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As Long as We Remember...

January 2, 2008

Spiro Agnew: Patron Saint of Alaska

Kevin E. Dayhoff

I was treated to a white Christmas last week. It snowed everyday the entire week I stayed at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, which is incidentally the same hotel where the patron saint of Alaska, Maryland’s own Spiro Agnew, stayed on an impromptu stopover in 1981.

According to Anchorage Daily News columnist Mike Dunham, who wrote a tribute to Mr. Agnew on the anniversary of his birthday in 1996, he visit to Anchorage was not “on purpose.”

“In 1981, he and 180 other passengers on a commercial jet to Korea were detained in Anchorage after an engine conked out. Spotted at the Hotel Captain Cook, Agnew shied from questions – ‘I’m not in politics anymore. I just don’t have time to fool with this anymore’ – lit his Marlboro and puffed quietly into history.”

It is that “history” that fascinates an historian, in what is otherwise the sordid and conflicted saga of an American politician from Maryland, who irrevocably changed the future of Alaska just months before he resigned as the United States vice-president on October 10, 1973.

Except as a peculiar footnote, history is befuddled as to what to do with the legacy of Mr. Agnew. For the most part, historians essentially ignore him.

The 39th vice president of the United States, Spiro Theodore Agnew passed away on September 17, 1996. He was born November 9, 1918, Spiro Anagnostopoulos, the son of Greek immigrants. He grew up in Baltimore.

In what is certainly another irony in a life full of paradox, Agnew really burst on the scene in 1966 through a courtesy of the Democratic Party.

When a race-baiting George Wallace supporter, George P. Mahoney, won the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland, the liberals and trade union bureaucrats shifted their support to the little-known, then-Baltimore County executive Agnew, who was up until then only a token Republican candidate.

Following the primary, there was a considerable defection of Democrats to the Agnew camp. Many others simply sat out the election, or backed the independent candidacy of Baltimore City Comptroller Hyman Pressman.

At the time, Agnew was considered a liberal-to-moderate Republican when he launched his bid for governor. A supporter of “open housing,” he made a conscious effort to court African-American voters.

On November 8, 1966, the day before his 48th birthday, Mr. Agnew, defeated his Democrat-Dixiecrat opponent, Mr. Mahoney, by a margin of 81,775 votes in the three-way race.

Presidential candidate Richard Nixon picked the nationally unknown Maryland governor as his running mate two years later.

Most Marylanders were proud when then-Governor Agnew was elected vice-president of the United States.

By the fall of 1973, as the Watergate scandal mounted, the prospect of Vice-President Agnew succeeding President Nixon became a matter of profound concern to political and media elites.

An investigation into allegations of Baltimore County payoffs provided a suitable pretext as Vice-President Agnew eventually became the focus of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office in Maryland over financial irregularities while he held state office.

Rather than face trial, Agnew resigned and entered a plea of no contest to charges of evading income tax.

Years earlier, during his meteoric rise to national attention, Agnew had made a campaign stop in Anchorage in 1968. It was the first of his three visits to Alaska. The second visit occurred during the re-election campaign of 1972 – in addition to his last visit, mentioned earlier, in 1981.

In 1968, a few months before Agnew’s first visit, oil had been discovered on the North Arctic Slope north of the Brooks Mountain Range.

As lease sales were finalized, “the mood was jubilant,” in Alaska, according to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. “There was a lot of oil, but transporting it from the North Slope was a problem.”

Columnist Dunham wrote that getting “the product to market would require a stupendous pipeline crossing disputed state, federal, Native and private land. Congress approved the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, removing one obstacle…”

The Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was proposed in 1969, but it was greeted met with tremendous opposition from environmentalists.

It was during Mr. Agnew’s second re-election trip to Alaska in August 1972, in Fairbanks, that Mr. Dunham noted that Agnew promoted the proposed pipeline: “There is no reason at all why we cannot preserve the environment and the natural beauty of this state while at the same time ensuring that our nation continues to develop.”

By July 17, 1973, the Trans-Alaska Authorization Act, which cleared the way for the 800-mile pipeline, had passed the House of Representatives, but was deadlocked in the Senate – 49 to 49.

Vice-President Agnew, in his constitutional capacity as President of the Senate, cast the tie-breaking vote “for” the pipeline.

Agnew was many different things to many people. However, today, few Marylanders are aware of him, except that he was once a Maryland governor and a United States vice-president who resigned in the midst of scandal.

In Alaska, the former governor of Maryland is known to keen historians as the reason there is no sales tax or income tax in the 49th state. The Anchorage of today, poised as the gateway to northern North America and the vast economics of the Pacific Rim, is a modern and exciting city. It is far different from the boom-to-bust, “small, dirty, hardscrabble place,” as described by Mr. Dunham, “with more bars than churches when Agnew flew in on a campaign swing in 1968.”

On my visit I did find a statue of Captain James Cook, who sailed into the area in 1778, but I found no statue for Spiro Agnew, the patron saint of Alaska. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Mr. Dunham, he may have picked pockets in Maryland, but he made Alaskans rich.

For me, it was a white Christmas, but for Alaskans, it has been one “green” Christmas after another, for over three decades, thanks to the enigmatic son of Greek immigrants from Maryland.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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