This week, with the final Obama-Romney debate bearing down on us, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the more bizarre political and election-related items in our holdings. In doing so we set our sights on Maryland’s own Spiro Agnew, the Nixon administration, and the many products Agnew’s likeness and political legacy inspired, as reflected in our collections. Please note that we are leaving the library collections this time out, with the exception of one item, and venturing into MdHS’s museum collection to explore these curious pieces of political and material culture.
Baltimore County native Spiro T. Agnew (1918-1996) began his political life as a Democrat but then switched parties when he discovered few opportunities for advancement. He was elected Baltimore County Executive in 1962 and Governor of Maryland (R) in 1966. Agnew’s legacy as Governor will be remembered by many Marylanders for his excoriation of African-American leaders in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Others may remember him for his higher profile exploits later in his career.
The Spiro Agnew wristwatch pictured here was purchased at Hutzler’s department store on November 5, 1970. According to the receipt, it cost $20.75—not a small chunk of change. According to the Inflation Calculator this is roughly the equivalent of $123.00 dollars today. (Currently, original Agnew watches go for $50-100 on eBay.)
The Agnew wristwatch reflects a nationwide trend in the 1960s and ’70s to popularize political figures in a variety of media. Agnew’s selection as the VP candidate by Richard Nixon and election victory in 1968 made him a national figure and subsequently tied him to the most infamous administration in U.S. history. Entrepreneurs wasted no time capitalizing on both men’s likeness from the moment they took office. The first Spiro Agnew watch was designed by Dr. Hale E. Dougherty’s Dirty Time Company ca. 1970 and by July of that year at least 50,000 were on order at department stores across the nation.
At least two other manufactures of the Agnew watch went into production in 1970. The watch became wildly popular. According to vintage wristwatch blog HODINKEE, Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, and Republican and Democratic Congress-members owned Agnew watches. “Dougherty even sent an early watch to Agnew who wrote back that the watch was ‘both attractive and clever,’ before later changing his tune and threatening legal action over the use of his likeness and invasion of his privacy,” reports HODINKEE blogger Eric Wind. Dougherty was the only manufacturer not to comply with the Vice President’s demand to donate a portion of the profits from the watch to “Agnew-designated charities.” The physician refused on the grounds that the watch was a sort of political cartoon and complying with the demand would set a dangerous precedent for artistic freedom of expression.**
A complicated moderate not afraid to change his position, Agnew supported Maryland’s first open housing laws, helped repeal its anti-miscegenation law, stood as an alternative to state Democrats wishing to distance themselves from the racist sloganeering used by his ’66 gubernatorial election rival, Baltimore contractor-turned-politician George “Your home is your castle” Mahoney, and was an outspoken critic of antiwar demonstrators. Despite all that, by the early 1970s Agnew literally became a joke. The Baltimore Sun reported that a popular joke in 1970 went, “Did you know that Mickey Mouse wears a Spiro Agnew watch?” Forced from office by accusations of extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy, he was the first Vice President to resign from office.**
Along with the watch also came the T-shirt of the wristwatch. Why, you may wonder, would a wristwatch need its own shirt? Because T-shirts were the internet memes of the 1970s and ’80s.
Another variation of the Agnew wristwatch was the Agnew alarm clock. According to our provenance records, this clock was designed and illustrated by Baltimore attorney Zelig Robinson, who appears to be one of the other two manufactures of the Agnew watch. Robinson can be seen in an AP Wireservice photo from July 16, 1970 standing next to his wife and the Vice President who is proudly wearing the watch made in his own image. The photo’s caption notes that Robinson was able to meet with the VP because he—unlike Dougherty—was willing to pony up 25 percent of the proceeds to a charity of Agnew’s choice.
Finally, we have this little gem from MdHS’s ephemera collection. One could not have purchased any of the above items at any store we know of and been given this bag to tote away their collectibles, but here it is, and nonetheless it exists: the Democrats for Nixon tote bag. This bit of propaganda was aimed at siphoning votes away from Senator George McGovern (D – South Dakota), who unlike his ’72 election rival Nixon did not keep his plans for ending the Vietnam War a secret.
McGovern ran on a platform promising withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for draft evaders, and a 37 percent reduction in military spending over the next three years. It’s worth pointing out that two thirds of his platform came to fruition within the next five years. (George McGovern passed away as this post was being prepared on the morning of October 21, 2012. R.I.P. Sen. McGovern.) The video that follows the bag provides some more context behind the concept of Dems for Nixon. The toy soldier and secret plan jokes practically write themselves. (Joe Tropea)
Democrats for Nixon TV ad ca.1972
*”2 of 3 Spiro Wristwatches Windup with His Approval,” The Baltimore Sun, July 17, 1970: p.C11. http://www.hodinkee.com/2010/8/3/the-spiro-agnew-watch-a-gag-that-united-elizabeth-taylor-joh.html
**”Spiro Agnew Watches,” The Baltimore Sun, July 12, 1970: p.SD15.
White Knight: The Rise of Spiro Agnew, Jules Witcover, Random House, 1972.
“Spiro T. Agnew and Middle Ground Politics,” Justin P. Coffey, Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 98, No. 4, Winter 2003.
“Spirogate: The Washington Post and the Rise and Fall of Spiro Agnew,” Charles J. Holden and Zach Messitte, Vol. 102, No. 3, Fall 2007.
“‘A Veil of Voodoo’: George P. Mahoney, Open Housing, and the 1966 Governor’s Race,” Richard Hardesty, Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 2, Summer 2009.