Spiro Agnew, the Forgotten Americans, and the Rise of the New Right

By Levy, Peter B. | The Historian, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Spiro Agnew, the Forgotten Americans, and the Rise of the New Right


Levy, Peter B., The Historian


RECEIVED WITH SCORN upon his nomination, characterized as a buffoon during his vice presidency, and quickly forgotten following his resignation, Spiro T. Agnew (1918-96) has been treated, at best, as a minor footnote in history. While the passing of other prominent conservatives, from William Buckley (1925-2008) to Barry Goldwater (1909-1998), served as occasions for significant reflection and, in many circles, admiration, Agnew's death did not. (1) Even the recent outpouring of research on modern conservatism has bypassed Agnew. Whereas scholars have traced the rise of the New Right from the Sunbelt suburbs of Southern California to the urban ethnic enclaves of Brooklyn, New York, and South Boston, Massachusetts, they have left Agnew out of their analysis, in spite of the fact that he was the quintessential suburban politician with urban ethnic roots and appeal. In explaining the fall of the New Deal Coalition, writers have probed the variables of race, class, gender, and region, as well as a wide-range of wedge issues, from busing and crime to family values, with little to no reference to Agnew, even though he stood at the cutting edge of these issues. (2) About the only exception to this treatment, or lack thereof, are the words of praise heaped on him by his one-time associate Patrick Buchanan (b. 1938), who called him "a prophet," and by another one of his aides, Victor Gold (b.1928), who likened Agnew to John the Baptist. (3)

While such comparisons go too far, historians of the modern era cannot afford to leave their students posing the same question Americans did when Richard Nixon (1913-94) first nominated him as his running-mate in 1968: "Spiro who?" (4) On the contrary, they should take their cue from Buchanan and Gold and reflect why these two conservative political pundits consider Agnew to have been so important to the rise of the New Right. Could Buchanan and Gold have intuited that Agnew's emphasis on traditional values helped transform modern political discourse, which in turn ushered in an age of culture wars? Might they have recognized that Agnew reinforced the Republican Party's appeal among men by questioning the manliness of liberals? Did they understand that Agnew, the first suburban politician to rise to national prominence, allowed the Republican Party to make great inroads among this crucial voting bloc, especially southern suburbanites, who were, as a number of scholars have recently shown, the real key to Nixon's southern strategy? (5) Did they lionize Agnew because of the key role he played in popularizing the view that the mass media were liberally biased and elitist and because he enabled the Republicans to recast themselves as the Party of ordinary or "forgotten Americans" rather than as representatives of the country club set?

Not only did Agnew help change the nature of political discourse, recast the Republicans' image, expand the Grand Old Party's appeal, and sharpen the conservative critique of the media, he did so while remaining a legitimate politician and a favorite of conservatives within the Republican Party. Unlike George Wallace (1919-98), who has received a great deal of attention from historians, Agnew did not carry Wallace's baggage and did not merely draw the protest vote. Prior to 1968, Agnew had a reputation as a moderate Republican with a relatively favorable record on civil rights and a reasonably good relationship with the press. Moreover, while it is fashionable to cast Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) as the founding fathers of the New Right (conservatives maintain a distrust of Nixon), it is important to remember that Goldwater had proven unable to capitalize on the politics of resentment, largely because his crusade took place too early, before the liberal crisis of the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s, and that in the wake of Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972, it was Agnew, not Reagan, who stood as the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. …

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