Everything Old is Agnew Again

by Lisa Greenhouse

Spiro T. Agnew seems to be rattling around in the collective unconscious lately, like a repellent archetype we thought we had buried long ago but that is suddenly resurrected as relevant.  And in a sad commentary on our times, Agnew is once again relevant with two new books that cover aspects of his infamous career.  Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz’s Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover Up & Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House (Crown, 2020) and Charles J. Holden, Zach Messitte, and Jerald Podair’s Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America (UVA Press, 2019).


Of the two books, the latter is ultimately more meaningful, though Bag Man makes for a quick and gripping read.  We may remember that Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to a tax evasion charge as part of a plea bargain that required his resignation from the Vice Presidency.  What we maybe don’t remember is that the income that went unreported to the IRS came from extortion.  Agnew shook down Maryland engineering firms who wanted government contracts from his position as County Executive of Baltimore County through the Maryland Governorship all the way into the White House.  And what was he doing with the money he acquired in this manner?  He was using it to support a mistress, although that part didn’t make it into the DOJ’s report or into the press coverage.  It was a gentler time.

The plea bargain only required that Agnew cop to the tax crime, really a minor part of the overall corruption.  The Justice Department needed him out of office and quick.  The Watergate Special Prosecutor and congressional committees were bearing down on Nixon’s separate and unrelated crimes.  If Nixon were to resign or be removed from office, as things stood Agnew would ascend to the Presidency.  Nobody in the Administration wanted this outcome, least of all Attorney General Richardson, who considered Agnew unfit.

Even Nixon saw Agnew as unfit for high office and according to both books, dreaded meetings with him and spent quite a lot of time strategizing with aides on how to sideline the lightweight Vice.  Nixon sent him on a World tour, at one point, to strengthen Agnew’s foreign policy chops as well as to rid himself of the irritation of his presence (and then complained that Agnew spent an inordinate amount of time on the tour playing golf).

Why are we remembering this now?  Golf?  Financial criminals in high office?  What does that have to do with the present moment?  Two words: Donald Trump.  Trump’s crimes are more complicated and harder to trace given their international nature and the high-powered attorneys and fixers he’s employed to protect himself.  Agnew’s crimes, in contrast, were local, straightforward, and not very cleverly disguised.  But as much as Bag Man is relevant, it is one-dimensional compared to the Holden et al. book’s effort to comprehend Agnew’s meaning for us almost 50 years later.

Living the Thug Life

Co-authored by a trio of political scientists, Republican Populist examines Agnew, beyond his criminality (and incessant golfing), as a Trump precedent in another more significant way.  Agnew took up the mantle of a right-wing populism that arose in the post-WWII era in response to multiple societal transformations such as a new working-class economic security, the Civil Right Movement, and various internal migrations of Americans, including mass suburbanization.  A cultural rather than an economic populism, right-wing populism defined itself in contrast to perceived cultural elites rather than against the “economic royalists” that FDR had earlier skewered.

As pocketbook issues became less pressing in the post-war prosperity, working-class resentments refocused from economic actors onto college administrators who indulged longhaired war protestors and onto those who would remove prayer from public schools.  Their sense of grievance encompassed those who suggested that tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods or the new suburban developments be racially integrated and especially liberal intellectuals who seemed to imply that people were bigots and intolerants if they objected to these measures.

A vote for Agnew is a vote for good government!

Since the 1920s, several internal migrations contributed to the eventual rise of cultural populism.  Midwestern Protestants, largely socially conservative and evangelical, streamed to the American Southwest to take jobs in aerospace and other industries.  There they began to organize politically.

In addition, after WWII masses of white people — the definition of white having expanded to embrace Eastern and Southern European immigrants — taking advantage of newly available fixed-rate, long-term mortgages and GI subsidies, decamped for the suburbs.  But their new backyard barbecue and Kiwanis Club lifestyle seemed precarious.  Southern blacks continued to pour into overcrowded Northern ghettos.  Ethnics in the Northern metropolises jealously guarded their recently attained status and prosperity against the possibility of reduced social stature and home values as integration of the newly arrived blacks began to be contemplated.

The Northern, ethnic working class, Levittown suburbanites, and Southwestern evangelicals were all susceptible to the new form of populism that was the in air and that was beginning to find a niche in the Republican Party.  Agnew embodied many of the Republican Party’s new constituencies.  He was the son of a Greek immigrant to Baltimore.  He fought in WWII and then made the trek out of the city to a new, detached house in the Baltimore County suburbs.  This was the immigrant family’s prototypical second-generation quest for assimilation.  Agnew deemphasized his ethnic roots.  He went by Ted.

Deprived by Nixon of a policy role in the White House, Ted spent most of his time planting the Republican seed in another fertile region of the country: the South.  Southerners had been trickling into the Republican Party since Truman integrated the Armed Services and the Federal workforce.  Agnew revved up the process through a series of speeches and campaign events in which, using his Trumpian gift for riling up a crowd by slinging insults, he implemented the Republican Party’s newly coined “Southern Strategy.”

Agnew was famous for the alliterative taunt: “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history.”  Agnew pilloried college students and professors, Federal bureaucrats, and journalists from the major networks as well as from the national newspapers.  During the 1968 election season he called a Baltimore Sun reporter a “fat Jap.”

The Speeches That Stirred America: Agnew’s Greatest Hits!

In speeches drafted by Pat Buchanan and William Safire in which Agnew added the finishing touches, the Vice President anticipated Trump’s content as well as his combative style.  What neither book points out explicitly is that Agnew also previewed the current role played by conservatives in Government.  Not prohibited from policymaking as Agnew was by Nixon but simply uninterested in the nuts and bolts of governing, politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Donald Trump, use their public positions to garner media attention through provocative culture war rhetoric and stunts.  They are entertainers above all else and in this way, have much in common with the Agnew prototype.

Media star Agnew was a populist hero to many 

Before Nixon soured on Agnew, he was very much attracted to him.  During the fateful campaign year of 1968, Governor Agnew of Maryland came to Nixon’s attention when, in the aftermath of the King riots, he dressed down a group of moderate Baltimore civil rights leaders before the TV cameras.  Nixon needed to find a running mate who while acceptable to liberal Rockefeller Republicans in the Northeast would also not repel the crucial Southern votes he needed to win (George Wallace had entered the race as an independent which complicated Nixon’s position in the South).

Agnew seemed to fit the bill.  He had an established record of supporting local civil rights initiatives such as the integration of the Gwynns Falls Amusement Park yet had little tolerance for the movement’s turn toward militancy or its new focus on economic redistribution.  Remember that Martin Luther King had immersed himself in the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.  He was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated.  Agnew’s support for civil rights had reached a tipping point when Pat Buchannan directed Nixon’s attention to the Governor’s speech before the dismayed Baltimore civil rights leaders, most of whom walked out as Agnew harangued them.

Most of these black leaders had voted for Agnew.  The 1966 Governor’s race had pitted him against George Mahoney, a Democrat whose racist slogan, in the face of pending fair housing legislation, was “Your Home is Your Castle.  Protect it.”  The black leaders felt betrayed.  Nixon felt like maybe he had found his man.

The problem with Agnew was that he didn’t know anything about Federal policy or Government.  As recently as 1966, he had been Baltimore County Executive and now, in 1969 he was the person next in line for the Presidency.  Agnew was good, however, at delivering culture war attacks and in doing so he developed a MAGA-like constituency of his own, to the point where he became indispensable.  Nixon couldn’t dump him without offending an important voting bloc.  That is Nixon couldn’t dump him until Watergate changed the political calculus.

Agnew ultimately dumped himself from Nixon’s favor

(“Agnew Drops the Bomb” illustration by Robert Soulsby)

Agnew’s post-political career involved golfing with and borrowing money from his pal, Frank Sinatra, relying on the international connections he made as Vice President, mostly with dictators and juntas, to arrange business deals for clients, writing a political thriller and (intended to be exculpatory) memoir, and in the words of Maddow and Yarvitz, “market[ing] himself internationally as an influential American anti-Semite for hire.”  He was successfully sued by taxpayers in Maryland for the amount of the extorted money plus interest and in desperation offered his services to the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince. In a letter to the Crown Prince which Maddow and Yarvitz found in the Spiro Agnew Papers at UMD, Agnew offered to mount a “fight against the Zionist enemies” if the Prince would help him by funneling two million dollars into a Swiss bank account.  The authors of Republican Populist do say that Agnew fought honorably in WWII.  So there’s that. 🙂

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Random Baltimore Brood X Cicada Craziness 2021 Edition

Things I found amusing during the cicada insanity of 2021.

Cicadas: “Some Freaky Bugs” (Two Lane Blacktop, 1971)

Waverly Tattoo Artist Bill Stevenson Will Commemorate Brood X Cicadas In Ink
Bill Stevenson has been crafting these cicada tattoos on the arms of Marylanders over the last few weeks at his Remington based studio Waverly tattoo company.

WYPR.org: The Brood X cicadas that are flooding central Maryland have delighted and disgusted many state residents. In Baltimore, some are so delighted that they’ve gone to Bill Stevenson for cicada tattoos to mark the occasion.


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Atomic TV’s Random Rona Playlist

Here’s some holiday lockdown videos with a Baltimore theme to watch while you grumble about indoor dining and/or holiday gatherings over the holidays (menu subject to change!):


Atomic TV’s 1999 Holiday Special: “Underdog Battles Satan Claus”
Will this be the last Christmas of the Millennium… or the last Christmas EVER? Join Atomic TV co-hosts Tom Warner and Scott Huffines to find out, as they once again risk nervous breakdowns escorting Underdog (visionary artist Suzanne Muldowney) to the annual Mayor’s Holiday Parade in Hampden, MD. Things get off to a shaky start when Underdog’s train is delayed by 40 minutes (nixing plans for a lunch stop at Roy Rogers for her beloved roast beef sandwiches), leading to a high-speed car chase sequence that eclipses THE FRENCH CONNECTION and BULLITT for hair-raising thrills!

Making it to the parade in the nick of time, Underdog shines in her 11th consecutive holiday march, only to confront her greatest challenge yet… SATAN CLAUS, a Y2K-obssessed messenger of doom who taunts Underdog and terrifies parade goers with his prediction that the world will end New Year’s Eve when Dick Clark drops the ball in Times Square. Will this be the last Hampden Parade for Underdog? Or will she defeat the powers of darkness in time to enjoy a tasty roast beef sandwich? Watch and find out in our wildest Christmas Special ever! Plus enjoy wacky parade floats like the ‘Reindeer Hunter’ tribute to ‘Nam POW’s and the Shriner’s ‘Crippled Children’ float!

Brett Harlow penned one of Baltimore’s Christmas cult classics, “Walking in an Essex Wonderland.” It’s one of those ditties that would be heavily played during the holidays on 98 Rock back in the 90s, then it seemed to fade into obscurity until people rediscovered the song through the miracle of YouTube. Now it’s once again a Baltimore Christmas anthem.

Bootcamp’s “Fire in the Hole” was the third video played on MTV’s launch date in 1981. Note the footage of Baltimore’s Block.

Tommy Tucker’s “Keep Good Time” was also filmed on Baltimore Street.

Are Bosley and Tommy Tucker the same person?

Meet Grape Ape, a hippie burnout who survived an atomic blast to become the Magilla Gorilla of rock and roll and Spokesperson for a Lost Generation, as he expounds on Led Zeppelin and proves that rust never sleeps, it creeps… From Atomic TV Volume One at www.atomicteevee.com

“Baltimore’s Infamous Block” – Home to strippers and prostitutes, “Evening Magazine” takes a look at the Block in 1980. Adult content – click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L60ftTzvPuM to view.

“Rescue 911” with host William Shatner covers the 1987’s Amtrak train crash in Chase in Baltimore County.

Tesco Vee’s “Way USA”, a pilot for a punk/comedy travelogue that was done for MTV in 1988 and hosted by the silver-tongued—and absolutely fucking hilarious—Tesco Vee of The Meatmen. (More at Dangerous Minds)

Atomic TV’s Tribute to Natty Boh (check out our “Atomic Cocktail” episodes)

One of Baltimore’s best bars, The Club Charles is featured on this episode of Haunted History.

Baltimore 1966 8mm footage – some beautiful shots of Baltimore’s Block.

Joby Palczynski Manhunt – WJZ Channel 13 and WBAL Channel 11 Baltimore, Maryland news footage, March 2000

“Rave On” – Baltimore, Maryland WJZ 13 Expose of 1990s Rave Culture

1990s Ocean City Maryland Bikini Contest hosted by DJ Batman – Ocean City’s DJ Batman hosts this bikini contest at the Ocean Club for a show sponsored by Marquis Motor Cars. Plus an interview with Michelle from L&M Modeling.

Crack the Sky’s “Skindiver” video from 1983’s “World In Motion” features former Penthouse Pet DiVina Celeste and was filmed at the former Hammerjacks.

“Shakedown” Late-Night Baltimore Dance TV Show (1992)


Joby Palczysnki (Joseph Palczysnki) Stand off Ends – WJZ Channel 13 Baltimore, Maryland, 2000

Joby Palczysnki (Joseph Palczysnki) Stand off Ends – WJZ Channel 13 Baltimore, Maryland, 2000 PART 2

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Baltimore’s Blue Tattoo Man

Feeling Blue: Some People Are Born Freaks. Jim Hall Turned Himself Into One

By Charles Cohen | Jan. 21, 2009

Feeling Blue: Some People Are Born Freaks. Jim Hall Turned Himself Into One

A video portrait of Baltimore’s “blue man” before he leaves town

Retired city planner Jim Hall talks about why he covered his body with one beautiful tattoo and much more
By Fern Shen 2/9/2020

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