witcover’s narrative, some of the Nixon people did not consider Agnew to be a particularly good speaker, which Witcover deems to be ironic, since that would be Agnew’s niche as Vice-President. And yet, Witcover narrates that, in a sense, during the 1968 campaign, Agnew’s speeches were significant. Essentially, Agnew was trying to out-Wallace Wallace, particularly in his condemnation of student protesters. Agnew in Milwaukee said that student protesters were “spoiled brats who never have had a good spanking”, and that they “take their tactics from Gandhi and money from Daddy.” Witcover says: “Wallace himself might have admired such phrases, which were not unlike his own.”
Agnew in 1968 was widely seen as right-wing, and his rhetoric largely leaned in that direction. Yet, according to Witcover, there was a desire on the part of some of Nixon’s strategists to remind people that Agnew was a moderate. Thus, Agnew’s speech on social justice before the VFW at Detroit! In my opinion, Agnew delivered his speech there—-before white veterans—–to give the impression that he was authentically concerned about social justice. Had he given that speech before the NAACP or the Urban League, or in Harlem, he would probably have been accused of pandering. But he gave the speech in a setting where (as far as I know) such speeches ordinarily were not given.