Between the time of his nomination as Richard Nixon's running mate in August 1968 to his resignation in October 1973, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (1918-1996) was a leading spokesman for those Nixon called "The Silent Majority" of Americans. The charge of bribe-taking, which forced Agnew's resignation from office, preceded by less than one year President Nixon's own resignation.
Spiro Theodore Agnew was born November 9, 1918, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Greek immigrant restaurant owner Theodore S. Anagnostopoulous and a Virginia-born widow named Margaret Akers. The family surname went through two changes after it left Gargaliani, Greece, metamorphosing from Anagnostopoulous to Aganost before arriving at Agnew. The elder Agnew lost his business during the Depression, but had restored his fortunes by the time his son was ready for high school. Agnew attended public schools in Baltimore before enrolling in Johns Hopkins University in 1937, where he studied chemistry. He was, in his own words, a "typical middle class youth" who spoke and wrote very well, gaining experience writing speeches for his father's many appearances before civic, ethnic, and community groups.
After three years of studying chemistry Ted Agnew transferred to law school at the University of Baltimore, where he attended night classes. He supported himself by working for an insurance company, where he met his future wife "Judy," Elinor Isabel Judefind.
Service in Two Wars
In September of 1941 Agnew became one of the early draftees in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's peace time Selective Service System. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Agnew was sent to Fort Knox to train as a tank officer. He married Judy after graduation in May 1942. Sent to the European theater, Agnew commanded a tank company in the 10th Armored Division, won the Bronze Star, took part in the Battle of the Bulge, and was discharged a captain.
He returned to civilian life with the great wave of hundreds of thousands of veterans seeking to recover their old lives or build new ones. The first of four children was born to Agnew and his wife in 1946, spurring Agnew to complete his interrupted legal studies in 1947. He had a good job with an insurance company and had just purchased a new home in Baltimore County when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Abruptly recalled to active duty for a year, he lost both his income and his home.
Successful Legal Career
Mustered out a second time, Agnew joined the lower management levels of a Baltimore supermarket chain. He was not only a skillful personnel manager, but developed a friendship with Judge Herbert Moser, who served on the company's board of directors. Moser helped him make connections, and soon Agnew's legal career took off.
Agnew had all the attributes of the successful American attorney. He was articulate, persuasive, flexible, knowledgeable, confident, well-groomed, and energetic. As clients became more numerous, the growing Agnew family prospered.
Entrance into Politics
Despite his growing law practice, or perhaps because of a desire to expand it, Agnew became involved in Baltimore County local politics. His father was a well-connected Democrat, and Agnew registered as a Democrat early in his adult life. A friend and associate, Judge E. Lester Barrett, persuaded him to switch to the Republican party where he began working for local and national campaigns. In 1957 he served his first public office when he was appointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals of Baltimore County. In 1960 he ran his first campaign, for associate circuit judge. Although he lost that election, the next year saw him winning the seat of Baltimore county executive, the first Republican to do so in seventy years.
His run as county executive was generally considered to be very successful, and he gained a popular following which served him well when he ran for governor of Maryland in 1966 and won. He ran against Democratic civil rights hard-liner and millionaire contractor, George Mahoney. Notwithstanding the overwhelming Democratic edge in registration, Agnew captured half of the votes, defeating Mahoney 453,000 to 371,000.
Turn to the Right
Governor Agnew proved to be a progressive, urban-oriented executive with moderate civil rights leanings and liberal credentials. While in office he passed tax reform, increased funding for anti-poverty programs, passed legislation removing barriers to public housing, repealed a law banning interracial marriage, spoke out against the death penalty, passed a more liberal abortion law, and drafted the nation's toughest clean water legislation. However, around the time of the urban riots and the rise of the anti-war movement in 1968, the tone and tolerance of Agnew's administration began to undergo alteration. He began arresting civil rights demonstrators, speaking harshly against the rising waves of protest, encouraging a sharp increase in police powers and the use of the military in civil disturbances.
At the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami Beach, Agnew was persuaded to place Richard Nixon's name in nomination. When Nixon won the nomination he accepted Agnew as his running mate. A key sentence uttered by Agnew in his vice presidential acceptance speech was, "I fully recognize that I am an unknown quantity to many of you." In truth, as the governor of a small southern state he was relatively unknown within the party. Former Vice President Nixon wanted someone who was a Southerner, an ethnic American, an experienced executive, a civil rights moderate, a proven Republican vote-getter with appeal to Democrats, and a law and order advocate. Agnew fit all these qualifications.
Agnew's strengths generally helped the ticket, although several of his racially offensive gaffs created momentary fears about the wisdom of the choice. The Nixon-Agnew victory over Humphrey-Muskie was close yet clear cut, with a half million popular votes separating victors and losers.
Vice President—and Resignation
As vice president, Agnew was assigned a then-unprecedented office in the White House and was urged to help shape federal-state policies and other domestic matters. He learned his job quickly, making up for a lack of foreign and national experience by attacking administration opponents through attention-getting speeches. Relying on a crack team of writers led by William Safire, Patrick Buchanan, and Cynthia Rosenwald, the vice president became noted for coining phrases, lashing out against college radicals, dissident intellectuals, American permissiveness, and a "liberal" media elite. In New Orleans on October 19, 1969, he lamented that "a spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." At the Ohio State graduation ceremony of June 1969 he characterized the older generation's leadership as the "sniveling hand-wringing power structure." With these and similar speeches Agnew became widely known and much sought after as a speaker. The media became attracted to him and gave him considerable attention.
Resigning In Disgrace
Agnew won renomination to Nixon's team in 1972 and undoubtedly contributed to the overwhelming victory over McGovern-Shriver in that year. However, early into his second term he was advised that he was under investigation by federal prosecutors looking into allegations that he had regularly solicited and accepted bribes during his tenure as county executive and Maryland governor. As the cloud of Watergate began to envelope Richard Nixon and the presidency, the situation became increasingly untenable.
This intolerable political situation developed into an intricate plea bargaining process. As a result, federal authorities produced Agnew's "nolo contendere" plea of October 1, 1973. He pleaded no contest in Federal court to one misdemeanor charge of income tax evasion and was fined $10,000 and put on probation for three years. He was also forced to resign his office. His legal expenses, fines and other fees, totaling $160,000, were paid by his good friend Frank Sinatra. He was disbarred by the state of Maryland in 1974. The second of America's vice presidents to resign (John C. Calhoun had done so the previous century), Agnew was the only one to quit under a cloud of scandal.
After retreating from politics Agnew rearranged his life with considerable resiliency, becoming an international business consultant and the owner of several lucrative properties in Palm Springs, California, and in Maryland. He also wrote a best selling novel, The Canfield Decision (1986), and a book defending his record, Go Quietly … Or Else (1980), in which he suggests that Richard Nixon and Alexander Haig had planned his assassination if he refused to leave his post. In 1981 he was sued by three citizens of Maryland who sought to have the money he had reportedly received illegally from the state returned. After a few years of legal maneuvers the citizens won their case and Agnew had to reimburse $248,735 to the state coffers.
Agnew died of leukemia on September 17, 1996, at the age of 77.
Further Reading on Spiro Theodore Agnew
The key to Spiro Agnew's importance to America lies in his speeches, which take up a good part of John R. Coyne, Jr.'s The Impudent Snobs (1972). Other collections are found in Spiro T. Agnew, Frankly Speaking (1970). Early biographies by Jim G. Lucas, Agnew Profile in Conflict (1970), and Robert Curran, Spiro Agnew: Spokesman For America (1970), shed light on Agnew's pre-vice-presidential career. His own book, Go Quietly … Or Else (1980), alleged his innocence of the charges that drove him from the office of vice-president.