The new exhibit in the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library showcases some of the unique gifts received by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew during his time in office, 1969-1973. It draws upon the work that members of the Maryland and Historical Collections unit at the University libraries have been doing to inventory memorabilia and other three-dimensional objects within the Spiro T. Agnew papers.
The U.S. Constitution forbids elected officials from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” “without the Consent of the Congress” (Art. 1, Sec. 9). However, it does not forbid elected officials from accepting unsolicited gifts from private individuals or groups of American people. Apart from gifts from international heads of state which the U.S. Congress has approved, the offices of the President and Vice President each year receive and accept thousands of unasked-for gifts, including artwork, food, souvenirs, posters, even animals.
During his time as President, Richard M. Nixon received over 30,000 gifts. His Vice President, a former governor from Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew, also received a variety of gifts while in office, including unsolicited letters and folk art from average Americans. Many who sent gifts sought to promote ideas, convey political messages, and express thanks for Agnew’s views and policy statements. Some probably just liked the idea of being able to address the Vice President through a direct, informal means of communication. Several of the items could be interpreted as either promotional or insulting to the Vice President, but their true intent will remain with their senders. Vice President Agnew retained these gifts after he left office, either through declaration to the State Department or by payment to the United States Treasury.
Three themes have been chosen to represent the hundreds of three-dimensional objects retained by Agnew and later deposited with the University of Maryland libraries: Portraits/Caricatures, Space Travel (Real and Imagined), and Golf and Games. Within these themes are items that indicate the political support of some Americans for Agnew, such as a handcrafted wooden golf trophy, while others suggest that he was a household joke, like an inflatable doll of Agnew in boxing shorts.
The Portrait/Caricatures theme incorporates representations of the facial features of Vice President Agnew. Before his vice presidency, Agnew was not a household name and did not have a recognizable face outside of the state of Maryland, where he had served as governor. However, over the subsequent 4 years and 10 months, Agnew’s visage became iconic to the American public. Within the Agnew papers, the Vice President is featured in a variety of formats such as still photographs, paintings, sculptures, and even cross-stitch embroidery. While many of the representations take a form of accurate or flattering representations, a few exaggerate the size of Agnew’s nose and the verticalness of his face in cartoons and caricatures. Though the prevalence of Agnew’s likeness is popular in culture cannot be interpreted as an indicator of his popularity, it did show that portraits of Vice Presidents could become visual instruments of political power and party identification. The exhibit provides samples of both realistic and caricatured representations of Agnew.
The Space Travel (Real and Imagined) theme exhibits Agnew’s support for NASA’s space missions and includes a hard hat from NASA and badges for the control room to view the launch of Apollo 9. While in office, Agnew, and the nation, celebrated the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969. However, the moon was not the only celestial body that received attention during Agnew’s term. As chair of President Nixon’s Space Task Group, Agnew developed plans for future space missions and followed Wernher von Braun in suggesting that the next project of NASA should be to achieve a Mars landing by 1986. Although extravagant and idealistic, Agnew’s lofty un-met goals provided inspiration for political cartoons. Thus, both real and imagined space travel excited members of the American public, driving them to share their reactions with their elected officials.
While in office, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s pleasure – if not talent – for golf was acknowledged across the globe, thus inspiring the Golf and Game theme. Whether alone or with celebrities, Vice President Agnew’s repetitive visits to golf courses inspired numerous Americans and other avid golfers to send him a variety of golf equipment. Included in these gifts were golf balls, club covers, tees, and even sets of clubs and golf bags. Some gifts were manufactured then inscribed while others were handmade, such as knitted club covers and wooden trophies.
In addition, Agnew received other games and sports memorabilia while Vice President, including a dual-sided jigsaw puzzle of the world, a board game entitled Who Can Beat Nixon?, and a yo-yo engraved with Agnew’s face. The Vice President’s staff probably considered some of these unsolicited gifts more relevant than others to keep. Regardless whether some reflected constituents’ distaste with the administration, these games demonstrate some of the ways that Americans tried to connect with the Vice President as an average person, particularly through his leisure activities.
Also included in the exhibit is an audio recording from December 1968 of comedian Bob Hope reflecting on a recent match he played against the Vice President-elect at the Canyon Country Club. Hope pokes fun at Agnew’s skill for the sport and says: “I played with Ray Schaffer and James Rhodes and the Governor of Maryland, former Governor of Maryland, Spiro, Spiro T., and I wanna tell you, they took a little of my vaudeville money. Spiro beat me. Of course, I had to shoot 137 to do it.” Raymond Schaffer and James Rhodes were two Republican governors who played golf several times with Agnew and Hope.
”Un-solicited! Gifts that Spiro T. Agnew received while Vice President” was curated by two student assistants, second year MLIS graduate student Emily Flint, first year MLIS graduate student Jennifer Piegols, and second year MLIS graduate student Harrison Gage, under the supervision of Special Collection’s Historical Manuscripts Project Archivist, Dr. Eric Stoykovich, and Curator of Historical Manuscripts, Elizabeth Novara. The exhibit is on display from January 8 to March 2, 2018. The items discussed here represent just a small portion of the hundreds of linear feet of materials in the Spiro T. Agnew papers. Interested researchers may visit the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library to view the memorabilia collection in person, and a preliminary inventory of the Agnew memorabilia is available upon request. Please be sure to contact the Maryland Room at least 3 days in advance of your visit so that we can accommodate memorabilia requests in a timely manner. If you want to learn more about the Spiro T. Agnew papers, please consult the finding aid for the collection.
Jennifer Piegols (University of Maryland, Class of 2019), Special Collections Student Assistant. Jen Piegols is a first year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. She works in the State of Maryland and Historical Collections Unit at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives.