Rubber chicken missed its moment with Spiro Agnew

Former Vice President Spiro Agnew obviously never knew about the rubber chicken plot when he addressed the Colorado General Assembly in the early 1970s.

Had he known, the 39th vice president would probably have come up with one of his famous put-downs for the capitol press corps, which had designed the whole plot.

Agnew had achieved a certain reputation during his term in office for his thundering denunciations of political opponents and journalists, calling them “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Time has a habit of cloaking former vice presidents with obscurity, so if the name evokes only the reaction “Spiro who?” here’s a brief summation. Agnew was Richard Nixon’s man, the only vice president in history to face criminal charges. In late summer 1973 he was accused of accepting $100,000 and formally charged in October. Later that month, he entered a single “no contest” plea to an additional charge that he had failed to report $29,000 in income. The plea was accepted, and he resigned.

A couple of months before Agnew’s Denver appearance, a rubber chicken had turned up in the third-floor pressroom of the Capitol.  One of the newsmen had brought the ugly, deflated bird to the pressroom, where temporarily idle reporters could waste time by throwing it into a basketball hoop that somebody had installed.

On other occasions, since the windows of the Republican caucus room were across a courtyard from the pressroom, some wag among the journalists tried hanging the chicken out the window. Whether the Republicans thought it was some type of transmitter we didn’t know, but participants in the then-secret caucus lowered the blinds and shut the windows at least once when the chicken was hanging outside.

The rubber chicken gained further notoriety one afternoon when a television reporter made his mid-afternoon broadcast of Capitol events on the east side of the building. Two Denver Post reporters were standing unobtrusively on the Capitol steps behind him. As the TV reporter began his broadcast, one newsman surreptitiously opened his jacket and slid the rubber chicken out while the other print reporter opened his coat and slid the bird inside. The moment aired on the 5 p.m. broadcast, I was told, but had been discovered and cut out of the 10 p.m. broadcast, which I watched.

With its colorful history, it was inevitable that somebody would try to work the chicken into the Agnew appearance. A week or so before Agnew was slated to speak to a joint session in the Colorado House, members of the press corps were seated at the House’s press table looking unusually interested, although whoever was at the podium nearby was giving a humdrum speech.

The subject before the press corps was not what was happening on the House floor. It was whether the rubber chicken could be filled with air some way to make it spontaneously arise from the press table during the Agnew speech. The discussion took a couple of days, after which it was unanimously decided the plan wouldn’t work.

The next best thing, the reporters decided, was to hide the rubber chicken in a press table drawer to see what would happen when the Secret Service found it in the pre-speech search. So the chicken was tucked in the back of one of the drawers.

The Vietnamese war was in full array, and as Agnew arrived on the morning of the speech, young protesters outside the building were chanting:  “Hell, no, we won’t go.” They were noisy but quite orderly.

Inside, as the Secret Service went over every spot in the closed-off House chamber, members of the press casually wandered through the hallway outside but couldn’t tell whether the chicken had been found. When the press and the legislators were eventually let inside, a reporter casually opened the drawer to discover that the chicken hadn’t been removed, and, in fact, appeared not to have been touched.

That was a disappointing discovery, made more so by what I remember as an unremarkable speech except that the man at the podium was the vice president of the United States.

The bird lost its luster after that. It had not lived up to its potential. The chicken suddenly disappeared from the pressroom, no mention of its current whereabouts was forthcoming, and I could only assume that the reporter who had brought it took it home.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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