Spiro Agnew vs. the “effete intellectuals” and “nattering nabobs”…

Nowadays, Conservative provocateurs like Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter get lots of media attention for coming up with snarky, quotable insults aimed at Liberals.

But the way was paved for them decades ago by Republican politician Spiro Agnew (1918-1996), the former Governor of Maryland who became Vice President of the United States under President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.

Agnew unleashed one of his most famous zingers on October 19, 1969.

He was speaking that day at a Republican fund-raising dinner in New Orleans.

Four days earlier, opponents of the Vietnam War had organized a major anti-war demonstration, the October 15th Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in moratorium events in the United States and Europe.

Agnew was a staunch defender of the Vietnam War, so naturally he had to take a swipe at the protesters.

He characterized them as people who “overwhelm themselves with drugs and artificial stimulants.”

He went on (and on and on) to say:

“Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated in a contemporary antagonism known as ‘The Generation Gap.’ A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” 

Other Conservatives and the press especially loved that last sentence. And, soon, the pithy core of it was compressed into the phrases still used today: “effete intellectual snobs” and the shorter version “effete intellectuals.”

Spiro uttered a number of other catchy, insulting names for Liberals during his four years as Vice President.

Two others that are still cited are “the nattering nabobs of negativism” and “the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” 

Most of Agnew’s catchy phrases as Vice President were written for him by Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire, who went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times. (I was a big fan of Safire’s “On Language” column in the NYT and highly recommend his many excellent books about the origins of famous quotations and phrases.)

Agnew’s verbal attacks on Liberals made him a darling of Republicans until 1973, when his past caught with him.

That year, he was charged with taking bribes and evading taxes during his tenure as Governor of Maryland.

He resigned as Vice President on October 10, 1973, as part of a plea deal to avoid jail time.

It was quite a scandal at the time. But, hey – at least Spiro Agnew wasn’t taking any of them there psycho-delic drugs or acting like a damn effete intellectual.

However, I do think he may have qualified as a nattering nabob.

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