By: Sarah Weber
Though Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, has not yet been called an effete impudent snob, a pusillanimous pussyfooter, or a nattering nabob, his paper?s current role as a pi?ata for conservatives and other critics has produced numerous references to attacks on the media in 1969 and 1970 by Vice President Spiro Agnew. Everyone recalls that he ripped the press with the sharp alliterative prose of speechwriters Pat Buchanan, William Safire and others — but misconceptions abound.
Agnew is most remembered for his withering attack on television news in Nov. 1969, in which he attacked the ?tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men? who wielded their unmonitored power in the liberal confines of Washington D.C. and New York. However, many of his utterances cited most often did not target the press. Agnew?s scope of criticism was, in fact, quite wide, encompassing liberals (?pusillanimous pussyfooters?), administration critics (the ?4-H club? of the ?hopeless hysterical hypochondriacs of history?), and antiwar demonstrators (?an effete corps of impudent snobs?).
How relevant is this to the current attacks on the press, particularly from official quarters? Safire himself made the connection in an appearance this past July 2 on “Meet the Press,” in which he defended the Times from criticism of its decision to publish scoops relating to government surveillance. “Look, I used to write speeches for Spiro Agnew,” he said, “I’m hip to this stuff and I can say that it gives you a blip, gives you a chance to get on the offensive against the darned media. But in the long view of history, it’s a big mistake.”
So what exactly did Agnew say and in what context?
Spiro Agnew was never known to mince his words. His New York Times obituary in 1996 described him as a ?tart-tongued political combatant,? and his penchant for unfiltered speech often riled his contemporaries and constituents.
Agnew?s first major clash in the White House did not directly concern the press, though many were disturbed by the incident, including members of the press. On Oct. 15, 1969, nearly two million people took part in local antiwar protests. Though Agnew was apparently limiting his remarks to the leaders of that protest, his speeches over the following month were general enough in tone to imply his dislike of the entire peace movement. Agnew called the protestors ?so-called intellectuals,? ?merchants of hate,? and most famously, ?an effete corps of impudent snobs.?
The reaction from the press was swift and polarized.
The Christian Science Monitor, in an Oct. 22, 1969 editorial titled, ?Spiro Agnew?s Barbs,? remarked: ?We do not know whether to enjoy [Agnew?s] skill as a political phrase-maker or deplore what those phrases say.? The New York Times ran an editorial titled ?Mr. Agnew?s ?Reckless Words?? on Nov. 1, 1969, which suggested that ?perhaps [Agnew] should be sentenced to the heavy penalty of listening to his own speeches,? while deploring his ?intemperate words.?
But not all disapproved of Agnew?s turns of phrase. In two separate pieces, conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. defended the vice president. Buckley?s Oct. 24, 1969 column asked, ?He Spoke Strongly But Was He Wrong?? In a Nov. 5, 1969 column, Buckley elaborated, stating, ?The notion that we must fawn on every protester on the grounds that he is an epistemological dowser is pretty tiresome, let?s face it.?
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R?Ariz.) chimed in, saying in a Nov. 2, 1969 guest editorial for the Los Angeles Times that, ?The Vice President?s crime was to describe an effete corps of impudent snobs as ?an effete corps of impudent snobs.??
This would set the stage for the Nov. 13, 1969 speech that Walter Cronkite would call ?an implied threat to freedom of speech in this country.?
On Nov. 3, 1969, President Nixon spoke in a televised address about the need for an ?honorable peace? with the Communists in Vietnam. It was a speech that he had diligently worked on with Henry Kissinger, Nixon?s chief foreign policy advisor at the time, and one that introduced the ?Vietnamization? program. Though purportedly recognized by the ?silent majority? as a well thought-out plan, much of the press was skeptical. In a Nov. 4, 1969 editorial, The New York Times stated that the president had ?disappointed the nation?s hope for a reordering of American priorities with a ?plan for peace? that looks more like a formula for continued war.?
Though it was no secret that Nixon hated the press — William Safire recalled hearing the President repeatedly say that ?the press was the enemy? — what irked Nixon the most was the reaction from the network news stations. According to the biography of Agnew by the Senate Historical Office, the Nixon family was ?livid with anger? over the networks? criticisms of the president?s plan.
Nixon wanted to strike back at his detractors, but also wanted to preserve his calm presidential image. Pat Buchanan, a conservative speechwriter, approached Nixon with an idea for a speech attacking the networks for their unchecked power and political bias. Nixon approved the speech, and allowed his vice president to deliver it. Agnew appeared on television a week later on Nov. 13, delivering the speech from Des Moines, IA.
?The purpose of my remarks tonight,? Agnew stated, ?is to focus your attention on this little group of men who not only enjoy a right of instant rebuttal to every Presidential address, but, more importantly, wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues in our nation. … Now what do Americans know of the men who wield this power [of the press]?? Agnew queried.
?We do know that to a man these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City, the latter of which James Reston terms the most unrepresentative community in the entire United States?.Is it not fair and relevant to question [the concentration of power] in the hands of a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by the Government??
Buchanan provided Agnew several caveats throughout the course of the speech, including the important ?I?m not asking for Government censorship or any other kind of censorship.? But the speech did not shy away from naming names and prodding the American public to support the president even if the television news anchors didn?t. It ended with Agnew urging the American public to agree with his sentiment that, ?It?s time we questioned [the power over public opinion] in the hands of a small unelected elite.?
The majority of the press came to the aid of their attacked television news brethren. A Nov. 20, 1969 editorial in the Los Angeles Times read was titled, ?TV News Commentators Can?t Help Some Bias.? In a lengthy editorial for the Nov. 22 issue of The Washington Post, Meg Greenfield adroitly attacked Agnew?s fear of the ?other,? his confusion over the meaning of the word power, and the Nixon Administration?s general hypocrisy. The networks, she observed, ?are probably the most circumscribed, the most accountable, the most responsive (some would say chicken) of the lot. They are held to account — in one way and another?by the government, by competition, by news events, by their myriad labor unions, by the public, by their parent companies, by their shareholders, by their advertisers.?
The New York Times was so aghast by Agnew?s attacks on the media that it allotted nearly seven pages on Jan. 11, 1970 to Herbert J. Gans, a professor of sociology and planning at M.I.T., in a piece titled ?Since Spiro Agnew Brought Up the Subject, How Well Does TV Present the News??
But Agnew?s supporters — Buckley Jr., chief among them — claimed that the vice president was getting a bad rap by the liberals in the media. His speech had been right, they cried, but misunderstood and blown out of proportion. ?Spiro Agnew?s criticism of the television networks is the most serious act of lese majeste since the mayor of Chicago threatened to punch the king of England in the snout,? raved Buckley Jr. in a Nov. 19, 1969 piece for the Los Angeles Times.
?What Agnew has said is: This is the factual situation,? Buckley Jr. continued. ?What are we going to do about it?
The syndicated columnist Roscoe Drummond coolly agreed, saying in a Nov. 22, 1969 editorial for the Christian Science Monitor that starting ?a debate on the fairness — or lack of fairness — of network television news and commentary … is healthy.?
Agnew?s bald statements continued to entertain and occasionally shock the public throughout the Nixon years. Through the expertise of his speechwriters, campaign trips in support of Republican Congressmen became whirlwind tours of the magic of alliteration and general verbiage. One of his most famous utterances — one that was crafted by William Safire — was produced in San Diego, Calif., in Sept. 1970, but not aimed specifically at the press. Agnew was ostensibly there to grant his support to three Republicans up for reelection: Sen. George Murphy, Rep. Bob Wilson, and the governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
?In the United States today,? Agnew proclaimed, ?we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club?the ?hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.??
The 1972 presidential election provided even more fodder for what the Chicago Tribune dubbed ?the famous, flamboyant rhetoric of Spiro T. Agnew.? One of his more notable addresses was on the night prior to the election, when he told the press that McGovern was ?doomed to buzz off into the footnotes of history, never having pollinated a single issue.?
In the end, Agnew would join McGovern in those footnotes after being charged in 1973 with committing tax evasion and money laundering while governor of Maryland; the investigation ended when Agnew agreed to plead no contest to the charges and resign from the Vice Presidency in return for a fine and probation.
It is clear, judging from how often Agnew?s name has been brought up lately, that his speeches concerning the press still manage to turn some ink-stained blood cold. David Remnick of The New Yorker brought up the case of the former vice president in the magazine?s July 10 issue in order to show that ?more than any other White House in history, Bush?s has tried to starve, mock, weaken, bypass, devalue, intimidate, and deceive the press, using tactics far more toxic than any prose devised in the name of Spiro Agnew.?