“Kranepool flies to right. Agnew resigns.” From an apocryphal note given to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart October 10, 1973
He was a founding figure for the modern political right but would leave his office in disgrace. He exhibited few exceptional traits or remarkable life experiences but he would become the second most powerful man in America at a time of great strife, difficulty, and controversy. By the end of his life, despite spending much of his life in the public spotlight, the best legacy he could hope for was to be remembered as a disgraced politician. Yet, judging by the modern political and historical landscape, he couldn’t achieve even that. Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is that he was controversial, hated, loved, given high public exposure at a time of great public interest and is mostly forgotten to history. Such is the plight of most vice presidents anyway and that’s what he was, a vice president. Spiro Agnew served Richard Nixon as the 39th Vice President of the United States and, in the style of his employer, Agnew would resign his office in shameful criminality. Before doing so he would lay track for future politicians with his methods in attacking his political opponents. His legacy is echoed in the rhetoric of politicians to this day but the man himself has been largely and righty forgotten.
Spiro Theodore Agnew was born in Baltimore in November 1918. The child of a proud Greek immigrant Agnew lived the first decades of his life in stark normality of a child of post World War I. His family was well off in the twenties as owners of a profitable restaurant but their prosperity disappeared with most other Americans as victims of the great depression. Spiro spent the depressed decade working odd jobs to help the family. He would enroll at John Hopkins in ’37, drop out in ’39, and instead go to University of Baltimore Law School at night. When World War II broke out he was drafted and served as an officer in the army eventually finding himself at the Battle of the Bulge. He had married in 1942 and when he returned to the states he started a family and tried to make it as a lawyer.
Throughout the forties and fifties Spiro spent his life as a poster child of the average American. “His favorite musician was Lawrence Welk. His leisure interest were all midcult: watching the Baltimore Colts on television, listening to Montovani, and reading the sort of prose the Reader’s Digest liked to condense. He was a lover of order and an almost compulsive conformist” (William Manchester). Through his life to this point he displayed almost a suspicious lack of political interest. He did not even register as a republican until he was near thirty years old. However, Agnew was a beneficiary of the time and place in which he lived.
By the late 1950s Agnew wanted to get involved in Baltimore politics. He displayed little to no ideological or altruistic motives but instead seemed to see a career in public life. His decision to register as a Republican was not out of an alignment of values but stemmed from a recommendation that being a republican was a better career move. There were far fewer of them in Maryland so a greater opportunity for advancement. That advancement came when he was appointed to the Zoning Board by a Republican party that briefly gained control of Baltimore in the election of 1956. In 1962 he ran for county executive gained an unexpected victory. At the same time the republicans were largely kicked out of most state and federal elected positions. This left the forty-four year old as the highest ranking republican in the state.
Agnew was not an ideologue. He exhibited no evidence of great conviction or backbone. His ability to find continued employment as a politician is likely due to this ability to find the conformist position on things. Through all of his career he would invariably take the politically popular position. As a county executive he was a moderate progressive for his day. He supported integration, clean water, and other social programs but never to extreme. If the face of any racial upheaval he would take the politically popular law and order position and opposed any form of public demonstration. There was a consistency to the man in his ability to constantly seek the position that would benefit him the most.
Another consistency began to exhibit itself at this point of Agnew’s career and that was the accusation of corruption and cronyism. He was seen constantly in the company of rich businessmen and made unseemly political appointments, using his friends to fill open positions. But the man from Baltimore learned how to respond to these accusations rather early in his career. Instead of seeking transparency in his actions or otherwise seeking to maintain the integrity of himself and his office he immediately attacked those who reported the stories. He condemned the attacks as “outrageous”, dismissed them as politically motived, and positioned himself as a victim of dirty political tactics. These tactics rhyme with the empty denials of later politicians caught up in their own scandals. Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton would all draw on their inner Agnew to deal with Watergate, Iran Contra, and the Lewinski affair.
Agnew’s political centrism and damage control tactics would drive him into the Maryland Governorship in 1966. Once again benefiting from the time in which he ran, the candidate for the Democratic party all but assured Agnew’s victory. George P. Mahoney ran on a pure segregationist platform that, while being popular with many rural whites in the state, was predictably and devastatingly unpopular with blacks. The African American’s in the state came out in large numbers and voted overwhelmingly for Agnew securing his victory.
But Spiro would be no friend of Civil Rights. While he opposed segregation Agnew rarely came down on the side of African American during his years as governor. The late 1960s saw an increase in civil rights protests and demonstrations in both frequency and intensity. The governor constantly came down on the every popular side of law and order. Rather than seeking to understand the motivations behind the boycotts and demonstrations he quickly dismissed them as merely stylish and fashionable activities having nothing to do with years of racial discrimination. Agnew never left this tact for the rest of his career whether dealing with racial issues or anti-vietnam war protestors. He would continue to be awarded for this position.
In 1968 Agnew was still largely unknown outside of Maryland. He did, however, have a useful relationship with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who was considered a leading potential candidate for the Republican Presidential Nomination. Agnew positioned himself as a rather high ranking supporter for the New Yorker’s campaign. Rockefeller never chose to run, however, which left Agnew without a candidate to support. Former vice-President Richard Nixon saw an opportunity at this point and had his staff contact Agnew to see if he would support Nixon’s own run for the White House. By the time of the national convention Agnew was chosen as the man to place Nixon’s name into nomination.
As the republican candidate Nixon was seeking a moderate candidate to run beside him and, to the shock of many in the party, he chose the Governor form Maryland. Few voters even knew Agnew’s name at the time of the convention but by the election he would be a considerable contributor to Nixon’s narrow victory.
Despite being brought into the campaign as a moderating influence Agnew quickly found a roll that he would maintain through his entire time as vice president. Nixon knew that if he personally made any political attacks it could backfire so he had his running mate and future vice president make the attacks for him. Agnew attacked Nixon’s political enemies as intellectuals and liberals (“An intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park his bike”). And he made some of the first direct attacks against the media as being biased and liberal.
In 1969, after the election, in Des Moines Iowa Agnew gave a speech on the television media and its response to a speech President Nixon had given a week earlier. The media response had been less than supportive and the administration sent Agnew out to respond. He claimed that the tv commentators represented a narrow view point that did not represent the American people. He accused the networks having made up their mind in advance of the speech. He further stated that “a spirit of masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”. The focus of his address was to attack the network news commentators and anchormen for offering critiques and comments on the President’s speech. He advocated the need for the President to address the people without comment by the media. In so doing he set a precedent that would be followed by nearly every president to follow by attacking the media as the reason for their failed policy. This is perhaps the biggest part of Agnew’s legacy today.
Agnew would continue in this capacity throughout Nixon’s first term. But any time he tried to exert himself to Nixon or his inner circle Spiro was rebuffed. After one meeting in which the vice President attempted to express his opinion, Nixon directed his aid to instruct Spiro to keep his thoughts to himself. By 1972 Nixon was willing to move on and preferred to have his friend John Connolly on the ticket. This proved too difficult, however, and Agnew’s skill at attacking the opposition was too valuable. No change was made and Agnew joined Nixon in his lopsided victory over George McGovern and went with him into their second term.
1973 saw Agnew’s past and his vices catch up with him. While the nation was growing increasingly focused on the Watergate scandal, the vice president became embroiled in his own scandal. In January the US Attorney for Maryland began investigating suspected acts of corruption in Baltimore. He was looking into Baltimore County, City Architects, engineering firms, and local contractors due to persistent accusations of kickback schemes with city and county contracts. The purpose was to expose potential corruption that was assumed to be going on in the early 70s. Initially the investigation had nothing to do with the vice president. However, as the attorney furthered his investigation it became clear that the corruption was not limited to the current city administration. The owner of a local engineering firm revealed that he had been giving Agnew 5% of any contracts that Agnew gave him while working for the city. It was later revealed that these payments continued, not only into the Governorship but, into the vice presidency.
By August of 1973 the Vice President of the United States was informed that he was under investigation for corruption. Agnew immediately denied the accusations. He took the position that, regardless of what he may have done, the Vice President could not be indicted. Furthermore, he had a motion filed to stop any indictment arguing that his case would be prejudiced by the fact that the fact he was under investigation had been leaked to the press. Despite his arguments, the investigation continued for over two months.
This all took place under the shadow of Watergate scandal where the President and his administration were being investigated for covering up their sanctioning of a burglary of the Democratic National Campaign Headquarters. No hard evidence has ever been revealed that Agnew was involved in the Watergate affair. However, for two months the President and the Vice President of the United States were the focus of separate investigations for serious criminal activity.
The charges against Agnew came to a head in October of 1973. He maintained his claims of innocence but decided to make a plea with the US Attorney anyways. Ultimately Agnew plead no contest to a single charge of tax evasion. On October 10th he appeared before the Federal Court in Baltimore to enter his plea. Simultaneously, he had a delivery delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger formally announcing his resignation from the Vice Presidency.
Agnew was given a fine of $10,000 and three months of unsupervised probation. He avoided the coming demise of the Nixon administration where the President would also have to send a letter to Kissinger and design his office in shame. Spiro would never serve in public office again and would largely stay out of the public eye. He started an international consulting firm that had dealings with Saddam Hussein and Nicolae Ceaucescu. He wrote a novel based on his time in the Vice Presidency and a memoir where he claimed that he was forced to resign by Nixon through an unsaid threat of assassination. Like his claim of innocence, Agnew would stand by this claimed threat for the rest of his life.
He would die quietly from Leukemia in 1996 and his fall into historic oblivion has continued ever since. Like most vice presidents he is rarely mentioned beyond being a side character in the story of the actual president. When viewed in terms of America’s conscious memory Agnew is at best remembered, if remembered at all, as a corrupt vice president for a corrupt president. His true legacy may be an unsaid and unrecognized one. Agnew, as Nixon’s tool for political attack, was a pioneer in forming the political attack playbook for the American right of the following four decades. He showed how successfully one can be in gaining political support by attacking his enemies as “liberal”, “elitist”, and “unamerican”. He showed how helpful it can be to attack the media instead of dealing with the political fall out of his decisions. This legacy is part of what we recognize on this anniversary of his resignation, on October 10, 1973