Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 28, 2012

A Long-Ago Campaign Memory

Because I’ve managed to live so long, I have a lot of presidential campaign memories. The media onslaught for the past week covering the now-completed Republican primary campaign in Michigan has reminded me that I once witnessed a presidential campaign speech in Michigan.

Although I was alive when Ike and Stevenson vied to replace Give ’em Hell Harry, and again when Stevenson challenged Ike in ’56, I don’t remember anything about those campaigns, so the first presidential campaign to strike my awareness was the 1960 contest between JFK and Nixon, when I was in 5th grade. I got a lot of attention, since I had the same last name as one of the candidates. 1960’s was also — as countless histories relate — the first campaign to leverage the new medium of television, so we saw Kennedy and Nixon regularly (it also meant Americans didn’t need newspapers or newsreels quite so much, and look what’s happened to newspapers and theater-going).

Let me answer once again the question I’ve answered either hundreds or thousands of times since that day: no, so far as I know, I don’t have any close family connection to Richard M. Nixon. We probably have a common ancestor somewhere between the diaspora of the Nixons from southern Scotland into northern Ireland, followed almost immediately by mass exodus to America in the wake of the potato famine (talk about timing!), but, no, not any close relationship.

By the time Mr. Nixon (the presidential candidate, not my father or grandfather) was running for president in 1972, he had picked up an initially powerful asset, later to become a Milhouse millstone: Spiro. Spiro Agnew.

With that background in place, it’s story time.

In the late summer of 1972, my high school buddy, J, was home from Ohio State, where he was preparing for med school, and I was on summer break from my school, the Yale of the Midwest. J was, among many other accomplishments that reflected his genius, a pilot. Back when we were in high school, the day after J turned 16 and was qualified to fly solo, we were in a Cessna 150 flying somewhere over darkest southwestern Ohio, JUST BECAUSE WE COULD. Oh, you parents who pride yourselves on trusting your kids to act responsibly on their own, without mollycoddling them, would YOU let two sixteen year-olds jump in a plane and just FLY somewhere? My folks did. Thanks, Dad. I still appreciate that. Of course, we were going to fly to some exotic location like Hook Field in Middletown or Butler County Airport in Hamilton, and then take off again after maybe buying a soft drink or something, flights that took maybe twenty minutes each way, but, still….

Then, five years later, near the end of that summer of election year, 1972, J had a more ambitious flight plan: to visit his older sister in Midland, Michigan during our summer break. The flight represented a distance of maybe 300 miles — just about 3 hours of flying time. We’d stay up there for a couple of days and then fly back. Time for J to have a nice visit with his (also extremely smart and accomplished) sister and her family. If your geography is at all up to speed, you’ll know that we would not be crossing any towering mountain ranges or vast bodies of water as we traveled from southwestern Ohio to the center (ergo: Midland) of Michigan. The founders of Ohio and Michigan were extremely negligent about equipping their states with any of those features, and, for the small plane pilot, flying over the vast, glaciated plain that stretches from just about where we’d take off in southern Ohio to where we’d land in Midland means crossing an almost perfectly flat plain with an elevation of about 400 feet above sea level. If we had trouble, well, there were an infinite number of soybean fields and little-traveled county roads on which to land.

And so we flew. And landed. Safely. We stayed with J’s sister and her husband and two insanely energetic young children.

Now, one thing about J: he was a Republican. With a capital R. With a capital REPUBLICAN, in fact. During the 1964 campaign, J’s briefcase (the only kid in high school who carried a briefcase) proudly boasted the famous sticker:

AuH20. (that’s Gold (Au) Water (H20) for those of you who skipped that class)

We learned that on one of our days there in Midland, Vice President Spiro Agnew would be flying in to give a campaign address in a hangar at the local airport (where our Cessna was moored, in fact). So we went. Wild horses wouldn’t have deterred J, and I was curious to see a real-life political figure like Mr. Agnew.

Now, Spiro Agnew was extremely popular with a certain crowd of people at that time and attracted large crowds of them — in the way that a celebrated fundamentalist minister might be “popular” with atheists — as in, wherever Spiro appeared, he attracted throngs of hecklers comprised of young people protesting the ongoing war in southeast Asia, their ardor exacerbated by Agnew’s pedantic, arrogant dismissals of “protesters” as “The nattering nabobs of negativism,” or “Hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” or — probably the line that will be associated with him so long as my generation lives — “An effete corps of impudent snobs.”

As if Mr. Agnew’s presence were not enough, this appearance was in MIDLAND, which happened to be the headquarters of Dow Chemical (which may suggest why the little burg merited a vice presidential visit). If you’re too young to know this, Dow was involved in the manufacture of substances including napalm, which at that time were being employed in large quantities in stemming the pernicious tide of Communism in southeast Asia.

And so J and I filed into a large, arching hangar in which a stage had been erected out near the half-open doors, and joined a crowd of people in the back half of the hangar, facing out and toward the stage.

Although there were perhaps a hundred or more people — maybe 200 at most — who had come to hear Mr. Agnew’s message, the overall impression of the scene inside that hangar was “rowdiness.” I admit that despite the fact that I’d been present as my school’s campus was shut down in the wake of “disturbances” provoked by the shootings at Kent State, and was well aware of the political atmosphere, I was unprepared for the vigor with which maybe twenty or 30 opponents of Mr. Agnew and the current administration were expressing their negative opinions of current administration policies. On display were some excellent handmade signs like, “Effete Snobs for Mondale,” and the evergreen, “Dick Nixon …. before He Dicks You.”

I admit it. I was shocked. It was so disrespectful. I’d never seen anything like it. My only direct exposure to campaigning was down at the county level in my little town. This was the big time — a national campaign — and it was eye-opening.

Mr. Agnew was not a fool or a clown, although that’s how many people now remember him. A veteran of both WWII (Bronze Star) and the Korean War, he earned a law degree at night school while working in a grocery and selling insurance, became governor of Maryland and represented well enough Nixon’s own moderate views and endorsement of social programs to make him a serious “southern” foil for the California-raised Nixon. Well-educated and accustomed to the halls of power, though, Agnew was at a loss when confronted with the ill-mannered crews in motley who hectored him as he stood on the podium. His pedantic and supercilious dismissals of his opposition, well-established by that day in Michigan, had made him a target of derision and scorn among the opposition.

On that day in Midland, he tried the, “Let’s just be reasonable” approach. The hangar was far too confined and resonant for him to ignore the heckling; he would have seemed clueless had he not acknowledged it in some way. Unfortunately, he didn’t give us a “nattering nabobs” or “effete snobs” rejoinder to the heckling. He merely tried to minimize the interruptions and repeatedly called for tolerance while he delivered his message. Nope. That horse would not run in the race that day.

I don’t remember anything Agnew said that day with any accuracy. I regret that I didn’t pay better attention, but all I remember is the scene. Nor do I remember anything of J’s reaction, that dyed-in-the-wool Republican. I do think he — as was I — was excited just to see a full-out badgering of The Guy in the Suit. Things were changing. And I was there. I learned something, too. Power doesn’t always reside in the guys with the suits, even if they think it does. Just over a year later, Agnew resigned the vice presidency. His dream of succeeding forward to the presidency was done. It was complex, and Nixon and Haldeman probably had as much to do with his departure as the bribery charges to which he pleaded nolo contendere.

Sic transit gloria agnewski.

Oh, yes. We flew home without incident, too. And so I am here to tell the tale.



  1. I’m nonpartisan, which is not the same thing as apolitical or disinterested in public affairs. But I have to say I don’t get the hecklers. Hecklers show up anticipating that the speaker will say something that they don’t like. So why not just stay home and be happy? Or why don’t they give their own speeches saying things they like to hear? Hecklers merely aggravate themselves, and anyone else interested in listening to the speech. Avoid the angst and the high blood pressure– go elsewhere. 🙂

    Alternatively, you hecklers, why not just listen to a different point of view; and if you disagree, propose your own solution? Maybe everyone will come away learning something.


  2. hey! what’d you say about gloria?

    i recall ’72 was the first election we were able to vote in, as 21 year olds, and they had just recently lowered the voting age to 18 because of the draft (well, more or less). i was stationed in germany. excitedly voting absentee, and just so SURE the watergate affair would be dick’s downfall.

    what a chuckle head i was!


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