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“Spiro” Palin: echoes of a past outrage

Posted on the September 17th, 2008

A few days ago in a phone conversation, I was discussing the current U.S. Presidential campaign with a British friend. In particular, we were talking about the stupefying clamor that is characterizing much of the traditional media coverage of Republican vp choice Sarah Palin.

My friend said that the impression she is receiving is that the American public in general loves Palin, and that if it’s true that American voters are so silly, it may be cancelling out the resurgence of international good will toward the United States that has been generated by Barack Obama’s candidacy.

I responded by declaring my own profound hope — which is that what we are seeing is not a true picture of American voters as a majority, but is rather a super-hyped reflection of the actions of a small, noisy core group of ultra partisans, religious extremists and political opportunists, coupled with a widespread failure of much of U.S. traditional news media to do its job well.

One part of this hope of mine stems from reports that the polls — even those that can be trusted — are not measuring the huge number of new and returning voters in this election. The second part of my (cockeyed) optimism is a gut feeling that we couldn’t possibly be so blind as to choose to stay on the same, disastrous path that we are on now.

Cloning Spiro

It seems to me that those who remember the election campaign of 1968, and the surprise selection of Spiro T. Agnew as Richard M. Nixon’s running mate then, may be recalling those past times during these weeks of observing the hysteria and anger in response to John McCain’s “gotcha” surprise of a running mate. In the early days of Palin’s arrival as candidate, Jonathan Singer at MyDD.com wrote about this (“Sarah Palin is Spiro Agnew” Aug 29, 2008):

It has been forty years since someone as inexperienced as Sarah Palin has been put on a national ticket, and surprisingly enough there are some real similarities between Palin and her unprepared predecessor, Spiro T. Agnew, who also had been governor less than two years at the time Richard Nixon picked him to be his number two and who also had a corruption problem lingering in the background that would end up causing his running mate problems.

In a Wikipedia page on Agnew, it is noted that he was chosen so he could act as Nixon’s hatchet man during the campaign. Nixon-as-candidate certainly must have been pleased because — and I remember this well myself — his protege excelled in highly partisan, condemnatory language, more often than not creating divisiveness and stirring up anger of voters pro and con whenever he spoke. Related excerpt:

In short, Agnew was Nixon’s “hatchet man” when defending the administration on the Vietnam War.[4] Agnew was chosen to make several powerful speeches in which he spoke out against anti-war protesters and media portrayal of the Vietnam War, labeling them “Franco Un-American”.

This trait is one of the factors that has reminded me most of John McCain’s protege, Palin. And in laying out this path of attack by his “soulmate” as he calls her, McCain has also duplicated the approach of Agnew. In a New York Times article in 1970, while Agnew was still vice president, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., described the strategy well (“The Amazing Success Story of ‘Spiro Who?'” July 26, 1970): (boldface mine)

His (Agnew’s) heart is, however, deeply in another range of questions. Historians, notably Richard Hofstadter, have drawn a distinction between “interest politics” and “status politics.” Interest politics revolves around conflicts of policy: whether we should raise or lower the interest rate, encourage or obstruct collective bargaining, extend or abolish farm price supports. Status politics revolves around personal values and folkways, social aspirations and frustrations, religious traditions and ethnic identificationsthose intangibles which, without finding explicit embodiment in political issues, nevertheless affect the climate of politics and sometimes, especially when economic prosperity reduces the pressure of interest politics, determine political results. It is cultural politics, and not public policy which is the Vice President’s bag. He has emerged as hero, or villain, not in the battle of programs but in the battle of life styles.

And hiding Sarah

In Palin’s case, this “status politics” weapon of attack is also, of necessity, accompanied by an even more brutal one — her persistence in grossly misrepresenting (completely denying, actually) her own official record that, among other things, certainly belies her efforts to present herself as a fiscal reformist.

A second striking factor in the similarities between Agnew and Palin, as mentioned above, is the slim political resume of both. And the third is the twin clouds of ongoing investigations for corruption while in office — one such cloud hovered over Agnew just as a major one now hangs over Palin. Agnew’s eventual fate was a criminal conviction that forced his resignation from office.

Here’s hoping that if a similar fate is in store for Palin, the resignation will be from the office of Governor of Alaska, and nothing more.

For those who weren’t around in those old Agnew days, or who may want a trip back in time, below is a video of former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite discussing Nixon’s surprise vp choice, and Agnew himself at his first press conference as vp candidate.

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