Finding his niche in the Senate

Published May 3, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Is there an incentive for politicians to be decent and upright public servants? Yes, if they believe that virtue is its own reward. But if they don't, they may wonder what permanent gain comes from doing right.

The question arises because we are seeing that if you are elected to high office, you don't need to worry about posterity. If you're in trouble for lying, cheating and stealing, not to worry. Posterity is kinder and gentler than your contemporaries. Tradition is on your side, and so is the law.

And that is why Spiro Agnew will be honored at a ceremony May 24 when a marble bust of him will be placed just outside the Senate chamber. Anyone who served as president of the Senate will be honored, even Aaron Burr.

Agnew will feel at home. Richard Nixon is already there. He, too, was president of the Senate. Both were driven out of office. But hey, who's counting?

Filling an office has its perks. The Big Shots' Guild takes care of its own.

Last week, Nixon had a first-class stamp named for him. The fact that the president bombed a small peasant country on Christmas, lied about his part in Watergate and put the country through the trauma of impeachment proceedings is not of consequence. It's a tradition that every president gets a stamp on his birthday the year following his death. It is only because one of its traditional rate hikes was pending in January, at the time of Nixon's birthday, that the post office delayed its tribute to a man who provided the best proof of his guilt, the famous tapes.

Agnew provides the greater oratorical challenge. His contribution to the nation is brief: bagman, hatchet man. He was governor of Maryland, a state that has learned to expect little from its politicians. Until George Bush chose Dan Quayle, Agnew was history's most-bizarre choice for vice president. Nixon introduced him to a stunned convention in 1968 as "Spiro T. 'Ted' Agnew," a description that while accurate did not define the mediocrity whom he was rewarding for defecting from Nelson Rockefeller.

Agnew's career was marked by open-handedness, not open-mindedness. He asked for and was given bribes by contractors. His position as a heartbeat away from the presidency did not inhibit him in any way from collecting the swag. Publicly he read speeches written for him by Pat Buchanan and William Safire, in his capacity as Nixon's scourge of reporters and other "nattering nabobs of negativism." He was a divisive force at a bitter time until he was led away by that paragon of public service, Elliot Richardson.

At the bust dedication, the speakers _ Sens. Ted Stevens and Wendell Ford _ will have to do what they can with this material. They might find inspiration in the words of Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, who recently took Agnew's portrait and hung it upon the wall with his other predecessors. His rationale: It is history; "we cannot hide from it."

The lesson from all this seems to be if your role model is Caligula rather than Abraham Lincoln, let yourself go.

Bill Clinton has got to be jealous as he watches this festival of forgiveness unfold.

He is unforgiven, hammered by by Democrats and Republicans. He ventures a word about intemperate radio talkers and members of his own party sneer at him. Recently he found favor with the public when he gathered the nation into his arms after the Oklahoma City bombing. Citizens liked him for going to funerals and comforting the mourners. But almost immediately, his critics began to beat him about the head and shoulders for exploiting the calamity.

He has been quite civil to the press, although it is known that he seethes in the privacy of the White House. The other night he went to the White House Correspondents Association's annual dinner and got clobbered. Talk-show host Conan O'Brien introduced a cartoonish Clinton on a huge screen talking with wobbly teeth and yipping and whooping, often mentioning Clinton's irrelevance. (Jimmy Carter also was seen as a Southern yahoo.)

The president would have been justified in walking out; instead, he turned the other cheek and thanked the press for bringing the full tragedy of Oklahoma to the public.

Nixon accused the press of "vicious, distorted reporting." But that's irrelevant.

It all comes out in the wash. You get your marble, you get your stamp _ no matter what you do.

Universal Press Syndicate