Spiro Agnew and Small-State Veeps

In his delightful turn at Tilting at Windmills in the June/July/August issue of the Washington Monthly, Newsweek Politics Editor Matthew Cooper mentions disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew a couple of times as a ghost that was raised by recent events in Baltimore. Here was one evocative reference:

One positive thing about the 1968 tickets is that by choosing Edmund Muskie of Maine and Spiro Agnew of Maryland, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon helped break the obsession with finding running mates from bigger states. It’s now common to have veeps from states with just three electoral votes—Cheney, Palin, Biden.

That’s true in part, though it’s worth noting Texans George H.W. Bush (1980) and Lloyd Bentsen (1988), and New Yorkers Geraldine Ferraro (1984) and Jack Kemp (1996) as exceptions.

The more important thing about Agnew’s selection–aside from the fact that it involved one criminal choosing another for his running-mate–is that he was the product of the first of many conservative ideological vettings of GOP vice-presidential nominees.

You’d think with George Wallace neutralizing the Deep South and with deep liberal disgruntlement with Hubert Humphrey creating a wedge opportunity, Nixon would have chosen a running-mate from the then rather vibrant liberal wing of the GOP. But Strom Thurmond, having helped hold the Deep South for Nixon at the Republican Convention against a last-minute Reagan candidacy that nearly blew the whole thing up, had an acknowledged veto over the Veep selection (and reportedly later over Supreme Court nominations), and after knocking out Charles Percy, Mark Hatfield and (of course) Nelson Rockefeller, made it clear he had no issues with the two prospects left standing, John Volpe of Massachusetts and Agnew. Nixon chose Agnew as a possible hedge against a Wallace tide that might extend into the border states.

There’s no telling how many things might have changed had Nixon gone with Volpe (giving him, oddly enough, two Massachusetts running-mates) or had Thurmond not held the veto. Counter-factuals are great fun for political junkies.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.