Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Spiro Agnew in Jackson, Mississippi 1969

Spiro Agnew (1918-1996) was Richard Nixon's Vice President from 1969-1973. He was the main point man for applying the strategy at the national level that Ronald Reagan had successful used in his 1966 campaign for California Governor, polarizing white voters against the bogeymen of scary black people, antiwar protesters and hippies. At the national level, this was part of the Southern Strategy, which by the 1980s had changed the South from a region which tended to elect (mostly conservative) Democrats to Congress and was competitive in national elections to a Solid South in favor of the Republicans.

To a large extent, the key changes in American politics since 1960 can be described in regional terms: the South became the Republican stronghold in Presidential politics, and California became a safe state for Democratic Presidential candidates. In ideological terms, it means that liberal/conservative disputes which in the 1960s split both parties, which is part of how "bipartisanship" came to be considered a prime virtue (at least among the Beltway Village crowd) now more closely align with Democratic-Republican splits. If partisanship seems distressingly more intense today to the David Broders of the world, it's largely because both parties are more ideologically aligned, though the Democrats are far from being so consistently liberal (in the American sense of the term) as the Republicans are conservative.

Spiro Agnew as Vice President was a prequel to Rush Limbaugh. He threw out red meat to the conservative base and struck a bullying, faux-populist tone that encouraged conservative white voters to think of themselves as being the natural partners of Republican plutocrats and robber barons.

Agnew made some waves at the time with a speech in Jackson MS on October 20, 1969, to a Mississippi Republican Dinner Jackson; the text I'm using here is from Collected Speeches of Spiro Agnew (Audubon Books; 1971). Reflecting the peculiar situation of the party line-up in Mississippi at that time, segregationist Democratic Gov. John Bell Williams was present despite its being a partisan Republican event. Agnew commented, "I particularly want to thank my good personal friend, your Governor, John Bell Williams, for his presence here under what might be characterized as rather unusual bipartisan circumstances."

The Republicans are still practicing the same sort of brand of bipartisanship that Agnew was at this dinner. It's just that where in 1969, there were coalitions of Republicans and Democrats on both liberal and conservative issues, today's bipartisanship means that some Democrats do what the Republicans all want.

Late in the speech, he throws out a standard article of Party doctrine: "The Republican Party does not believe that bigger government can masquerade as better government." But Mississippi's Gulf Coast had been hit a serious hurricane that same year, Hurricane Katrina, the most severe to strike there until Katrina in 2005. So Agnew spends the first part of his speech after the opening pleasantries listing all the federal assistance the Nixon administration was providing to deal with the emergency:

The President has allocated an estimated $60 million from the President's disaster fund for Mississippi alone. In addition, twenty federal agencies have mobilized men and money to assist the victims of Camille. The Corps of Engineers has moved 374,000 tons of debris and will spend before this clearance job is over $17 million. The military sent in 8,900 troops. The Third Army served 164,000 meals. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has supplied more than 1,600 mobile homes. The Small Business Administration anticipates providing $140 million in loans. The Department of Agriculture, Mr. Under Secretary, is delivering over 5.5 million pounds of food.
Mississippi voters have generally been less worried about "pork" spending and more interested in who's bringing home the bacon in the form of federal taxpayer money. Agnew figured his audience well on that point.

And he used that as his segway for talking about race, more particularly the full racial integration of public schools which then, 15 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision had still not been implemented in most Mississippi schools:

Speaking of rebuilding, one incident that occurred during my inspection trip, I must confess, irritated me considerably. At a news conference, I was asked to comment on the statement of an H.E.W. [Department of Health, Education and Welfare] official to the effect that no Federal funds would be provided to rebuild schools which H.E.W. decided were in violation of its desegregation guidelines. Not only was this gratitious [sic] determination by a minor official repugnant as an example of overbearing bureaucracy, but if was an insensitive slap at a people already reeling from a natural disaster. I can assure you that that official has been disciplined and encouraged to correct the errors of his ways. [my emphasis]
I haven't researched that particular alleged incident to find out the particulars; I wouldn't recommend accepting Agnew's version at face value. But here we see the posturing to the segregationists, who still were fighting to prevent public schools from being integrated. Segregationists had been using "libertarian" slogans like "overbearing bureaucracy" and whiny-white-people words like "insensitive slap" to characterized federal officials' efforts to enforce the law and the Constitution there. The bit about how it was some "minor official" who had proposed this but had been diligently "disciplined" for "the errors of his ways" is part of a now-classic Republican pitch. This is the Vice President talking about the government his Party heads as though it were some alien force that the Republican President was struggling to control. He continues directly, assuring his audience that his administration is not racist, but ...:

Now let me make it very clear at this point that this Administration will never appeal to a racist, philosophy. Every American is entitled to assessment of his personal merit regardless of his race or religion. However, a free government cannot impose rules of social acceptance upon its citizens. Just so I won't be misunderstood by the pundits who read so many things into my speeches I don't say I mean that to be social acceptance between members of the religions. The point is this - in a man's private life he has the right to make his own friends.

Unfortunately, the legitimate cause of Civil Rights, a cause that I've fought very hard for in my State both as a county official and as a Governor, has been all too frequently diverted, and even perverted, in this direction.

Very shortly, the Supreme Court will consider a case involving desegregation of Mississippi schools. President Nixon is convinced that your public officials have made a strong case for additional time to implement the law without destroying quality education. The NAACP disagrees and has brought this case to compel immediate action. It is hoped that the result will provide a sensible solution. [my emphasis]
Agnew here is pandering to the kind of segregationist thinking that until today still manages to turn the minds of otherwise sensible people into hash. He defends the continued segregation of public schools on the completely false grounds that it's an attempt "impose rules of social acceptance" on the sorely put-upon and suffering white people of Mississippi. (Cue that world's smallest violin.) He makes this as explicit as he can: "in a man's private life he has the right to make his own friends". This of course was not disputed by civil rights advocates, who would extend that right to women, as well. But this deliberate and dishonest blurring of public policy and private, personal behavior was part and parcel of the (often-feigned) segregationist horror of "miscegenation."

Then he takes his audience into the heart of darkness in their worldview, to the evil doings of The Liberals (like I said, a prequel to Rush):

Much has been made of the Nixon Administration's attitude toward the Southern States — mostly - by the Northeastern liberal community. They've accused us of something, as you heard tonight, they call "The Southern Strategy." We have no Southern Strategy. [And Nixon wasn't a crook. Rii-iiigt!] We do have a conviction that the people of the United States irrespective of their point of geographic residence, have an inherent right to be treated even-handedly by their government.

For too long the South has been the punching bag for those who characterize themselves as liberal intellectuals. Actually, they are consistently demonstrating the antithesis of intelligence. Their reactions are visceral, not intellectual; and they seem to believe that truth is revealed rather than systematically proved. These arrogant ones and their admirers in the Congress, who reach almost for equal arrogance at times, are bringing this nation to the most important decision it will ever have to make. They are asking us to repudiate principles that have made this country great. Their course is one of applause for our enemies and condemnation for our leaders. Their course is a course that will ultimately weaken and erode the very fibre of America. They have a masochistic compulsion to destroy their country's strength whether or not that strength is exercised constructively. And they rouse themselves into a continual emotional cresendo [sic] - substituting disruptive demonstration for reason and precipitate action for persuasion.
This is worth parsing a bit. Because way too many liberals and not-so-liberal Democrats are still trembling in fear before these kinds of accusations today.

The first thing that strikes a former Mississippian like me is the astonishing amount of projection of unpleasant and antisocial traits onto The Liberals. These descriptions applied to the everyday behavior and attitudes of the segregationists of the day:

... Their reactions are visceral, not intellectual; and they seem to believe that truth is revealed rather than systematically proved. ... arrogant ones ... asking us to repudiate principles that have made this country great. Their course is one of ... condemnation for our leaders. ... Their course is a course that will ultimately weaken and erode the very fibre of America. They have a masochistic compulsion to destroy their country's strength ... They rouse themselves into a continual emotional cresendo [sic]...

And here, the condemnation of those unnamed "liberal intellectuals" - who really are a bunch of dumbass sissies, you know - is closely identified with the opponents of legal (de jure) segregation, i.e., the vast majority of Americans of the time. His pitch appealed to the chronic sense of grievance primarily directed against black citizens and their white supporters that so many Southern whites had cultivated among themselves for decades: "the South has been the punching bag for those who characterize themselves as liberal intellectuals." Actually, it was the white South, which in segregationist-speak was synonymous with "the South", that had come in for a great deal of criticism in previous years. Criticism provoked by literal punching and worse carried out by Southern police in front of TV cameras on peaceful civil rights protesters, as well as by other outrages against law and decency. Two of the most dramatic had been contributed by white Mississippians: the murder of two black and one white young civil rights activists near Philadelphia MS in 1964; and the violent resistance orchestrated by state officials and the Governor against the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. The latter incident involved the death of a federal marshal.

In that excerpt, Agnew is plainly accusing those "liberal intellectuals" of treason. Though in the style beloved by conservatives of you're-one-what-am-I, by not using the word "treason". Agnew would later use that very defense when Sen. William Fulbright called him on his sleazy language from this and other occasions. But the segregationists were openly defying the Constitution and the law, and trashing "our leaders" as nastily as anyone. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. related that in the University of Mississippi fiasco, President John Kennedy literally considered pushing for charges of treason against Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett for his despicable and irresponsible role in those events.

It's notable in the flow of his speech how Agnew makes "liberal intellectuals" the buzz-phrase for a variety of villains in the minds of conservative white Southerners: African-Americans; integrationists; urban rioters; anti-Vietnam War protesters; professors; and, people who can read without moving their lips. Oh, and Commies, of course. He continues directly:

This group may consider itself liberal, but it is undeniable that it is more comfortable with radicals. These people use; the word "compassion" as if they invented it. "Compassion" is their weapon and their shield. But they apply compassion selectively. Crime is excused only when the criminal is "dis-advantaged."
That last sentence is enigmatic. He's accusing the Evil Ones of wanting to excuse crimes committed by the disadvantages, again without actually naming any of these risible liberals who supposedly think that. It may be a Freudian slip, but the wording suggests he's criticizing these bogeymen more because the don't excuse crimes committed by the "advantaged". Later events would show why Agnew might be concerned about that particular bias.

They're equally selective as reformers. Waste in the Pentagon is a national outrage. Waste in welfare and poverty programs is a matter to be overlooked. Ladies and gentlemen^ if you don't think that there is waste in welfare programs just read your paper, and you'll find that a recent General Accounting Office survey uncovered the fact that $66 million in benefits were paid to people unqualified to receive them. This group I talk about is undeniably the group most likely to Succeed with the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society, a radical student group]. Both groups proclaim their instant expertise. They both think that anybody with a contrary opinion is stupid. Both spend endless hours telling us what's wrong with America and neither offers constructive ideas on how to right those wrongs.
It's striking how people spending "endless hours telling us what's wrong with America" without offering "constructive ideas on how to right those wrongs" could describe a typical Rush Limbaugh broadcast or an evening of FOX News. Psychological projection is a universal phenomenon not limited to politics or to one ideology. But it is particularly marked among authoritarians like Agnew and most of today's Republican Party.

This is the group that believes in marching down the streets of America to protest the war in Vietnam to our President, They would never think of protesting the continuation of this war to the government that is actually continuing it - the Government of Hanoi.

Finally these leaders on the new Left would have America abdicate its position of leadership throughout the world. The fact that this position of leadership was conferred - in trust and in respect - by the smaller and less powerful nations does not bother these men [sic] one whit. They would have us renounce our commitments and repudiate the 400,000 American lives sacrificed to the cause of world peace during this century. They would have America turn inward and vegetate in splendid isolation.

These are the ideas of the men who are taking control of the National Democratic Party.
All this is standard nationalist talk. As Andrew Bacevich has called especially to our attention, "isolationism" since the Second World War has actually been a marginal sentiment to the extent that it can be meaningfully said to exist at all. But it's a favorite strawman to beat up when arguing for wars and ever-increasing military budgets.

He clearly identifies this internal axis of evil with the Democratic Party. But he's a bit more selective than he successors today, speaking of the people taking leadership of the Democratic Party. There were still quite a few conservative Democratic governors like John Bell Williams and members of Congress that the Republicans weren't ready to alienate entirely in 1969.

Agnew goes on to recite some Republican platitudes and put in a pitch for Nixon's Supreme Court nominee Clement Haynsworth (1912-1989). Haysworth's record on civil rights and labor law was criticized by many Democrats and - another thing that's different from today - they actually organized themselves to successfully defeat his nomination! Agnew tries to frame this criticism in the context of the Evil Ones discriminating against the sadly put-upon white Southerners; Haynsworth was from South Carolina. The vote against Haynsworth was 55-45, including 17 Republicans in the majority.

Agnew's speeches are significant because they show what came to be the dominant authoritarian sentiment of today's Republican Party at a time when "the Sixties" were still happening. Agnew was the darling of the conservative culture warriors in 1969.

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