Before All the Politically Incorrect Talk From President Trump, Spiro Agnew Was Calling a Reporter the “Fat Jap”

Gene Oishi in 2015 at an Asian American writers’ workshop.

When the names of Donald Trump and Richard Nixon appear in the same sentence, it usually relates to the subject of impeachment and to bad actions, not bad words. It was Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who was an early version of Trump’s let’s-see-who-we-can-insult-today verbal style.

The most famous Agnew insult, coming after he called Polish-Americans “Polacks” and Vice President Humphrey “squishy soft” on communism, came during the 1968 campaign when Nixon and Agnew were running against the Humphrey-Muskie ticket. It was described for the February 1972 Washingtonian by journalist Jules Witcover, who went on to write a book, White Knight: The Rise of Spiro Agnew, for Random House.

Agnew was aboard his campaign plane flying over Nevada when he made one of his rare visits to the back of the plane, where the press sat. Rare because Agnew’s relations with the press were as bad then as President Trump’s are today. From Witcover’s story:

On other campaign planes, with other candidates, the atmosphere often was relaxed and jovial in the press compartment; a candidate could walk back and engage in playful banter without worrying that he would be quoted. It was all part of the easy relationship that usually existed on a campaign plane. But on the Agnew plane it did not exist, and so Agnew did not walk back often.

The Agnew entourage had just completed stops at Casper, Wyoming, and Billings, Montana, and then turned south and spent the night in Las Vegas, where he made a speech and held a press conference. The staff and press stayed at Caesar’s Palace, and spent much of the night gambling or watching others do the same.

Among the traveling reporters who tried his luck at the tables was Gene Oishi of the Baltimore Sun. The native-born Japanese-American had covered Agnew in Baltimore and Annapolis, when Agnew was governor of Maryland. Oishi stayed up late in Las Vegas, as did most others in the party. The next morning he took his seat in the rear section of the campaign plane and dozed off, with Dick Homan of the Washington Post in the seat next to him, and Bob Shogan of Newsweek across the way.

After takeoff, and after talking a few minutes with aides in the front compartment, Agnew ambled back into the press compartment drinking coffee. It was a rare incursion, and most of the reporters looked up, but Oishi kept dozing. Agnew came by, looked at him, and said to Homan, “What’s the matter with the fat Jap?”

Homan, surprised, says he replied, “He was up all night in the casino.” About then Oishi awoke, and says he said to the candidate, “That was a wicked city you took us to, Mr. Agnew.”

After a few pleasantries, Agnew walked off. Mike Weiss, also of the Baltimore Sun, turned to Homan. “Did he say what I thought he said?”


“That’s a hell of a thing he said.”

Weiss then turned to Frank DeFilippo, also of the Sun, and asked whether he had heard. DeFilippo said he had, and so did Shogan. They asked Oishi, who really was not particularly fat, just stocky, if that was what he was called in Annapolis and Oishi said it was not.

The matter at first became the cause of considerable bantering among the press and the Agnew staff. The reporters chided Oishi about his weight and told him he ought to spend less time at the Las Vegas free lunches and more time trying to be “the flat Jap.” At one point somebody sent a note to the Agnew compartment that said “Agnew is a thin-skinned, squishy-soft Greek with love handles.”

Among the newsmen, there were some who wanted to write about the incident, feeling it was particularly revealing about Agnew. But Oishi wanted to let the whole thing slide. He regarded the remark as no more than a bumbling attempt to be friendly with the reporters.

For the time being it was left that way, but the inside workings of the competitive press were destined before long to take those seven words Agnew had uttered and make them tactically the most critical to come out of his mouth up to that point in the campaign.

The flight landed in Los Angeles, and for the next two days there and in San Francisco, the “fat Jap” remark was superseded in the reporters’ immediate interest by other matters. The phrase remained, however, a subject of some concern in the press contingent. The Time correspondent, Charlie Eisendrath, telephoned Shogan in his room at the St. Francis Hotel and asked whether he was going to write anything about the incident. Shogan, knowing Oishi’s disinclination to get into the news himself,  said he was not.

But in the meantime Oishi had phoned his wife and mentioned the remark, and she was furious. Several reporters were still pressing him about printing it, and Oishi finally said he would not object. Eisendrath called Shogan and said he was going to report the incident to Time, and also told Homan, who then decided he’d better make sure the Washington Post had it. “My feeling was coming on top of the Baltimore speech [in which Agnew had castigated black leaders for failing to denounce black extremists] and the Polack remark, this indicated at the least an insensitivity toward minorities,” Homan said later. “I decided, to protect myself, I’d put it in the next story I wrote.”

The campaign plane took the party the next day to Honolulu, and that afternoon Homan dispatched a story about Agnew backing away from a claim he had made in San Francisco that the Republican ticket had a plan for ending the Vietnam war.  In the last paragraph, where it ran near the bottom of page five, he wrote: “Earlier,” Agnew had astonished newsmen traveling with him when he made a rare visit to their section of the airplane, pointed at a sleeping reporter of Japanese descent who is, like Agnew, a second-generation American, and asked, “What’s the matter with the fat Jap?”

That was it; that was all the story said; no indication one way or the other whether Agnew was kidding or serious.

The news hit the Agnew camp like the recurrence of a bad dream. With the elapsed time of four days since the remark was made, and all the bantering back and forth, it had been assumed by the staff that nothing would be written of the incident. The remark, after all, had been made in jest and in the privacy of the plane, where good  fellowship and an unwritten code of privileged communication existed.

That was where the Agnew staff had miscalculated. There never had been much fellowship with the press, and that fact made it more likely that no unwritten code of off-the-record would be observed by some of the reporters. Some of the old pros hold, in retrospect, that it was bush-league to report a casual remark a candidate had made in jest in the back of the plane. But what Agnew had said did appear to some to be part of an emerging pattern that said something important about him.
Jules Witcover, now 90, wrote for the Baltimore Sun, Washington Star, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and the Washingtonian. With Jack Germond, he co-wrote a five-day-a-week syndicated column.

Gene Oishi still lives in Baltimore. Here’s a 2017 Baltimore Sun story about him.

Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President in 1973 and died in 1996.


Speak Your Mind