Agnew, Spiro T.
Spiro T. Agnew
Born November 9, 1918
Died September 18, 1996
During President Richard Nixon's (see entry) first term in the White House (1969–1973), Vice President Spiro Agnew emerged as an outspoken defender of the president and his administration. He regularly criticized the American news media for providing slanted coverage of Vietnam and other issues. In addition, he became known for his critical remarks about antiwar groups and people who held liberal political beliefs. In 1973, though, investigations revealed that Agnew had accepted bribes and engaged in other illegal activities during his years as governor of Maryland. The scandal eventually forced Agnew to resign from the vice presidency in disgrace.
Early political career
Spiro Theodore Agnew was born on November 9, 1918, in Baltimore, Maryland. The son of a Greek immigrant, Agnew attended Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore Law School. In 1942 he married Elinn Judefind, with whom he eventually had four children. That same year he left school to enlist in the U.S. military and fight in World War II(1939–1945). He served during the war as a captain in an armored division, earning a Bronze Star medal.
After the war ended in 1945, Agnew returned home to Baltimore. He resumed his education, earning a law degree from Baltimore Law School in 1947. He established a successful law practice in the city's suburbs, but as the years passed he expressed increasing interest in seeking a new career in politics. By the late 1950s Agnew had established himself as one of the state's promising young Republican leaders. In 1962 he upset his Democratic opponent to win election as Baltimore County Executive.
Four years later, Agnew won the Republican nomination for governor of Maryland. He then defeated the state's Democratic governor in a big upset. Agnew's victory was due in large part to strong support from Baltimore's black community, which opposed his Democratic opponent's support for segregation (keeping members of different races separated in society).
Governor of Maryland
When Agnew became governor of Maryland in early 1967, most residents of the state viewed him as a moderate Republican. They believed that he did not hold radical or extreme views on the Vietnam War, civil rights, and other issues that were dividing many American communities. In April 1968, however, riots broke out in Baltimore's black neighborhoods following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (see entry). The riots infuriated Agnew. He harshly criticized the city's black community leaders for permitting—or in some cases, encouraging—the violence to take place. Agnew's reaction angered some segments of Maryland's black community. But it pleased Republican conservatives across the nation who were appalled by the riots.
In 1968 Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon selected Agnew as his vice presidential running mate after his first two choices (Robert Finch and Gerald Ford) declined his offer. Nixon and his advisors correctly predicted that the selection of Agnew would meet with approval from various groups within the Republican Party. The party's moderate wing did not actively oppose his selection, and conservatives expressed outright enthusiasm for Agnew.
As the presidential campaign progressed, Agnew proved to be an effective campaigner. He paid special attention to the Vietnam War, which was a source of great concern to the American people. By 1968 American troops had been fighting and dying in Vietnam for more than three years, with little indication that the war would end any time soon. As a result, public support for the war effort was decreasing across the country.
On the campaign trail during the summer of 1968, Agnew claimed that Nixon had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. By contrast, Agnew charged that Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey was incapable of winning the war in Vietnam. Humphrey had great difficulty overcoming these charges. After all, he had spent the past four years as vice president under President Lyndon Johnson (see entry), whose Vietnam policies had made him increasingly unpopular.
Defender of the Nixon administration
In the fall of 1968 Nixon and Agnew defeated the Democratic candidates of Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie to win the presidency and vice presidency of the United States. When Nixon and Agnew took office in early 1969, the president gave his vice president very little to do. Nixon and his advisors worried that Agnew did not possess the diplomatic or strategic instincts to be an effective member of the Nixon team, so they did not include him in some key policy discussions.
In the meantime, Nixon began withdrawing American troops from Vietnam. He was reluctant to leave Vietnam without gaining some sort of military or political victory, however, so he periodically increased other kinds of U.S. military operations in the region. These decisions generated great controversy across America, so Nixon launched a special public relations campaign to increase support for the administration's Vietnam policies. Agnew soon emerged as a leading figure in this campaign.
Beginning in late 1969 Agnew traveled around the country delivering speeches in which he defended the Nixon White House and blasted the administration's opponents. Agnew targeted antiwar activists and journalists for particularly tough treatment. He labeled antiwar protestors as "an effete [feminine and weak] corps of impudent [disrespectful] snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." At other times, he referred to members of the antiwar movement as "Communists" and "vultures" who transformed "honest concern" about the war into "something sick and rancid [decayed and offensive]." At one point, Agnew stated that the United States would be better off without the people who made up the antiwar movement. "We can . . . afford to separate them from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples from a barrel," he said. These attacks made him deeply hated within the antiwar movement. But they transformed Agnew into an immensely popular figure among conservative Americans who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Agnew also became well known in late 1969 and 1970 for his attacks on America's news media. He claimed that U.S. journalists purposely provided negative coverage of the war because they opposed it. He charged that the media was "a small and unelected elite" that did not represent the views of ordinary Americans. These speeches further added to Agnew's popularity among conservatives.
Agnew's political career crashes
Agnew's willingness to attack groups that Nixon disliked made him a valuable asset to the White House. Nixon appreciated Agnew's campaigning because he knew that the vice president's speeches aroused greater support for his policies among conservatives. In fact, Agnew became so effective that Nixon at one point instructed White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman to "keep building and using him" against the administration's political enemies. Still, Nixon's confidence in Agnew's abilities remained low. In fact, Nixon considered dumping his vice president in favor of someone else on a number of occasions, though he never went through with it.
Agnew continued to act as the Nixon administration's primary spokesperson on war-related issues throughout 1970 and 1971. He also regularly campaigned on behalf of Republican candidates during the congressional elections of 1970. Throughout this period, Agnew remained an outspoken critic of antiwar protestors, journalists, and others who questioned administration policies.
In 1972 Nixon and Agnew were reelected to second terms, easily defeating Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern (see entry) and vice-presidential running mate Sargent Shriver. Since Nixon was forbidden by law from running for a third term as president, Agnew began making plans to succeed him in 1976, when the next presidential election would be held. But in the spring of 1973 Agnew learned that he was under investigation for accepting bribes during his years as governor of Maryland. The investigations centered on evidence that real estate developers had secretly paid Agnew thousands of dollars in exchange for valuable business contracts from the state.
Agnew called the charges "damned lies" and tried to rally public opinion to his side. But the American people gave most of their attention to the growing Watergate scandal. This scandal concerned the efforts of Nixon and several of his top aides to cover up a 1972 burglary of the Democratic campaign headquarters at Washington, D.C.'s Watergate hotel. Investigations into the burglary and cover-up eventually forced Nixon to resign from office in August 1974.
Agnew, meanwhile, was forced to resign after the Maryland bribery investigation turned up overwhelming evidence of illegal activity by the vice president. On October 10, 1973, Agnew appeared in court and pleaded no contest to a charge of income tax evasion. He received a $10,000 fine and three years of probation. Later that day, he submitted his resignation.
After leaving office, Agnew became an international business consultant. He continued to proclaim his innocence throughout the remainder of his life, despite the strong evidence against him. In his 1980 autobiography, Go Quietly . . . Or Else, he even claimed that he resigned because he worried that White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig might try to have him murdered if he stayed. Historians, though, dismiss this claim as ridiculous. In 1983 Agnew was forced to pay $268,000 to the state of Maryland as reimbursement and penalty for his illegal activities as governor.
Agnew died on September 18, 1996, of a previously undiagnosed case of acute leukemia, a fatal disease that attacks blood cells.
Agnew, Spiro. Go Quietly . . . or Else. New York: William Morrow, 1980.
Cohen, Richard M., and Jules Witcover. A Heartbeat Away: The Investigation and Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. New York: Viking Press, 1977.
Lukas, Anthony J. Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
Safire, William. Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Small, Melvin. Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1972. New York: Atheneum, 1973.