The American Scene
Spiro Agnew v. the trendies
Al Capp In a recent issue of the New Statesman, Arnold Beichman, of the Department of
Politics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, reminded me that, on our once most fiercely independent campuses, it is now smarter to be trendy than true to disturbing fact. Mr Beichman denied an inference which had been Made in a review of a book of his, that he
had given "due praise" to Spiro Agnew. "You had no right," he sternly stated to the New Statesman, "to attribute to an
author sentiments he has not expressed, even remotely." The Vice-President is not Popular on Mr Beichman's campus. A year or so ago, when he was scheduled to speak
in the area, I was asked, as one who was to appear on the platform with him, if I
would consider ringing Washington, and asking him not to risk it. Those Who were responsible for his security were concerned about possible violence which could come from a group that included students from Mr Beichman's MIT. We both decided to risk it, however, anti, aside from the building being stink bombed, crowds howling for blood outside, and one attempt to rush the platform while he spoke, the Vice-President was accorded
every courtesy by the students. Mr
Beichman and his colleagues had educated in the principles of political discourse. Yet despite Mr Agnew's unpopularity in Massachusetts (the only state President Nixon and he failed to carry in the recent election), Mr Beichman's Department of Politics certainly knows how he first became a national figure, although, come to think of it, no MIT student in any audience I have ever addressed seems ever to have been told.
The facts are: the state of Maryland was to elect a Governor. The major issue was Open housing '; the right of blacks to live an any neighbourhood. There were three candidates, one a fence-straddling cipher, The Democratic candidate savagely opPosed open housing. No Republican of any stature, or with any regard for his political future, dared support open housing. Except Spiro Agnew. He gambled his political future on his conviction that Maryland was ready to join the human race, and he Yet, because Agnew is an unpopular figure on his campus, Beichman is terrified Of being thought to have "even remotely" given "due praise" to what was, in its time, and in its racial atmosphere, as courageous an act as any of Martin Luther King's. Nonetheless, the Department of Politics at MIT knows it was not so remote in time that it can be forgotten, nor se remote from the great changes in civil liberties in the US that followed, that it can be ignored. We expect fashion models and film stars to be trendy to keep their popularity. When a member of the Department of Politics at a prestigious university is, for the same reason, he has no more right to object to speculative chitchat than they have. The Foreign Minister of one of the world's liveliest nations remarked to me the other night that although he had visited Washington innumerable times, he had met the Vice-President only once. "I was astonished," he said, "to find that he was a man of intelligence and charm." Americans are also astonished when they find that out, from his rare and brief appearances on our TV news shows. These are, more than they realise, triumphs by Mr Agnew over TV, rather than on it.
A secret Agnew admirer, employed on one of the major news shows, and who will remain employed, as long as we keep his secret, told me of the joy any footage of an Agnew speech brings its staff. Everyone drops everything to view every inch of it. The game, then, is to extract a sentence from here, another sentence from there, and then join them in whatever way will make Agnew sound like a damn fool.
It is the network's way of getting even with him for once having demonstrated that, in a documentary, it had used a bit of film showing a US army colonel sneering at the US army. In the complete film, from which this bit had been snipped, the Colonel was quoting a sneer made by a critic of the army, who didn't have anything special against the army, except that there was one. It is the same network that, in the past, had exposed Senator Joe McCarthy's use of quotes out of their context in order to make his critics look like damn fools.
It is generally agreed that the '76 campaign will be between the VicePresident and Senator Kennedy, a campaign which, in fact, began before the '72 campaign had ended. The President needed no campaigning for, and so the VicePresident filled in his schedule of speaking engagements by boring his audiences with speeches as dull as they had once been electrifying, while Senator Kennedy, knowing that no campaigning would do Senator McGovern any good, did himself some good by appearing with him, and, by simply looking and sounding like a Kennedy, taking all the attention away from him.
Vice-President Agnew's strategy was, clearly, to convince voters, suspicious of his past energy, that he could in future be lethargic enough to be trusted with the Presidency, and Mr Kennedy's strategy was to remind the nation that Camelot was once more attainable, now that, in the romantic haze of myth and melodrama, we had forgotten that last time we'd been there, we'd gotten a few laughs, a lot of parties, sunk off the coast of Cuba, and, were it not for the sanity of Khrushchev, damn nearly succeeded in blowing up the planet. ' In the polls, Senator Kennedy leads the Vice-President, with all voters, by a healthy 10 per cent. While it is impossible to foresee how both men will live out the next four years, or if indeed, they will manage to live it out at all, with guns and nuts given the freedom from suppresion they now enjoy in the US, there seems no reason to believe that a contest between them for the Presidency would have any other result.
That prospect terrifies Americans who feel that, having demonstrated that he cannot be trusted to take an exam, or to take a minute off during eight hours of phoning for political help, to phone the police for help extracting the body of a girl trapped underwater in his car, the Senator cannot be trusted with The Button. Other Americans feel that a Vice-President who calls the nation's attention to shoddy products offered for sale by TV networks, is not a Ralph Nader, with more guts than the original, but a sinister plotter against the sacred right of the media to manufacture anything, label it news, and peddle it for a profit.
There are two unpredictables that could alter the '76 result, as we see it now, other than the casual whim of any lunatic with the price of a cheap gun. One is the proven inability of the Senator to stay out of trouble for any period as long as four years. As a kid brother, then as a mere Senator, he could indulge his love for the good things of life, the unpresidential things of life, without attracting much attention or criticism. And when Fate was unkind, we all felt that, in memory of his brothers, we owed him special tolerance.
But, as the inevitable Presidential candidate of his party he will be subjected to a sterner scrutiny than he has ever known before, except, of course, from the Harvard Group (led by Galbraith, Schlesinger, Chayes) and the Eastern Press establishment (led by the New York Times and the Washington Post) who, like field hands on an ancient Southern plantation, are inherited, willing arms and loyal hearts at the ready, by any bearer of the Name. Can the Senator subdue his adventurous spirit, an endearing quality, but one which leads the adventurer down strange roads, and into inexplicable situations, for four years? It is a long time, and the Senator is an exuberantly human being. Mr Agnew is, too.
Can he, having disposed of the alliteration addicts who made his early speeches beds of nails, find other work, say writing epitaphs for people who died of ennui, for the authors of his latest? And speak to us as he did to that foreign minister who was astonished at his intelligence and charm? There is, I'm afraid, not much of a chance. 'Presidential aspirants don't talk like people. They are persuadedby their advisors to talk like Presidential Aspirants which •is a form of communication most people can't master. Or endure.
Al Capp, the celebrated American cartoonist and creator of Li'l Abner and Co, has just returned to America after a prolonged stay in England. He will be contributing regular newsletters on the American scene.