Forty Years Later, Still Mocking Spiro Agnew's Trail Talk

In one of what will surely be a long and tiring string of stories speculating about running mates, CBS’s The Early Show discussed which running mates helped or hurt their parties on Thursday. CBS political guru Jeff Greenfield asserted: "Now Richard Nixon once said, Harry, that a running mate can't help you but only hurt you and he should know, his choice of Spiro Agnew in 1968 proved to be a big embarrassment, thanks to Agnew's careless way with words." After Greenfield added who helped the ticket (LBJ, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore), Smith returned to mocking Agnew: "Alright, not to bring back up subjects like nattering nabobs of negativism."

It was the latest example of Greenfield opining on 1968 without mentioning to viewers he worked as a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy in 1967 and 1968.

So what were these "careless" words? A Google search for "Agnew" and "gaffes" brings up Agnew’s New York Times obituary. It told of the new Nixon running mate in 1968:

The nine-week election campaign did little to polish Mr. Agnew's image, marked as it was by a series of gaffes. He spoke of ''Polacks,'' and of a ''fat Jap''; he accused Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, of being ''soft on Communism,'' a comment that drew rebukes even from fellow Republicans. Although billed as the Nixon camp's urban expert, Mr. Agnew disdained visits to ghettos, saying, ''If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all.''

Greenfield avoided the issue of how much Agnew "hurt" Nixon, as the duo were elected in 1968 and 1972. Immediately, conservatives ask: what was the "gaffe" in saying Humphrey was soft on communism? Almost as immediately, conservatives concede the use of ethnic disparagements is more gaffe-worthy. But guess what? The Times (and other liberal media outlets) are exaggerating the offense. Former Nixon press aide James Keogh explained in his book President Nixon and the Press, page 134, explained the "Fat Jap" incident:

One of the correspondents on the campaign trail with the Vice Presidential candidate was a Japanese-American from Maryland who had covered Governor Agnew for nearly two years at the State House. They knew each other well. Around Annapolis, among the newsman’s friends, his nickname was the "Fat Jap." He was on the Agnew campaign’s plane the morning of September 20, 1968, when it was scheduled for a very early takeoff after many of the traveling correspondents had spent a night on the town in Las Vegas. Agnew came aboard the plane at 7:30 am, and went back to the section where the correspondents were seated. There, his old friend from Annapolis was leaned back in his seat and sound asleep. "What’s the matter with the fat Jap?" Agnew asked with a grin. "Too much Las Vegas?" There was some small talk about Las Vegas before the candidate went on his way.

Three days later, on September 23, as Candidate Agnew was about to arrive in Hawaii for a campaign appearance, The Washington Post printed a more-or-less general story about his campaign trip which ended with this paragraph:

Earlier, Agnew had astonished newsmen traveling with him, when he made a rare visit to their section of the airplane, pointed at a sleeping reporter of Japanese descent, who is, like Agnew, a second-generation American, and asked: "What’s the matter with the fat Jap?"

This left the impression that Agnew had insulted the man and denigrated his racial background. Since Hawaii has a large Oriental element in its population the timing was such that the remark was the No. 1 item of conversation. From then on the expression was written indelibly beside Agnew’s name....

It was not unreasonable to argue that a candiate for Vice President of the United States should have been more aware of the public relations dangers involved in using the man’s nickname in front of reporters on the campaign plane. But in planting and then fostering the false impression that Agnew had crudely insulted another second-generation American, newsmen were far more at fault than he was.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis