How Spiro Agnew Gave My Life Direction

by Joel Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden

I got my start due to Spiro Agnew.

I have spent much of my career writing about the American vice presidency and America’s system for handling presidential succession and inability, including my most recent book, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016).  It never would have happened had not Agnew, one of our least distinguished vice presidents, gotten in trouble for allegedly taking kickbacks from contractors and been forced to resign as vice president and plead nolo contendere to tax evasion to escape more serious criminal charges 45 years ago, on October 10, 1973,

I was a sophomore at Princeton University then and in those days, before cell phones and inexpensive long-distance call options, college students called home on Sunday to check in with our parents.  On my call home one Sunday in October, 1973,  I reported that I was looking for a paper topic for Professor Stanley Kelley, Jr.’s course on Party Politics. My father mentioned having heard a discussion on the Today Show about the Twenty-fifth Amendment and its procedures to allow a president to nominate someone to fill a vice-presidential vacancy subject to confirmation of both houses of Congress.  President Richard M. Nixon had nominated Representative Gerald R. Ford, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, as the first person presented under the Amendment which had gone into effect in February, 1967 and Congress was preparing for its first application.  Professor Kelley approved the topic and it later expanded to become my Princeton senior thesis topic which Professor Kelley, a gifted and dedicated scholar and teacher, supervised.

In spring, 1975, in the course of completing my senior thesis, I met John D. Feerick, who had, as a young New York lawyer, played a critical role in designing and achieving ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment and who had established himself as the leading scholar regarding it.  Although Feerick was incredibly busy as a large-firm lawyer and active public citizen, he spent a lot of time speaking to me about the subject and, in one discussion, suggested that I write a book on the vice presidency since no serious academic study had been produced for a couple of decades.  A year and a half later, he included me in a Symposium on the Vice Presidency he organized for the American Bar Association along with luminaries like Senators Birch Bayh, Robert Griffin and Margaret Chase Smith, presidential scholars and former White House aides George Reedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Charles Kirbo, the confidante of President-elect Jimmy Carter, among others.

The project Feerick suggested became my doctoral dissertation at Oxford University and, after revisions and expansions, my first book, The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution which Princeton University Press published in 1982.  The book, which focused on the vice presidency from Richard M. Nixon in 1953 to Walter F. Mondale a quarter century later, argued that the office had changed dramatically during that period but that the development was due largely to major shifts in the larger context of American government and politics beginning with the New Deal and World War II.  As national government had assumed an expanded role and international and national security issues loomed larger, the presidency became more important and drew the vice presidency away from the legislative branch towards the executive branch, the book argued.  The study taught me that constitutional institutions do not operate in isolation but in a larger context in which changes in one part of the system have repercussions elsewhere.

I continued to write about the vice presidency, the Twenty-fifth Amendment, and presidential succession and inability during the rest of the twentieth century and, as I did and as history unfolded, I realized that the Mondale vice presidency was really part of a new era.  Mondale had not only introduced a new model of the office but the new design had stuck.  Mondale and the very talented people he surrounded himself with, people like Robert Barnett, Mike Berman, Jim Johnson, Richard Moe, and others, had imagined a new vision of the vice presidency as an across the board adviser to, and trouble-shooter for, the president and had identified the resources the vice president would need to succeed in that role.  President Jimmy Carter had embraced this new vision and had brought Mondale into the White House and made him part of his inner circle.  When Carter and Mondale lost in 1980, Mondale and his associates had educated the incoming vice president, George H. W. Bush, regarding the new institution they had created and the practices which made it work, and Bush and President Ronald Reagan had adopted the Mondale model.  Bush had continued it with his Vice President, Dan Quayle, as had Bill Clinton and Al Gore, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama and Joe Biden. They didn’t all do it exactly the same way, or exactly as Mondale would have done it, but they all operated as general advisers and trouble-shooters, kept the resources Carter gave Mondale, and functioned as an integral part of the White House.

Whereas my first book demonstrated the dynamic whereby the vice presidency moved from the legislative to the executive branch, The White House Vice Presidency explores the development of a new orientation away from a focus primarily on providing a prepared presidential successor to trying to help the president succeed on an ongoing basis.  Although the new book provides a portrait of what has become a consequential political institution, the White House vice presidency, it also explores two more universal themes: How enduring constitutional change occurs in America through the repetition of practices and the role of enlightened leadership in transforming political institutions.

It’s been a wonderful journey.  I’ve learned a lot and met some terrific people along the way.  And it’s not over.

But who knows what path my life would have taken if the 39th vice president had not gotten into trouble with the law and had not had to resign 45 years ago on October 10, 1973 when I was looking for a topic for a college paper

I owe a lot to Spiro Agnew, and to a number of other people, too!.

Sanford Horwitt (Conversations with Abner Mikva) Q&A

It was 1948 when Abner Mikva, fresh out of college, volunteered at the 8th Ward Democratic headquarters in Chicago. “Who sent you, kid?” the leery ward committeeman asked. “Nobody,” Mikva said, and the man informed him, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.” That marked the beginning of Abner Mikva’s storied political career, which would take him to the Illinois Statehouse, the US House of Representatives, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Clinton White House—culminating in a Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by a young politician he had mentored, Barack Obama.

Around that time, eighty-seven years old and in declining health but as wise and wry as ever, Mikva sat down with his former speechwriter and longtime friend Sanford Horwitt for the first of the conversations recorded in this book. Separated by a generation, but with two lifetimes’ worth of experience between them, the friends met monthly to talk about life, politics, and the history that Mikva saw firsthand—and often had a hand in making.

1. How long did you know Abner Mikva? How did you meet?

We met in 1974 as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. We were both in a place where we didn’t want to be: Mikva was only temporarily—he hoped–practicing law while starting his campaign to get back to Congress after having lost a close race in a new suburban Chicago district. I was an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago but wanted to be doing something political. I volunteered in Mikva’s campaign, stuffing envelopes on Thursday afternoons but soon becoming a full-time volunteer and then Ab Mikva’s press secretary and speech writer when he returned to Congress. He was my inspiring friend for 42-years until his death on the Fourth of July, 2016.

2. When did you first have the idea to work on Conversations with Abner Mikva?

I heard that Mikva’s health was declining, and I wanted to talk with him– before it was too late–about his fascinating, inspiring political and legal journey and his unvarnished end-of-life insights about our country, then and now. As a writer, I saw parallels between the story I wanted to write about our monthly conversations and the book “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

3. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?

The book is based on monthly conversations Ab Mikva and I had over three years, the last conversation shortly before his death. The conversations, all tape recorded, were mostly at Chicago eateries, including the legendary Valois Cafeteria in Hyde Park where Mikva mentored a young state senator, Barack Obama. I started writing while we were still talking and completed the first draft three months before Ab died. I read it to my friend who by then couldn’t see a butter dish across the table. The version that Ab heard was about 90 percent of the final manuscript. After his death, I spent six months fine-tuning the manuscript, adding material from our final conversations and updating some sections after Donald Trump’s unexpected election.

4. What was the most challenging aspect of writing about your old friend?

To a significant extent, the book is an Abner Mikva memoir which captures the remarkable public life of a gifted liberal icon and brilliant man of unquestioned integrity. But I also have a presence in the story because the narrative is based on our conversations. Often Ab’s reflections, including his regrets, provoked me to examine and re-consider my ideas and shortcomings. I learned a lot. But I wanted to keep the focus on Ab Mikva so that our conversations and the narrative would be much more about him, not me.

5. In Conversations, you write “Abner Mikva saw death coming but not Donald Trump.” How do you think he would respond to the election and current status of the Trump administration?

Days before he died, Ab and I had our last, brief conversation. He told me he couldn’t wait for the Republican convention to start. It was three weeks away. “I’m afraid Trump may self-destruct before the convention,” he laughed weakly. I told him that the Republicans were probably stuck with Trump. “I think they are, too” he replied. “And it couldn’t be better.” He envisioned a resounding Hillary Clinton victory. Ab Mikva had become a big fan of Hillary’s despite their sometimes-rocky relationship when he was Bill Clinton’s White House Counsel and despite his support of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.   Ab thought Hillary had learned from her mistakes, was a true liberal at heart and had a chance to be a transformative president. Perhaps she would have re-nominated Ab’s friend and protégé, Merrick Garland, to the Supreme Court. So, Ab would, first, have been hugely disappointed by Hillary’s loss and the lost opportunities for a progressive agenda and, second, appalled by virtually every aspect of Trump’s leadership and administration—Trump’s incessant lying and disregard for the traditional independent role of the Justice Department and judiciary; the flood of right-wing judicial nominees. especially Trump’s picks for the Supreme Court; the president’s attacks on immigrants and a free press; tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and so on. Ab had already lamented the decline of the Republican Party so he would not be surprised that Republican leaders, with few exceptions, have become Trump enablers. But even with Ab’s multitude of health problems, I am certain he would be doing everything he could to restore our faith in American democracy if he were still with us–and hopeful that the disastrous Trump years will be followed by a democratic reform agenda that he and I discussed.

6. You illustrate how Mikva was a true believer in the lofty possibilities of American democracy. What would you consider the two or three most important lessons learned by reading the book?

In our representative democracy, we as citizens must often trust elected officials to make good decisions for the general welfare. Mikva learned an early lesson that I hadn’t quite considered before he told me about it. On a train ride from Chicago to Springfield in 1957 when he was about to begin his first term in the state legislature, another rookie legislator asked a group of Springfield veterans what it took to be a really good legislator. “Guts,” they answered in unison. And Ab said to me some 60 years later, “I’ve never forgotten it. I still think the first criterion for public officials is guts.” But Ab also learned early in his legislative career, when he became an outspoken leader for gun control in the 1950s, that courageous leadership alone was not enough. Political change comes most often from the bottom up, driven by voluntary, powerful citizen organizations.

7. Mikva might be most well-known for identifying and nurturing the talent of Barrack Obama. What do you think he would consider his greatest professional achievement?

Mikva was proud of the role he played in helping to mentor young Obama and seeing him elected first to the U.S. Senate and then as president. And he took pride in his own legislative achievements and one of his judicial decisions. But he was most proud of two other parts of his legacy: the inspiring model he provided for unquestioned honesty and integrity throughout his public service career, and his leadership, with his wife Zoe’s, in establishing and nurturing the nonpartisan Mikva Challenge. The Mikva Challenge over the last 20 years has become one of the country’s leading youth civic education organizations, providing high school students, especially low-income students of color, with opportunities to make their voices heard on issues that are important to them and their communities—and, in the process, they learn lifelong skills of how to be effective citizens in a democratic society.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

A young person who does not vote and is already cynical about government, politics and politicians.

In our troubling times, widespread cynicism is understandable but not tolerable if we are going to restore our endangered democracy. After Abner Mikva’s lifetime of civic engagement, from volunteering in political campaigns as a young man to serving at the highest levels of government, he remained idealistic and hopeful. “[H]is moving story of personal honor and pragmatic politics [comes] during a fraught period of our nation’s history,” writes professor David Farber. That is why it’s timely and important—and why the book is dedicated to Democracy’s Next Generation.

News and Reviews

REVIEWS

Drawing Fire; A Pawnee, Artist, and Thunderbird in World War II

Review in Publisher’s Weekly: “…Echohawk movingly recalls the language and warrior traditions he and his fellow Native soldiers followed—and, in one episode, humorously recalls fake ones they invented to intimidate insolent German captives. This excellent and fascinating account is a unique contribution to the literature of WWII.”

 

Napoleon’s 1796 Italian Campaign

Review in New York Journal of Books: “The translation is excellently done, with copious footnotes and annotations by the authors on their reasoning for choosing certain English translations for Clausewitz’s strategic thinking, particularly his major themes such as the schwerpunkt, or center of gravity, a term he frequently used to describe the concentration of forces for an attack that have long been debated among Clausewitz scholars.”

 

Justice Robert H. Jackson’s Unpublished Opinion in Brown v. Board

Review in The Review of Politics: “…we should be grateful that he has now made Jackson’s opinion so easily accessible, along with background material on the Court’s struggle to do the right thing in Brown. ”

 

AUTHORS

Mark Harvey, featured in The Washington Post

 

Robert Rebein, featured on Kansas Public Radio

 

Mark Eberle, featured on Kansas Public Radio

 

Greg Weiner, Op-Ed featured in The New York Times

 

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, featured on The University of Illinois website