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!.

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