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On February 13, 1971, with the Vietnam War in full rage and southern California digging out from a severe earthquake, the Vice President of the United States set a golf ball on the first tee of a course in Palm Springs, hit that ball off the toe of his driver, and shanked it into the gallery, where it smacked the arm of a 66-year-old man from Salem, Oregon. The ball then ricocheted and hit the man's wife on the arm; the Vice President, Spiro Agnew, gently kissed the woman on the arm and returned to the tee to attempt another drive.
This time, Agnew's ball landed flush on the ankle of a 35-year-old woman from Chatsworth, California. He dropped his driver and retreated sheepishly in a golf cart, ignoring pleas from the gallery that he tee it up and try it again. The woman later received first aid and was taken to a nearby hospital for X-rays, which came up clean, which is more than could be said for Spiro Agnew, who to this day remains the only Vice President to resign due to a criminal scandal.
Forty-five years later, this moment resonates as the sort of iconic public disaster that could make a mockery of a political career. But in the moment, Agnew made it work; it only solidified his position as a paragon of middle-class white suburban values, as the sort of ordinary duffer who chuffed his way around the links on a weekend afternoon. It was not the first time Agnew had pegged an unwitting bystander: the year before, at the same Bob Hope Desert Classic, he nailed pro partner Doug Sanders in the head. He had also done the same to his tennis partner (who happened to be the director of the Peace Corps) during a doubles match at the White House. To the people Agnew and president Richard Nixon were seeking to reach, to the purported "Silent Majority" of Americans who felt increasingly alienated, this only served to humanize him.
"Agnew had the ability to laugh at himself," says Justin Coffey, an associate professor of history at Quincy University, in Illinois, who recently published the first scholarly biography of Agnew since his resignation as Vice President, in 1973. "Whereas Nixon did not. It humanized him a little bit. Every golfer could empathize with him at that moment."
At the moment Agnew's trifecta of bruises took place, he was still a promising political figure. The first of the Watergate break-ins—of which Agnew was purportedly largely ignorant—was still about a year away. By delivering a series of speeches excoriating the media and Vietnam protestors and decrying the nation's supposed moral crisis, he had already developed a reputation as "Nixon's new bulldog," according to author Rick Perlstein's epic book Nixonland.
In October 1969, Agnew delivered a blistering rebuke to the left wing, and he kept it going in the months afterward, so much so that in 1972 Newsweek would put him on its cover next to the tagline "Spiro of '76?" He was Mitt Romney with a Dick Cheney edge to him; in many ways, he helped shape the politics of 2016, the conservative notion that traditional values are under attack, the everlasting rallying cry asserting that popular culture has alienated a huge portion of the electorate.
The fact that Agnew was a golf enthusiast—that he often skipped out at least one day a week to hit the links when serving as governor of Maryland, that he often watched golf on television and was known to cringe when he watched a pro miss a five-foot putt—dovetailed perfectly with the reputation he sought to burnish. His critics referred to him as "relentlessly middle-class"; he was, says Coffey, the "typical American square," and in an era when culture appeared to be leaving the squares in the dust, Agnew was their public face. He was friendly with tennis pros like Rod Laver and golfers like Arnold Palmer, a man at one with the country-club world inhabited by so many wealthy white suburbanites, the same people who viewed Vietnam War protestors with such contempt.
"He understood those people so well because he was so much one of them," Coffey says. "He belonged to the Kiwanis, and he played golf, and he had season tickets to Baltimore Colts games. He was saying, 'I'm one of the good guys. I'm like you.'"
And so Agnew embraced his public gaffes, like the one at Palm Desert. Bob Hope would sometimes call Agnew late at night so they could swap joke ideas. Hope had a field day with Agnew's errant-ness, joking that the President should threaten to send Agnew to Laos with a bucket of golf balls to neutralize the enemy. In 1970, Agnew appeared on The Tonight Show with guest-host Arnold Palmer, and walked on stage carrying a tennis racket and a golf club. "I like to get out in the open air and play golf and tennis," Agnew said. "It gives me a chance to apologize to people."
Agnew wore a wristwatch that day with his likeness on it, a parody of the old Mickey Mouse watches, at least partially inspired by a Hope joke about Agnew being "Mickey Mouse even to Mickey Mouse." After Agnew began speaking out, dividing the electorate, famously decrying the "nattering nabobs of negativism" in the media, those watches became a minor cultural phenomenon, worn both ironically by his critics and in homage by his supporters.
Agnew's popularity bothered the hell out of Nixon, who conspired relentlessly to get Agnew off the ticket in 1972. But they ran together, and they won together, and by the time the first rumors about Watergate began to surface in 1973, Agnew was the top Republican choice for the presidency in the polls, ahead of Ronald Reagan. Then scandal surfaced, dating back to Agnew's days as governor: he'd taken kickbacks on contracts while serving as governor of Maryland. He resigned in October 1973, and became a largely forgotten figure in American politics. Gerald Ford, his successor, would eventually ascend to the presidency after Nixon's resignation.
Agnew's golf and tennis games never fully improved, but it was such a part of his identity that he also never stopped trying. According to Coffey, he played a tennis match in 1996, the day before his death.