The Agnew Archives

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Washington Post (June 20 2004):

Spiro T. Agnew's monkey skin cape haunts its keepers.

A gift to the vice president of the United States from the president of Kenya in 1971, the cape now rests folded in a long yellow box at the University of Maryland archives, along with an unusual assortment of other objects from Agnew's political life.

There's a painting of Agnew that archivists refer to as"beaver teeth," because of the woody hue the artist chose for his subject's incisors. It hangs next to another portrait of the former vice president made entirely of tiny bird feathers -- a gift from Suharto, the former president of Indonesia. Then there's the painting of Agnew as a circus clown with orange hair and a cocked top hat.

An inflatable Agnew punching bag, a set of"S-T-A" branding irons and a plaque from the 1972"Salute to Ted Agnew Night," featuring special guest Frank Sinatra and master of ceremonies Bob Hope, are also entombed in the 10-by-17-foot storage room at the university's Hornbake Library in College Park. More generic, though equally curious, are the Asian folding screen that lights up when plugged in, a miniature Apollo rocket and a bronze Buddha statute.

Less explicable are the ornate wooden structures that archivists suspect might be African birthing chairs and a small wooden box that is covered with some sort of animal pelt and contains a single golf ball.

Jennie Levine, who oversees this area of the archives, says she prefers wading through the diaries of 19th-century women. But she and others entrusted with the Agnew collection have a special relationship with the memorabilia of the former Maryland governor and disgraced vice president. Few outside the staff have ever seen it. Rumor has it that earlier archivists would wear the cape while going about their work cataloguing and organizing other items in their care.

"A conservationist who came in suspected it was treated with DDT," said Levine."So we don't put it on."

Over the course of his political career, Agnew amassed closets full of mementos, gifts, and commemorative items. What value he might have imagined they'd have for future generations is anyone's guess.

But high-level public officials can be spared such decisions as what to keep and what to pitch. Just leave it for someone else to sort though. That is just what Agnew did.

His items landed at the archives in 1974 and in several other shipments before he died in 1996. The objects arrived in boxes along with his papers, which are now one of the archives' most important collections.

Researchers dig through the documents for insight into Richard M. Nixon's vice president, who resigned in 1973 after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges stemming from bribes he allegedly took while governor of Maryland. But so far, no one has mined any of the other memorabilia that might offer a different kind of portrait of the man....

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