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Spiro Agnew: A forgotten influence on modern politicians discussed at book signing

By Staff | Nov 15, 2019

Professor Charles Holden, left, chats with David Keene, of First Washington, Md., after signing his copy of "Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America" at the Robert C. Byrd Center on Nov. 7. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — For many years, the legacy of Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forgotten, due to Agnew being found guilty of accepting bribes while in office. As Charles Holden, a history professor at St. Mary’s College, spoke during a book signing event for his book, “Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America,” in the Robert C. Byrd Center on Nov. 7, he explained how Agnew’s path to the White House inspired the behavior of future Republican politicians.

“As academics, we want to explore unanswered questions. We love it,” Holden said, referring to his co-writers on the book, Jerald Podair and Zach Messitte.

Released to the public on Oct. 11, 2019, the book is available for purchase online and was being sold at the book signing by Four Seasons Books.

“Our book argues that Agnew’s background, more than his policy changes on ideological purity,” Holden said. “Agnew, in about a year-and-a-half, became a political figure embraced as representative of the middle man. Or, as Nixon would call them, the ‘silent majority.'”

Agnew, the son of a Greek immigrant, portrayed himself as a representative of the middle class, frustrated by the nationwide upheaval resulting from the civil rights movement. While he had initially portrayed himself as a a moderate, he sensed the opportunity to gain more votes by appealing to an overlooked portion of the public.

“Populism is more an impulse than an ideology, and that fits Agnew to a ‘T,'” Holden said. “There were also in this silent majority a resentment against the consumer culture. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ was already at this time slang for this experience. For many of these strivers of Agnew’s label, life could often feel tenuous.”

According to Holden, Agnew received thousands of letters from people who said they felt like “a nobody American,” and telling him he was America’s “last hope.”

Agnew’s brash attitude, populist appeal and dislike of the news media has recently been brought into the limelight by Holden’s book. Along with the book, two articles on Agnew’s legacy were published last week in the Des Moines Register and Connecticut Post, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Agnew attacking the news media during his speech, “The Responsibilities of Television,” at the Midwest Regional Republican Committee Meeting in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Agnew was not simply complaining about the press,” Holden said. “He was changing mindsets, so people would start questioning the media’s bias. He assumed negative news coverage was the product of a liberal media, biased against Republicans. Ironically, he felt confident of his good relationship with the local press.”

According to Holden, Pat Buchanan, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump have all exhibited populist leanings, similar to Agnew’s.

“Trump takes everything to 11,” Holden said. “There is certainly a way of doing politics at the highest level that has some success.”

But Agnew’s fall from grace, in a time when ethical behavior was expected from political leaders, led to him being ignored by historians and the press alike, until recently.

“He has been, essentially, ‘ghosted’ from history,” Holden said.