Fifty years ago this week, a little-known governor of Maryland named Spiro T. Agnew gazed upon the fire and ash of the city of Baltimore and turned the riots of 1968 into his entrance upon the national stage as Richard Nixon’s vice president.
Today, Agnew, who died in 1996, is little-known once again.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
For a few years, though, he was a political earth force, a city kid out of Forest Park who became a sprawling suburbia’s Baltimore County executive; a governor of Maryland by dint of voters misreading his racial pitch; and Nixon’s hit-man after Agnew excoriated black leaders in the immediate aftermath of the riots.
And then, in a post-script nearly overlooked with the arrival of the Watergate scandal, Agnew was suddenly gone, pleading no contest to bribery charges in the old federal courthouse on Calvert Street, the only vice president in U.S. history to resign in such disgrace.
Today, even Baltimoreans scarcely remember his name.
When he ran for governor of Maryland, his Democratic rival was George P. Mahoney, whose campaign slogan was, “Your home is your castle. Protect it.”
In the atmosphere of that era, in the ongoing white abandonment of the city for suburbia, everybody knew what Mahoney meant. He was telling voters to choose up sides by race. He was saying, “Don’t let black people move into your neighborhood.”
Agnew never repudiated Mahoney’s language, but he danced around it well enough that voters sensed a gentlemanly discretion, a desire not to participate in such unseemliness.
All of that changed once he became governor and watched, from Annapolis, as Baltimore and scores of American cities were torched in the aftermath of the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
That’s when Agnew stepped into the national consciousness. He summoned about 100 of Baltimore’s African-American leaders. They were political figures, community workers, ministers.
“You ran,” Agnew told them. He told them they were afraid of being called names – “Uncle Tom” was one – and so they didn’t stop the riots. As if they possessed some magical control of the streets.
As if their grief over the loss of King wasn’t profound enough without Agnew berating them, and as if generations of white politicians hadn’t been the true creators of that devastating national moment.
His vitriol caught the attention of Ricahrd Nixon, who was gearing up to run for president. Agnew became Nixon’s Nixon — a firebrand, a tough guy standing up to angry blacks, a “respectable” personification of America’s racial fault line, standing there in his tailored suits, with his multi-syllable language. He was passing the torch to a new generation of racial antagonism.
Agnew might have become the 38th U.S. president. That’s the other thing to remember about him. He copped his plea just as the Watergate investigation was kicking into gear. He’d been taking bribes ever since his days as Baltimore County executive, and didn’t stop even when he was sitting in the White House.
With Nixon bowing out, Agnew would have succeeded him in the White House — instead of Gerald R. Ford — had he played it straight. He might have changed the course of history.
And yet, today, how many people even remember his name?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.