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Spiro ? Not My Hero

Toni Banks, Governor Spiro T. Agnew, John Constance at Baltimore Polytechnic High School. May 11, 1968

As I’ve mentioned before, I was born into a bipartisan family. My father and his father were died-in-the-wool, Blue Dog Democrats (would vote for a blue dog if he were running as a dem). My mother’s family were Republicans through and through. Mom’s dad, John W. Loeber was a law partner with Republican Governor Harry Nice (damned-fine name for a politician), who held office during the Great Depression and appointed my grandfather to the magistrate bench in Catonsville, MD. Grandmother Loeber was a lifelong Republican Election worker in the precinct at the end of her street.

I strayed from my dad’s party in 1964 for all the wrong reasons. I had a crush on my cousin Erik’s girlfriend, Harriet Kohl who had grown up in a very conservative Republican family. She was a dedicated volunteer for Barry Goldwater and a “Goldwater Girl” complete with the sash, the cowgirl hat, and the golden vest. I don’t recall whether she actually asked me to volunteer or I just went to Republican Headquarters to impress her, but before I knew it, I was walking the streets of Rollingwood and canvassing for Goldwater. To my father’s credit, he would drive me to the Republican headquarters and drop me off on the way to LBJ headquarters where he was a dedicated official. As long as I was “in the game”, Dad was happy.

Dad knew the long odds and he knew me. He was confident that Johnson would crush Goldwater and he had faith that his son would see the light and become a Democrat someday. All of that came true, but along the way being “in the game” put me face to face with memorable characters on both sides of the political landscape.

Which brings me to my day with Governor Spiro Theodore Agnew.

For those familiar with the name, but fuzzy on the bio, Agnew was the 55th Governor of the State of Maryland and served in office from 1967 until January 7, 1969. Thirteen days after leaving the State House, he was inaugurated Vice President of the United States under President Richard Nixon. While in office he was investigated for criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion, and tax fraud. To avoid prison, he pleaded “no contest” to a single felony charge of tax evasion and resigned from office in October of 1973. He is only one of two Vice Presidents to resign while in office. He was replaced by Gerald R. Ford who would become President when Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal.

On May 11, 1968, at “Poly” High School in Baltimore Maryland, I participated in the Third Annual Maryland Conference on Police and Community Relations. The event was sponsored by the Maryland Association of Student Councils, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The theme for the year was “Youth, and Police, and Community Relations”.

Let me put that day in context.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee just over a month before on April 4 and resulting riots had broken out in over 100 cities across the United States. The period of civil unrest in Baltimore had commenced on April 6 and lasted until April 14 with crowds filling the streets, burning and looting local businesses, and confronting the police and national guard. A friend of mine and I had used a police scanner and a map of Baltimore City to follow this unfolding tragedy in our hometown. It was still long before 24/7 news and we used primitive resources to get a sense of what was happening.

Governor Agnew called out thousands of Maryland National Guard troops and 500 Maryland State Police officers to quell the disturbance. Six people lost their lives, over 700 were injured, and more than 5,800 rioters were arrested.

So, less than a month after the smoke cleared, we were meeting to discuss police and community relations. Timely.

The conference had been months in the planning and so the prescient timing was not by design but purely by happenstance.

Governor Spiro T. Agnew, who had gained national visibility as the leader quelling the Maryland maelstrom, was to be the keynote speaker. With the likelihood that Agnew would say something about the aftermath of the mayhem, the Press was out in force.

Lt. Richard Davis, of the Baltimore County Police was one of the organizers of the Conference. Dick was a family friend and the sponsor of my Hi-Y Boys Club. Through his influence and my work as both the leader of a Youth Jury Project in Baltimore County and President of the Student Council at Catonsville Senior High School, I was chosen to introduce the Governor.

Given the youth focus of the day, Toni Banks, a student at Friends School in Baltimore, and I led the greeting party for the Governor, and accompanied him to the stage. I remember very little about either my introduction or his speech, so my archives came in handy to refresh my memory. (No classified documents were involved). What I found was interesting and offers a clue as to why Agnew’s fortunes took an historic turn 3 months after that speech.

The Governor opened his remarks on a law-and-order theme and while complimenting those in the audience for not being a part of the “lawless mob”, he returned time and again to the theme of what happens when people take justice into their own hands.

One paragraph stands out. Remember, this is just over a month after King’s assassination. His killer, James Earl Ray is still at large.

At a time when discriminatory State and local laws and practices were prevalent in the South, civil disobedience was quickly acclaimed as worthy doctrine. Intellectual and spiritual leaders hailed the cause of civil rights and gave little thought to where the civil disobedience road might end. But defiance of the law, even for the best reasons, opens a tiny hole in the dike and soon a trickle becomes a flood.

Showing a complete lack of understanding of the “why” of the riots and giving Dr. King no credit for his advocacy for non-violent protest, Agnew was clearly speaking to people outside the room that day. As the governor who had brought peace back to the streets of Baltimore, albeit with Marshall Law, Agnew’s credentials as a tough leader were burnished by his words. No mention of the assassin’s bullet that broke the hearts of a hopeful generation of Black American’s. No words of reconciliation in the entire address. This was Law and Order Ted Agnew flexing his muscles.

And the flex was being felt 47 miles south at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where Richard Nixon was quietly vetting Vice-Presidential candidates for the 1968 campaign. Agnew was considered a moderate, which would play well in the North and his tough law and order image appealed to Pat Buchanan and others advising Nixon on his ticket. While a surprise and somewhat unconventional choice, it went a long way toward uniting the party.

I wasn’t politically sophisticated enough to perceive the real audience that day, but looking back on it now, while not my hero, he wasn’t trying to be.

One last story about the experience. The autograph.

After the Governor’s remarks, I handed him my printed event program and asked him to sign it for me. He dutifully pulled out his pen and in the upper left-hand corner of the program, the program on which my name appeared not once, but twice, he scrawled, “Regards to George Constance, Spiro T. Agnew”

It has been a conversation piece in the family ever since and the source of many smiles.

Thanks for the memories, Ted.


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