It Didn't Start with Donald Trump
Though he's drawn comparisons to various bygone figures, Donald J. Trump has an obvious kinsman from history whose legacy was forged fighting many of the same battles now embroiling the real estate tycoon.
Indeed, most Americans appear to have overlooked the parallels between The Donald and his predecessor, "who succeeded in giving voice to the feelings of the 'great silent majority'" (1), who "had a way of touching chords in people" (2), and whose "plain talk [made] him a storm center of furious debate across the nation" (3).
The man was Spiro T. Agnew, vice president to Richard M. Nixon from 1969 to 1973. The events that laid the foundation for Agnew's popularity and the strength of his response to the nation's challenges, back then, form a remarkable nexus to the here and now.
The veep was branded a "racist," "divisive," and "an emissary of hate" (4) for his positions, but he was equally praised as a "perfect marvel" (5), a "hero," and "deeply impressive" (6) by legions of supporters.
"He voices the long pent-up emotions of Americans who are fed up," Reader's Digest wrote of Agnew in October 1970. "His fans like him because he speaks his mind."
Conservative legend Phyllis Schlafly – for whom Agnew stumped during her unsuccessful Illinois congressional bid – said essentially the same about Donald Trump: "We don't hear anybody saying what he's saying. The reason he gets so much press coverage is the grassroots are fed up ... and they want a change."
The vice president was perhaps best known for his battles with the commentariat of the nation's flagship newspapers and network news programs. In defending his professions, Donald Trump is waging a virtually identical contest.
History well records Nixon's feuds with the media. The president sidestepped clashes during his first months in the White House, but circumstances changed on Oct. 15, 1969, when tens of thousands of anti-Vietnam War protesters descended on Washington, D.C. and other cities in what the New Mobe declared "Moratorium Day." The event naturally received wall-to-wall coverage, attracting "thousands of newsmen [who] signed petitions for peace, joined in rallies and donned buttons or armbands," according to Time magazine (7).
Unsurprising that, less than three weeks later, when Nixon made a nationally televised address outlining the administration's Vietnam goals, it was met with cynicism and vaguely subtle derision. One network newscaster dismissed the presidential broadcast as a "restatement of policy" and instead spent time praising an open letter from North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Another broadcaster sighed that Nixon was merely jockeying for "political advantage" by appearing to be "embattled" in the face of war protests.
On Nov. 13, 1969, Agnew answered in kind, delivering a televised speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in which he lambasted the "small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts" who had disparaged the president's message by engaging in "instant analysis and querulous criticism."
"For millions of Americans, the network reporter ... becomes in effect the presiding judge in a national trial by jury," the veep said, challenging journalists to "turn their critical powers on themselves" and "direct their energy, talent and conviction toward improving the quality and objectivity of news" (8)
While media insiders assailed his address as "dangerous," "sinister," "Leninist," and "Orwellian" (9) Middle America responded with a "roar of acclaim," transforming "the vice president into the hottest speaker on the political circuit," Reader's Digest wrote.
Although his quarrels with the press have been more free-ranging, Donald Trump has been engaged in media counter-offensives since his campaign was inaugurated.
"The mainstream media want to surrender the Constitution," Trump said at a rally in early December. Pointing to the press box, he continued, "These people back here are the worst. They are so dishonest. Seventy to 75 percent are absolutely dishonest. Absolute scum. Remember that – scum. Totally dishonest people."
The billionaire businessman has clashed with members of the Fourth Estate over substance and style, bristling at criticism of his proposed crackdown on illegal immigration and health care overhaul, the legitimacy of his conservative credentials, and his controversial utterances.
The real estate mogul's choice of aspersion, replete in his tweets – "dummy," "dog," "loser" – was not the kind loaded in the Agnew arsenal, but the vice president also didn't have the luxury of a Twitter account to disseminate his views.
He was known for his colorful off-the-cuff comments, one of which included a jibe that the New York Times and Newsweek were best suited to "the bottoms of birdcages" (10) After so many slings and arrows from the Gray Lady, Agnew did not hesitate in 1970 to condemn "the irresponsibility that the Times manages to achieve on its editorial pages" (11).
Trump, too, has taken aim at the Times. During a Feb. 27 rally in Bentonville, Arkansas, he chastised the paper for its coverage of the Trump University lawsuit. "They're bad people, bad agenda," he said. "I call it the 'failing New York Times.'"
Agnew, like Trump, drew fire from the Washington Post, by which the veep was reamed for purportedly intemperate language. So incensed was Agnew over one editorial that he blasted the paper for peddling "sick invective."
Trump complained directly to the Post's editorial board on March 21 that he'd been "treated very, very badly" by the paper. "I've had things written about me ... that are so false, that are written with such hatred," he said.
With the nation roiled by war-related campus unrest, Marxist-fueled urban terrorism, and Black Power militancy, the Nixon admin's domestic plank was initially centered on "law and order." (Nota bene: in his meeting with the Post, Trump described himself as a "strong law and order" candidate.)
Agnew was, in effect, the law-and-order doyen, and he stood steadfastly behind law enforcement, believing that their actions had been regularly misrepresented by a sensationalist press.
"It has become fashionable ... to totally disregard the unlawful and outrageous acts which may have led to isolated instances of police overreaction and to focus on a single result which serves [critics'] purpose," he wrote in a White House memo. "We have had enough maudlin sympathy for lawbreakers" (12).
That recognition of the routinely lopsided view of the men and women in blue entered into Trump's remarks during a March 5 rally at the University of Central Florida, where he imparted: "One act which was a mistake, or somebody was a bad apple, and it's played in the news all the time. We have to give more credit to our police, and we have to stick with them."
Agnew felt that the liberal media were ever eager to cast his setbacks in blazing headlines, while his victories were given scant attention. In the autobiographical account of his resignation, Go Quietly…or Else, the V.P. recalled how a frivolous lawsuit filed against him by a Miami attorney was given feature-length coverage, yet when he succeeded in having it thrown out of court, "it got five lines on an inside page."
Trump has underscored the same slant against him, declaring in a March 24 tweet that he'd "just won a big federal lawsuit" involving model Alexia Palmer, "but the press refuses to write about it. If I lost – monster story!"
Until Trump, Agnew was arguably the last major figure in American politics to take on the press with gusto. The similarities between the two men don't end there. The evolution of political correctness as a means of thought control and the rise of New Left statism began in Agnew's era, and he fought them – much as Trump is confronting their consequences today. But that's another story.
(1) "Agnew." National Review. Editorial. 4 Aug. 1972.
(2) Safire, William. Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977, p. 391.
(3) Van Der Linden, Frank. "Spiro T. Agnew -- Vice President Extraordinary." Reader's Digest. Oct. 1970, p. 124.
(4) Coyne, John R. The Impudent Snobs: Agnew vs. the Intellectual Establishment. New York: Arlington House, 1972, p. 411.
(5) "Agnew's Language and the Storm It's Causing." U.S. News & World Report. 17 Nov. 1969.
(6) "Agnew." National Review. Editorial. 4 Aug. 1972.
(7) "The Weekly Agnew Special." Time. 28 Nov. 1969, p. 67.
(8) Agnew's speech at the Midwest Regional Republican Committee Meeting. Des Moines, IA, 13 Nov. 1969.
(9) "First Round to Agnew." The Nation. 7 Sept. 1970.
(10) Coyne, John R. The Impudent Snobs: Agnew vs. the Intellectual Establishment. New York: Arlington House, 1972, p. 50.
(11) Agnew speech at the Texas Republican Dinner, Houston, TX, 22 May, 1970.
(12) Ehrlichman, John . Witness to Power: The Nixon Years. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982, p. 128.