During the fall 1968 campaign, the Democrats aired a TV ad that mostly consisted of the sound of a man going from giggles to uncontrollable laughter. Only at the end of the 20-second spot did the viewer see the image on a TV screen that prompted the hilarity:
“Agnew for Vice President”
The commercial — created by Tony Schwartz, who also devised the “Daisy” nuclear ad in the 1964 campaign — ends with the words on the screen, “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious…”
Nearly a half-century later, first-term Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew still represents the gold standard for a disastrous vice-presidential choice. Yes, Richard Nixon’s running mate was worse on the campaign trail than Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin.
“Agnew … made a fool of himself — not so much out of malice or stupidity, as, simply, coarseness of fiber,” wrote Theodore White in “The Making of the President 1968.”
The Maryland governor trafficked in ethnic epithets that were noxious in 1968 — and even worse in hindsight. He frequently referred to “Polacks” and called a reporter on his campaign plane “the fat Jap.” Supposedly picked for his knowledge of cities (Agnew had actually run suburban Baltimore County), Nixon’s veep declared, “If you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all.”
Elected to the second highest office in the land, Agnew gleefully played Nixon’s attack dog in his war on the media, denouncing the “nattering nabobs of negativism” and the “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” But Agnew himself ended up on the dustbin of history, forced to resign in 1973 for taking political payoffs dating back to his days as governor.
All the important elements from this politically distinctive career are there: the crude language, the willful ignorance, the hatred of the media. Spiro Agnew would be the perfect Mini-Me for Donald Trump as his vice president.
The only problem is that Agnew died in 1996. While the dead can sometimes vote, it tends to be difficult for them to hold public office.
And without Agnew, Trump has a serious vice presidential problem. Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, slathered on the praise at a rally in North Carolina: “The reason you love him so much is because he loves you. He loves you and he wants the best for you, the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump.”
(By the way, Corker was unconsciously echoing lyrics from the musical “Evita,” referring to Argentinian strongman Juan Peron: “He lives for your problems, he shares your ideals and your dream/ He supports you, for he loves you/ Understands you, is one of you.”)
Corker’s reward for his fealty to Trump? Having to listen to Trump — in one of his fact-free flights of fantasy — hail Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists without reading them their Miranda rights. In truth (a concept foreign to the de facto GOP nominee), Saddam harbored terrorists like the murderer of American cruise ship passenger Leon Klinghoffer.
Small wonder that Corker took himself out of the running Wednesday by explaining that as a senator he wouldn’t be suitable for a political job like vice president. First-term Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst — famous for the 2014 campaign ad about her farming experience castrating hogs — also announced that she was too wedded to her home state (“Iowa is where my heart is”) to contemplate going national on the 2016 GOP ticket.
The problem is that running with Trump is about as safe a career move as signing on as a lion tamer in the hopes of on-the-job training. Not only is it highly likely that the Trump adventure will end abruptly on Election Day, but it is also hard to envision how anyone can walk away from the experience with honor.
So what Trump is left with is the real Republican Freedom Caucus — washed-up politicians with (as Janis Joplin sang) “nothing left to lose.”
Like Gov. Chris Christie whose approval rating in New Jersey is down to 26 percent in the latest poll. Or the 73-year-old, oft-married Newt Gingrich, last elected to public office in 1998, who is willing to co-star in any production that might help him sell books and land a future TV deal.
Another possibility: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who could use a VP offer as an excuse to bow out of a difficult re-election campaign. But even Trump may view Pence as too toxic since the Indiana governor is an ardent social conservative who would add another note of controversy to a Trump campaign running out of voters to offend.
Luckily, Trump has an out that might appeal to his sense of showmanship. At the Cleveland convention, Trump could parade his would-be VPs on stage (the bathing-suit competition would be optional) and then let the delegates pick a winner.
It would be great television with maybe even a second ballot as the Democrats had in 1956. And if the winner of the heart-beat-away competition doesn’t measure up on the campaign trail, Trump will still have what he craves: Someone else to blame.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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