JUST MORE FAKE NEWS
By ANDREW MCGINN
They’re a biased, “unelected elite.”
A tool of “liberal intellectuals” who want nothing more than to destroy the country.
Next, the person saying those things would customarily type “#FakeNews” or maybe throw out a token “#MAGA,” but Twitter was still 37 years away from existence when Vice President Spiro T. Agnew declared war on the media in the fall of 1969.
It’s a safe bet to assume you haven’t thought much about Mr. Agnew since he resigned in disgrace from office in 1973 for taking cash bribes, the canary in President Richard Milhous Nixon’s coal mine.
If you were born after 1973, it’s a good bet you haven’t even heard of Spiro T. Agnew. (Vice presidents, it would seem, are pretty forgettable, as evidenced by the title of a 2008 book about them, “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance.”)
A Scranton native who’s a college history professor in Agnew’s home state of Maryland, Chuck Holden was admittedly less than pumped when a colleague 10 or more years ago suggested they co-author a book about Nixon’s running mate.
They went about kicking around ideas for just what to say, finally settling on Agnew’s overlooked role in pivoting the Republican Party from the party of Eisenhower to what Democrats would call the party of no.
“That’s maybe a story we could tell,” Holden recalled recently. “It really is using Agnew as an entry point into the changing Republican Party.”
Then along came Election Day 2016.
Suddenly, Holden and his two writing partners can’t pound out their manuscript fast enough.
A 1980 graduate of Scranton High School and a professor of history since 1999 at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Holden hoped initially to have the book published by fall 2018 — for marketing purposes, the 50th anniversary of the 1968 presidential election that ushered Nixon and Agnew into office.
“We started this before the election last fall,” Holden said. “Now we realize that’s the better hook.”
Once upon a time, Nixon ran on the slogan “Nixon Now.”
But after 44 years, and against all odds, it’s Agnew whose time has come.
Holden’s book will explore “where some of the style, the rhetoric comes from that we see now coming from the Republican Party.”
It started with Spiro Agnew.
“If you’re really attuned to the political situation now and wondering where this came from,” Holden, 55, explained, “this is going to give you a sense that this has been building up.
“It didn’t come out of nowhere.”
Agnew’s us-versus-them messaging — that liberals and their friends in the media are against everything that makes the United States great — has made millionaires out of commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and it ushered Donald Trump into the White House.
Agnew’s diss of student protestors as “impudent snobs” or radical liberals as “radiclibs” are as contemporary as digs at “snowflakes” and their “safe spaces.”
“It has come to be a way of doing politics,” Holden said.
Of course, Agnew wasn’t totally ahead of his time. One of his most famous lines — when he called out the nation’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” — now reads like a line of dialogue from the Adam West “Batman” show.
But his attack on the media wasn’t just revolutionary for its day, it provided a way forward for conservatives.
“Every administration complains,” Holden said.
Griping about news coverage is as common as lying in politics, but what Agnew did was to attack the very institution itself.
For the first time, Holden said, an entire profession was cast as opposition.
Today, it’s called “rallying the base.”
“This was part of creating the base,” Holden said. “A lot of people had never really thought about it.
“Agnew and Nixon were very good at creating this idea that the press was political and they’re out to get us.”
In a speech on Nov. 3, 1969, Nixon called on the support of what he termed the Silent Majority — ostensibly, that vast segment of the population that wasn’t stoned or oversexed, served honorably and didn’t belong to the Black Panther Party.
Agnew jumped into the fray on Nov. 13, 1969, with a speech given (of all places) in Des Moines that took the mainstream media to the mat, labeling reporters an “unelected elite.”
As Holden put it, “Here’s another thing you can be angry and worried about: the press.”
In Des Moines, Agnew asserted the president had a right to speak to the people without his statements “characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics.”
He went even further, toying with the notion of more government regulation of television, leading Walter Cronkite to see that as a threat to freedom of speech.
Even the Jefferson Bee had something to say about it in an editorial published Nov. 17, 1969.
“If the purport or even the unintended consequence of the Agnew speech is the limitation of press freedom,” the Bee wrote, “then Mr. Agnew and all who approved the remarks are doing a disservice.”
The Bee, however, did call for the TV networks to re-examine their procedures and their reporting.
It had been the idea of Nixon speech writer Pat Buchanan — yes, the same culture warrior we still see on cable news shows to this day — to send Agnew out to attack network news commentators in Des Moines.
“This was very effective positioning,” Holden said. “Nixon realized this works for us. Period.”
Nixon saw in it the potential to build a conservative base between blue-collar voters and white-collar suburbanites.
Hmm, sound familiar?
Unfortunately, Nixon soon began to fret that Agnew was upstaging him.
That may have played out all over again had John McCain and Sarah Palin won the 2008 election.
Like Palin, Agnew was a virtual nobody when Nixon tapped him as his running mate, not to mention similarly unfamiliar about world affairs.
“He comes out of nowhere to be vice president,” Holden said.
As Agnew’s official Senate biography puts it, Agnew became “both the creation of Richard Nixon and a reflection of his administration’s siege mentality.”
Ronald Reagan chose not to use the same style, according to Holden, but others clearly saw its potential. Fox News Channel came along and built an empire atop it.
“Some of the connecting tissues are literally people like Pat Buchanan,” Holden said.
As president, Trump has merely cut out the middle man.
“Trump is his own Agnew,” Holden said. “Nixon tried to remain a posed statesman.”
Even Iowa politicians like Chuck Grassley and Terry Branstad, who seemed relatively moderate in the 1990s, have reimagined themselves.
“I don’t even recognize Grassley anymore,” Holden said.
As a historian who tries to see what we can learn from the past, Holden maintains that his personal politics are irrelevant.
“As a historian, I’m wearing a different hat,” he said. “I’m going with what the evidence is giving me. I still live in a world where facts matter.”
“I’ve had people say, ‘Of course you’d say that, you’re a college professor,’ ” he added. “Here are the footnotes. Check ’em out yourself.”
Even heroes like FDR had shortcomings, he said, and he teaches that.
Holden has previously authored books on conservatism in post-Civil War South Carolina and academic freedom in the South.
As for Agnew, Nixon came to see him as unfit for the vice presidency, even though they won re-election together in 1972.
By 1973, Agnew was embroiled in a bribery scandal unconnected to the Watergate scandal that would seal Nixon’s own fate in 1974.
They would go down as the first presidential and vice presidential team in history to resign.
“If this feels like such a totally bewildering moment (today), people can take a little bit of comfort knowing the system has been stretched before,” Holden said.
In Agnew’s case, he began accepting cash from state contractors while serving as governor of Maryland — but then he insisted on getting his cut even as V.P.
“His defense,” Holden said with a chuckle, “was, ‘This is how it’s done in Maryland.’ ”
He passed away in 1996, the year Google began as a university research project.
So, it bears asking — if Agnew were still alive, would he have a Twitter feed?
Holden has no doubt.
“He would’ve been all over that.”