Spiro Agnew
Spiro Agnew; drawing by David Levine

Chicago, Illinois
Lincoln’s Birthday

“When the dictates of humanity are in question, I know no difference between the Turks and Greeks.”

—Byron at Missolonghi

Who could have thought that Chicago, of all cities, would become the capital of all those more shocked by unsightly deportment than by cruelty?

William Kunstler approaches the bench to ask a question of Judge Julius Hoffman. The Judge wriggles, sits his ground. “Stand back, sir,” he says. What electricity remains in the great case is left to this old man and the thrill he feels at facing danger from the persons he holds in his power. We have attained every luxury up to the ultimate affluence: the desperate display of courage in face of the powerless.

All of us, I suppose, can make jokes of anything if we have watched it long enough. But, here, with no association beyond these fugitive moments, the trial means nothing but the terrible sadness of what so long a confinement has done to persons with whom you did not share it: Abbie Hoffman tossing his children about during the recess, trying to be as carelessly gay as he always has been, but with his silences getting longer and longer; the dullness of Jerry Rubin’s eyes. And these leaders of a party whose name and whose slogan was “YIPPIE.”

There have not been many of us, certainly not these children of the Fifties, who really believe that America can punish. And now here they are, their judge the embodiment of the national nervous breakdown, their punishment his tranquilizer.

It all happened so long ago. Yet to enter the lobby of the Conrad Hilton is to be at once aware of how little a strange face is still to be trusted; seventeen months after the Convention, the alarms of those pickets are livelier than the memory of floods could be in Florence; these are scars of the spirit. The Vice President has been there since noon; he will not address the Republicans until the evening. He is invisible on the twenty-sixth floor; his press conference has been canceled. The explanation for everything, especially his indifference, is security. The first edition of the Tribune, from excess of devotion, abstains from reminding the malicious that the Vice President will be in Chicago today.

Yet his symbols are visible everywhere in the Secret Service men with their radio-telephones. A visitor comes upon a cluster of them searching the room appointed for the Republican reception; they start at a question. The Vice President has brought no press secretary or any other of those assistants we are used to having with the Vice Presidents of our custom, surrogates for their anxiety to please everyone, their avidity to make use of anyone. There is only this haunted troop of his guards. Their talk is only about having been on the alert since five in the morning and of having altered the flight pattern to avoid unknown enormities at the airport. As they talk there arises the vision of a Vice President who has no company except persons who never see him either.

At 6:20, there is another sign and symbol of his presence: the pickets are across the street. In a little while, Rennie Davis will come to speak to them and his voice will come across the street: “Free Huey, Free Bobby, Smash Capitalism”—the face so young, so serious, so sweet, indeed so brave in the twilight as to seem to give him every right to talk about the shadow of prison upon him too, and still, stubbornly, he will not talk about himself.

Waiting for him, the pickets walk Michigan Boulevard, perhaps two hundred of them, counting cadence and chanting “F*ck you, Agnew.” There is a terminal feeling; what is there to cry out in the night after you cry out this?

There is a voice in the cold across the street. “Did you hear that? That’s brutal.” It is the voice of a policeman; to Chicago, an atrocity is a verbalism. The voice describes the depth the Vice President has touched in us. In despair of seeing him, you turn to reading him1 and to a recurrence of the same curious displacement in the object of shock:

“…Disruptive demonstrations aimed at bludgeoning the unconvinced into action….” “The Vietnam Moratorium…is not only negative in content but brutally counter-productive….” “It appears that by slaughtering a sacred cow, I triggered a holy war.”

A “slaughter” is what one does to a sacred cow; a “trigger” is what sets off loud public discussion. The only bludgeon is the larynx. To be brutal is not to do what we, or even the Viet Cong, do to Asian farmers; to be brutal is to be Dr. Benjamin Spock speaking to a lunchtime crowd in the Federal Triangle. The epithets we wore out on real horrors are confined now to mere annoyances.


And still, as so often happens when the tone’s intensity is so far above its subject, there is, in Mr. Agnew, this extraordinary indifference, this languor almost oriental underneath.

Spiro Agnew appears just once in Joe McGinness’s The Selling of the President2 and, characteristically, he is the only figure placed at one remove in a narrative otherwise so intimate. Mr. Nixon’s salesman are gathered to inspect an Agnew documentary commissioned for their campaign:

It had been shot in color, with sailboats in the blue bay as a backdrop. Agnew was squinting in the sun.

“All life,” he said, “is essentially the contributions that come from compromise.” His voice was sleepy, his face without expression. The questions fit right in.

“It must have been really a thrill to have been picked for Vice President. Were you happy?”

“The ability to be happy is directly proportional to the ability to suffer,” Agnew said. His tone indicated he might doze before finishing the sentence, “and, as you grow older, you feel everything less.”

He stopped. There was silence on the film. Then the voice of the interviewer, “I see.”

“Jesus Christ,” someone said in the dark little theatre.

The sudden notice which accompanies him now has brought no alteration in this posture. He is visible only twice this evening. The first occasion is his entrance into the reception for rich Republicans. Every guard’s head bobs and sways about him, but his own is as immobile as if he were riding in a sedia. Yet the impression is less of command than of spinal fusion; the Vice President seems rigid not from being stern but from being inert.

Later he can be seen at the dais, next to Joseph Lanterman, dinner chairman for the Illinois United Republican Fund and thus a certifiable fount for any politician with an urge to go further. The conversation starts, stops, the Vice President shakes himself and resumes, but what purposeful effort to talk there is all belongs to the host and donor, who gives up at last to leave the Vice President listlessly signing autographs and, abandoning even that, simply looking about the room, the eyes empty of everything except suspicion. He appears neither to know nor to care to know anyone present; an occasional wily grin is only the signal that his gloomy and untrusting glance has fallen upon a camera in its passage. And here is a scene which more than any other ought to content his sense of order and decorum—the photograph of Lincoln without a beard, the American flag agitated by a fan; even so, he conveys nothing except the grievance of having been kept up late.

Not far from him we can look upon Senator Charles Percy, engulfing every stranger with his sentiment, and remember the politician of our uniform experience who so desperately knows that one travels to grandeur by way of abjection.

“Just last Friday,” Senator Percy says, “the President showed us that he can mingle with the people of Chicago.” He evoked images of citizens pressing, the President plunging. “He has restored domestic tranquility to America.”

And all the while there sits the Vice President with a security guard large enough for Caligula. Its point may be to protect him not against aggression but against intrusion. The emergent tribune of all those who ask only to be let alone would, after all, appear before us most conspicuously as the man who wants only to be let alone. Security from intrusion seems to be his highest aspiration as much as it is his constituency’s.

The constricted ambition this posture suggests is not, it ought to be said, the impression of the Vice President brought back by the journalists who have pursued his mystery by talking to those Maryland politicians who observed his rise from rejection as a member of the Baltimore County zoning board ten years ago to the glory of this moment.3 No politician, after all, is accustomed to conceiving a character trait as lying passive in any other politician: show him abnormal self-absorption and he will assume abnormally active self-aggrandizement; show him unceasing calculation and he will assume some far-off purpose; show him the operation of fate and he will look for the triumph of will. It is an undignified craft whose masters have to confess that a conspicuous piece of the art was executed by accident.

They must then see a plan in all these inexplicable events: the Vice President begins as a liberal and is “smart enough to perceive that he isn’t going anywhere” with that. He leaves Rockefeller with the declension of that star; he turns to Mr. Nixon. He chooses publicly to excoriate the Negro moderates for disorders in Baltimore at the moment which will make him most noticeable to the Republicans preparing to assemble.


“Ted Agnew,” a Maryland legislator tells Jerry Tallmer, “spent his whole life, once he started to move, courting the rich and the powerful.” There runs through these explanations the image, general if not pervasive, of some untied floating object, moving where the gravitational pull is most attractive; these witnesses do not seem able to think of him as having a source, of his having come from any point of earth that was even inhabited twenty years ago.

Someone—one suspects Senator Tydings—asks Tallmer: “Isn’t this a case of white suburbia moved bodily, without change, to the pinnacle—without the mutation that happens to people at slower rate? The speed of entry has been so extreme.”

And so the testimony can only give us that old antagonist of the aware and the concerned, the rootless suburban American. Still, is anyone rootless? Mr. Nixon was always described that way. Even so, while there would never be anything to suggest what his father may have been like, there was everything to remind us of what the child had been: his desperation, like Mr. Humphrey’s, was formed in a small store during the Depression when what the family ate at night depended on what the family had sold that day.

Might it not be that the country is so soft, so without impress in maturity, that the man whose source puzzles us is only the child unchanged? The Vice President then would be, basically, a Greek-American preserved intact. The Greek in him is seldom thought about; he is an American politician of Greek origin, as Senator Muskie is one of Polish origin. We assume no more description from these labels than we do from those on the cans of motor oil which have different brand names but essentially the same content and, more often than not, the same proprietor.

The Greeks were almost our last immigrants and among our happiest. Perhaps because a vocabulary even as rich as ours eventually exhausts itself, the language does not seem to have an identifiable term of derogation for Greek-Americans. Being few, they did not have the delusive resource of the Irish and the Italians, which is to live off the Italians. Most Greeks who have made their way have made it outside the community. Yet they remain closer to the source than any other immigrant group. “We are inedible,” his Peloponnesian guide told Kazantzakis. “We’ve got a dog’s hide.”4 They quarrel over Greek politics as Greeks are no longer permitted to do, Greek-Americans over forty admiring the Junta, Greek-Americans under forty disliking it. This is not a spirit likely to be reshaped by a mold as soft as ours.

Still the Vice President’s fancied rite of passage from that childhood seems so comfortable that it is easy to believe that it was really made. His mother was not Greek; his father, however, was a pillar in the affairs of Ahepa, the Greek-American Society. Spiro Agnew passed to the Episcopal Church with no remembered fuss, although he remained a sustaining member of Baltimore’s Greek Orthodox communion. There is gossip that, in some years, his dues were paid for him by a friend, more far-seeing than he, who thought there might be a day when the services of the Greek community’s major political institution would be useful.

It is a history giving every reason to dismiss its point of origin. But then we come upon Keith R. Legg’s The Politics of Modern Greece,5 and suddenly the model stands before us:

1) There is “the Greek notion of Philotimo, or self-esteem.” “Self-esteem is the essential element in understanding individual actions…. The essence of philotimo is inviolability and freedom, and it is damaged whenever events or people impose upon the inner emotions of the individual.”

Philotimo would seem subject to broad translation as “love of one’s own honor.” A Greek politician could well recognize those sudden shifts which our politicians think a mark of the Vice President’s calculation as merely routine outbursts of philotimo. Governor Rockefeller does not bother to call Governor Agnew before announcing that he will not run for President; Governor Agnew passes at once to Mr. Nixon, Governor Rockefeller’s assumed antithesis. The present impulse of insult had to precede any future thought of advantage. There are black riots in Baltimore; his Negro friends have failed to protect him from embarrassment; the public show he makes, the bombast he brings to their chastisement, had to begin in violated philotimo.

Each of these acts of impulse has served him well, but he could not have withheld them if they hadn’t. Otherwise there is no way to explain his special difference from the politicians we have known before: Mr. Nixon’s resentments broke free only once, when he thought the game was up forever, while the Vice President shows his resentments whenever the fit is upon him, while the game is very much ongoing.

2) The political structure of rural Greece seems to have few relationships more tangible than that of patron to client. “The tradition of accepting ideas and leadership from above as well as from outside has long prevailed among the modern Greeks…. The most obvious patron, assuming a person is not related to someone of prominence in the community, has been the kumbaros, the godfather to a man’s children and the best man at their weddings…. The usual choice is a person with wealth and position who will be a source of potential help for the parents and their children.”

The Vice President seems to have manifested a need for some kumbaros, a faith in the custom of clientage, not otherwise noticeable in a politics where the party leader who has no office is otherwise almost extinct. When he was executive of Baltimore County, his kumbaros was the Sunpapers, a guide faithfully progressive but distinctly embarrassed to find itself conscripted as political boss. The editors of the Sun are too polite to talk about a relationship which asked so much more of them than they could, with grace and dignity, give; still there is an impression of Mr. Agnew imploring them to dictate and of them genteelly declining to do so. What is remembered by the people at the Sun is a confidence that all institutions are hierarchical quite beyond any previous experience: The County Executive kept calling up, unable to understand why, if the Sunpapers were for him, this reporter or that one was so laggard in celebrating him.

That dependence on some kumbaros or another seems to have been carried with him to the State House. Almost no Republican governor cared to identify another governor as his candidate for president if only to avoid distracting some attention that might fall upon himself. Yet Governor Agnew’s oath of office had hardly ceased to echo before he announced Governor Rockefeller as his choice, and thereby established some public identity for the first time. And Governor Rockefeller had scarcely defected before Governor Agnew turned to Mr. Nixon, being unable to bear a day naked without a patron. By then he had come far enough to attain what his prior status had never afforded him: in Thomas ‘Pappas, the Junta’s man in Boston and Esso’s man in Athens, he had acquired the only authentic kumbaros, the Greek kind.

3) Kumbaros sounds strikingly like the Sicilian compare, which popular literature has translated as The God-father and which the Mafia has made majestic as The Goombah. There are of course similarities among societies where mistrust of anyone outside the family runs so deep that to leave the natural parent it is necessary to anoint a substitute parent.

But it would be a mistake to think of Greeks as being like Sicilians. The differences are obvious: Sicily’s monuments are Greek, Arab, Norman, or Bourbon, all else but Sicilian; Greece’s monuments are Greek. Greece, like us, has the pride of the heroic tradition of ancestors who, like ours, would have trouble recognizing their children. To be jealous of that tradition is to be afraid of what comes from below, to fear the intrusion of the Balkan peasant in some imagined agora. The quarrel between the pure and the demotic Greek is not just over the distinction between the lingua and the dialetto as in Sicily, because what is archaic and thus to be cherished in Sicily is not the formal speech but the dialect; and what is archaic and must be preserved from the popular in Greece is the pure Greek. The turbidity of those speeches where the Vice President seems to end every word with an –ous is merely “the accustomed Byzantine rhetoric” of Kazantzakis’ mockery.

Even at their best the Greeks had that curious assessment of moral priorities we hear from the Vice President now: Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary tells us that the archon who took a bribe “was compelled by the laws to dedicate to the God at Delphi a statue of gold of equal weight with their body,” while the archon “who suffered himself to become intoxicated was punished with death.” The very qualifications for archons sound like a Republican cabinet: “they were to be without deformity in all the parts and members of their body, and were obliged to produce testimonies of their dutiful behavior to their parents…and the competency of their fortune to support their dignity.” It is worse now; nothing is to be trusted that is new or comes from below. The Junta cleanses Greece of Athens; the Vice President cleanses us of New York.

4) But what Legg finds most of all in Greece is “the sense of mistrust.”

“From his earliest years, the Greek is plunged into a hostile world. Even in urban areas the infant is thought to be vulnerable to evil supernatural forces, and the practice of child swaddling serves to protect the child physically and mentally…. In essence the Greek reaches adulthood well-grounded in the belief that he cannot trust anyone or take any action at face value.

The fact of uncertainty, regardless of its cause, brings an exaggerated belief in fortune, in both rural and urban areas. The world is in God’s hands; there is nothing for the individual to do but face his existence.”

Perhaps, then, the Vice President is inert because he knew so early that his fate was not in his hands; he did little more than sit by suspiciously just as he does now, and in eight years he was a county executive, and then a Governor, and then Vice President, and all because the Democratic Party fell apart first in his county, and then in his state, and at last in his country. He is five paragraphs down in his speech before he bothers to make a gesture with his hands; he is a third of the way along before he says anything that even this audience is aroused to applaud.

He does not even try; and yet he must sometimes feel like the hammer of God. No act of his, however random, seems without appointed consequences. When his golf stroke goes astray, there are a thousand bystanders, any of whom might suffer; yet his shot hits Doug Sanders, who is playing in the tournament and needs a clear head; even the Vice President’s accidents have a part in history.

Why then do so many Americans clutch at him? It cannot just be his message, bracing them to heroic resistance against enemies without power to harm them. No, it is the mystery; our lives are out of our hands, we can no longer act but only watch, and, helpless, we look with awe upon the Hero, who is only the languid object of the fates, and lucky at it too.

This Issue

March 12, 1970