Spiro Agnew: Prophet Without Honor

by Patrick J. Buchanan – May 29, 1998

In an era when professors were surrendering by battalions to student radicals, Agnew denounced the “levelers and ideologists” and attacked affirmative action and reverse discrimination policies that some Republicans, even today, lack the courage to oppose…

“New York City University Tightens Admissions Policy,” read the headline. The New York Times story told of how CUNY’s board had voted to deny admission to students who fail proficiency tests in reading, writing and mathematics. Wrote Times reporter Karen Arenson, this represents “the most fundamental change in standards since instituting open admissions nearly three decades ago.”

The meeting was raucous, demonstrators were arrested, and there were howls of “racist.” But Mayor Rudy Giuliani praised the board: “Their vote sends a powerful message that CUNY is starting the important and difficult process of restoring its reputation as one of the great public institutions of higher learning in the country.”

“Restoring,” the man said.

“We have had a period of 30 years of neglect,” added board chair Anne Paolucci. “We are cleaning out the four-year colleges and putting remediation where it belongs.”

About time. The virtual destruction of the once-legendary City College was an educational atrocity produced by the egalitarian extremism of the 1960s. And it is time to acknowledge the foremost national leader to warn of the impending disaster.

On April 13, 1970, in Des Moines, Iowa, Vice President Spiro Agnew deplored “a trend that may drastically depreciate those national assets,” U.S. colleges and universities. “(T)here are two methods by which unqualified students are being swept into college on the wave of the new socialism. One is called a quota system, and the other an open-admissions policy. Each is implemented by lessening admissions requirements. They may be equally bad.”

Quoting historian Daniel Boorstin, Agnew went on: “In the university, all men are not equal. … Those better endowed or better equipped intellectually must be preferred in admission and preferred in recognition. … If we are to give in to the armed demands of militants to admit persons to the university because of their race, their poverty, their illiteracy or any other non- intellectual distinction, our universities can no longer serve all of us — or any of us.”

In an era when professors were surrendering by battalions to student radicals, Agnew denounced the “levelers and ideologists” and attacked affirmative action and reverse discrimination policies that some Republicans, even today, lack the courage to oppose:

“For each student unprepared for a college curriculum who is brought in under a quota system, some better prepared student is denied entrance. Admitting the obligation to compensate for past deprivation and discrimination, it just does not make sense to atone by discriminating against and depriving someone else.” Students ought not get “bargain-basement diplomas,” said Agnew.

Decrying open admissions at CUNY, he warned: “If these quality colleges are degraded, it would be a permanent and tragic loss to the poor and middle class of New York who cannot afford to establish their sons and daughters on the Charles River or Cayuga Lake. New York will have traded away one of the intellectual assets of the Western world for … a hundred thousand devalued diplomas.” Because a cowardly establishment did not listen in 1970, CUNY must now be “restored” in 1998.

Agnew did not call for writing off poor students but for preparatory schools and community colleges to ensure to the “late-blooming, the under-prepared and the underachieving student every educational opportunity. … But I make this distinction. Preparatory and compensatory education do not belong in the university.”

In closing, Agnew endorsed Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy” of excellence and the need for elite schools, hailing D.C.’s Dunbar, the all-black academic school that numbered among its graduates federal judges, Army generals and a U.S. senator. He blasted the Warren Supreme Court for destroying Dunbar’s unique character and making it just another inner-city school. Today, educators are trying to recapture that grand old idea, to duplicate those old elite schools. Only now, they call them “magnet schools.”

Opening his remarks that night, Agnew reminded his audience that, five months before in the same city, he had blasted the leftist bias of the nation’s networks. “I enjoy visiting famous battlefields,” said the veep with a chuckle.

From 1969 to 1973, no leader spoke out with greater courage about the issues of his time or what was best for America than this prophet without honor in his own country. While he lost his office in disgrace, Spiro Agnew is reviled today not so much for what he did that was wrong but for what he said that was right.