December 31, 2008 © by Kevin Dayhoff
On Christmas morning I was treated to a white Christmas when I awakened in Anchorage Alaska. As a matter of fact, it was a white Christmas week as it snowed everyday the entire time I was there.
I stayed at the Captain Cook Hotel which is incidentally the same hotel where one of Alaska’s heroes, our own thirty-ninth Vice President of the United States, and the 55th governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, stayed on an impromptu stopover in 1981.
Yes, you read that correctly, according to Anchorage Daily News columnist, Mike Dunham, who wrote a tribute to Mr. Agnew on the anniversary of his birthday in 1996; Mr. Agnew is considered to be “arguably the most important man in Alaska history after William Seward.” More on that in a minute…
As readers are aware I am not a fan of the cold or snow, but there I was looking out upon a beautiful city situated on a glacier silt plain in southeastern Alaska, picturesquely framed by the Chugach Mountain range and Cook Inlet.
The temperature averaged in the teens for the entire stay – and yes, the sun only shines for about four hours a day this time of the year in Anchorage. Even then, sunlight is only distinguishable as a brighter - lighter shade of gray.
Nevertheless, I had a wonderful visiting a city I had only read about before in the context of oil exploration and politics, Native American struggles and public policy, Russian - Alaskan history, the globalization of American economic structure, and anomalies of municipal government.
For government geeks who study municipal governance, Anchorage is fascinating. Above and beyond the fact that there is no sales tax or income tax in Anchorage or Alaska for that matter, is the sheer geographic size of the municipality. The city limits of Anchorage encompasses 1,955 sq. miles or about the size of the state of Delaware. For a comparison, Carroll County is 452 square miles – and Westminster is about 6 square miles.
On December 28, I had a nice opportunity to talk with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich; a young and energetic rising star who will in the future make a name for himself on the national stage. For now I’ll leave that for a future column. Yes, he is the son of former Congressman Nick Begich. Congressman Nick Begich and Representative Hale Boggs of Louisiana were the focus of a national tragedy on September 16, 1972. Who remembers the terrible circumstances?
Getting back to Spiro Agnew, according Mr. Dunham, Mr. Agnew he did not happen to visit Anchorage “on purpose. In 1981, he and 180 other passengers on a commercial jet to Korea were detained in Anchorage after an engine conked out. Spotted at the Hotel Captain Cook, Agnew shied from questions — ‘I’m not in politics anymore. I just don’t have time to fool with this anymore’ — lit his Marlboro and puffed quietly into history.”
It is that “history” that is so fascinating to congressional historians. Except as a peculiar footnote, history is befuddled as to what to do with the legacy of Mr. Agnew. For the most part, historians essentially ignore him. In what is otherwise the sordid and conflicted saga of an American politician from Maryland, then-Vice-President Agnew irrevocably changed the future of Alaska just months before he resigned as the United States vice-president on October 10th, 1973.
To refresh your memory, the thirty-ninth Vice President of the United States, and the 55th governor of Maryland, Spiro Theodore Agnew, passed away on September 17th, 1996. He was born on November 9, 1918 Spiro Anagnostopoulos, the son of Greek immigrants, and grew up in Baltimore.
While serving his country in World War II, he earned the Bronze Star in France. Upon returning home he began practicing law in 1949 and entered politics in 1957, eventually being elected Baltimore County Executive in 1962.
In an extraordinary twist of fate, Mr. Agnew, a Republican, really burst on the scene in 1966 as a courtesy of the Democratic Party. Who can remember the circumstances?
On November 8, 1966, the day before his 48th birthday, Mr. Agnew, defeated his Democratic-Dixiecrat opponent, by a margin of 81,775 votes in a three-way race. Who can name his Dixiecrat opponent or the third prominent politician in the 1966 Maryland gubernatorial election?
Presidential candidate Richard Nixon picked the nationally unknown Maryland governor as his running mate two years later. Most all Marylanders were proud when then-Governor Agnew was elected Vice-President of the United States in 1968.
In the fall of 1973, as the Watergate scandal mounted, the prospect of Vice-President Agnew succeeding President Nixon became a matter of profound concern to political elites. An investigation into the Baltimore County payoffs provided a suitable pretext as he eventually became the focus of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office in Maryland for financial irregularities while he held state office. Rather than face trial, Agnew resigned and entered a plea of no contest to charges of evading income tax.
Years earlier, Mr. Agnew made a campaign stop in Anchorage in 1968, according to Mr. Dunham. It was the first of his three visits to Alaska. The second visit occurred during the re-election campaign of 1972 – in addition to his last visit, mentioned earlier, in 1981.
In 1968, a few months before Mr. Agnew’s first visit, oil had been discovered on the North – Arctic Slope north of the Brooks Mountain Range. The Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was proposed in 1969, but it was greeted met with tremendous opposition from environmentalists.
By July 17, 1973, the Trans-Alaska Authorization Act which cleared the way for the 800-mile pipeline had passed the House of Representatives, but was deadlocked in the Senate – 49 to 49.
Vice-President Agnew, in his constitutional capacity as President of the Senate, cast the tie-breaking vote, “for” the pipeline.
Mr. Agnew was many different things to many folks, however, today, few Marylanders are aware of him, except that he was once a Maryland governor and a United States vice-president.
In Alaska, the former governor of Maryland is known to keen historians as the reason there is no sales tax or income tax in the 49th state. Additionally, he is one of the reasons why the Anchorage of today, poised as the gateway to northern North America and the vast economics of the Pacific Rim, is a modern and exciting city. It is far different from the boom-to-bust, “small, dirty, hardscrabble place,” as described by Mr. Dunham, “with more bars than churches when Agnew flew in on a campaign swing in 1968.”
I did find a statue of Captain James Cook who sailed into the area in 1778, but on my visit, I found no statue for Spiro Agnew. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Mr. Dunham, he may have picked pockets in Maryland, but he made Alaskans rich.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster Maryland USA.
E-mail him at: kdayhoff AT carr.org