If it is true amid speculation that former President Trump will be indicted over the Stormy Daniels affair, a matter of which attracts more questions than strong opinion from me, we will be in uncharted waters. While Richard Nixon was rescued from such waters by Gerald Ford’s pardon and indeed no president or former president has been criminally prosecuted as of March 28, 2023, there has been a vice president who faced legal consequences for crimes. This would be Richard Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Theodore Agnew (1918-1996), whose rise was improbable and meteoric, and his fall was similarly astonishing.
The Rise of Agnew
After service in World War II, Agnew settled down, got married, and earned a law degree. This led to his start in politics in Maryland, which although historically Democratic, had something of a conservative surge in the 1950s. Agnew had switched from Democrat to Republican in 1946 and served as an aide to Congressman James Devereux and got an appointment to the Baltimore Board of Zoning Appeals. In 1962, he saw his opportunity for elected office as Baltimore County Executive because of a split in the Democratic Party organization and won the election. Agnew proved a moderate Republican who supported civil rights.
Agnew’s election victory in staunchly Democratic Baltimore was without doubt a fluke caused by party divisions, but it provided him with a sufficiently high profile to run for governor in 1966. He would again benefit from Democratic infighting as the Democratic primary had three candidates: Carlton R. Sickles, a liberal Congressman, Maryland Attorney General Thomas B. Finan, and George P. Mahoney. The conservatives in the Democratic Party went for Mahoney, and he won as the liberal vote was divided between Sickles and Finan. Mahoney was a perennial office-seeker who had repeatedly lost close contests in general elections, and he focused his campaign in opposition to open housing and residential desegregation. As a result, Agnew won with 49.5% of the vote, including 70% of the black vote. An independent candidate, Hyman Pressman, had also siphoned some of the liberal vote away.
Agnew continued to govern as a moderate as governor and had a good working relationship with the Democratic legislature. He succeeded in enacting tax reform, banning racial discrimination in housing covenants in new housing, and ending anti-miscegenation laws (Holden & Messitte, 3). However, in the wake of riots, including a deadly one in Baltimore, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Agnew read a group of Maryland civil rights leaders the “riot act” so to speak over their response to the rioting, which he saw as inadequate in quelling mob violence. This act put him on the national map, including for Richard Nixon. Nixon, to everyone’s surprise, picked him for vice president despite Agnew having backed Nelson Rockefeller’s candidacy. This pick, according to The Washington Post at the time, “may be the most eccentric political appointment since the Roman Emperor named his horse a consul” (Holden & Messitte, 3). The pick of Agnew was met for some time by the Humphrey campaign with “Spiro Who?”, but he didn’t remain a national unknown for long. He didn’t exactly relish his role given the political attacks he was now facing, and complained, “I was governor of Maryland, the brightest governor in the East. Then Richard Nixon picked me as his running mate and the next morning I’m the dumbest son of a bitch ever born” (Howe). However, Nixon saw an edge in picking Agnew. Agnew was from a border state and had a moderate record, and Nixon sought to appeal to moderates across the nation. As he wrote in his memoirs, “From a strictly political standpoint, Agnew fit perfectly with the strategy we had devised for the November election. With George Wallace in the race, I could not hope to sweep the South. It was absolutely necessary, therefore, to win the entire rimland of the South – the border states – as well as the states of the Midwest and West. Agnew fit the bill geographically, and as a political moderate he fit it philosophically” (Holden & Messitte, 3).
As vice president, Nixon didn’t give him much responsibility beyond that constitutionally mandated and he was out of the loop of major administration decisions. As Agnew himself noted in 1980, “I was never allowed to come close enough to participate directly with [Nixon] in any decision. Every time I want to see him and raised a subject for discussion, he would begin a rambling, time-consuming monologue. Then finally the phone would ring or [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman would come in, and there would be no time left for what I had really come to talk about…He preferred keeping his decision making within a very small group” (Holden & Messitte, 4). However, he gave Agnew an outsized role on the messaging front, having him be the “attack dog” of the Administration so to speak.
Agnew was publicly politically incorrect, and once referred to Polish American voters as “Polacks” and called a Japanese American newspaper reporter a “fat Jap” (Howe). He was also blessed with talented speechwriters in William Safire and Pat Buchanan, and he delivered a punch when he spoke at his intended targets. Conservative groups loved him for his rhetorical attacks on the media, on anti-war protestors, and others of the left. On November 13, 1969, he delivered a powerful speech written by Pat Buchanan regarding the power of the news media and media bias before a Republican audience in Des Moines, Iowa. In another speech written by Safire in which he castigated the media, he famously called them “nattering nabobs of negativism” and that “they have formed their own 4-H club – the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” (Remnick). He had words for opponents of American involvement in Vietnam too. They were “an effete corps of impudent snobs”, “ideological eunuchs”, “professional anarchists”, and “vultures who sit in trees” (Remnick). There was even some thought of Agnew running for president in 1976. However, by 1972 he was thinking of stepping down; Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon both claimed that Agnew was considering stepping down, and Nixon himself was seriously considering replacing him with Treasury Secretary John B. Connally (Holden & Messitte, 5).
The Kickback Kid
The politics of Baltimore and Maryland as a whole were frequently corrupt, and Agnew was far from the exception. It had become known in Baltimore County that any firm that wanted to land major contracts with the county had to pay kickbacks to Agnew, this would be to the tune of 3-5% of the contract (Howe). This scheme would continue with state contracts as governor and as vice president he steered contracts to businessmen who would pay him kickbacks. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a kickback, a kickback is classic form of corruption: a bribery and tax evasion scheme in which the recipient compels who they are paying to return a portion of money they get paid to supplement their income without that additional money being reported to the IRS. This practice was astonishingly common in Baltimore County, although not astonishing to those living in the county. Indeed, corruption in Agnew’s time in Maryland was unfortunately common: convicted of corruption during that time were the following Democrats: Senator Daniel J. Brewster, Agnew’s successor as Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson, Speaker of the House A. Gordon Boone, and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Samuel Green Jr. As a border state, Maryland was said to have “combined the worst of the Northern big-city machine with the worst of the Southern courthouse tradition” (Holden & Messitte, 2).
The U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland began an investigation into Agnew in 1973, and was prepared to charge him with failing to report $29,500 of income gained in 1967. Despite denying that he would resign if he was indicted to an audience of Republican women in Los Angeles less than two weeks before, he resigned on October 10, 1973, being the second vice president to do so (the first was John C. Calhoun, over disagreements on tariffs with President Jackson). The case against him was so damning that Agnew had agreed to resign and accepted a plea of nolo contendere (“no contest”) to a felony to get a fine of $10,000 and three years of probation. As journalist Richard Cohen noted, “This was a thoroughly corrupt man. He shook down everybody. He got a nickel a pack from the cigarette machines…He was shameless. Even to the point where he kept taking money as the vice-president” (Holden & Messitte, 7).
Aftermath – Trading on His Name and Anti-Semitism
Agnew’s record after office mainly consisted of business consulting, trading off whatever people thought his name could get them in influence. He also palled around with his friend Frank Sinatra and “spent his money on mistresses, sports cars, expensive gifts, jewelry and traveled with 21 secret service agents costing the taxpayer $5,000 a month” (Howe). Agnew also had a turn to literature, writing a novel titled “The Canfield Decision” in 1976, a story, funny enough, about a duplicitous vice president. His history after office really doesn’t paint him in any more of a favorable light than before. Agnew came to blame Jews for his downfall and in 1980 offered his services to Prince Fah’d of Saudi Arabia as a propagandist against American Jews, wanting $200,000 a year for three years for this purpose. His push to him was, “Since 1974, the Zionists have orchestrated a well-organized attack on me to use lawsuits to bleed me of my resources to continue my effort to inform the American people of their control of the media and other influential sectors of American society…I’ve taken every opportunity to speak out against the catastrophic US policies regarding Israel. This has spurred my Zionist enemies on to greater efforts. I need desperately your financial support so that I can continue to fight” (Krausz). Agnew had apparently not always been an anti-Semite. According to his former speechwriter William Safire (1976), “…his anti-Semitic cracks first began when the Jewish businessmen he had known in Baltimore County sought immunity by turning state’s evidence against him. He became embittered at a handful of Jews, which might well have turned him against Jews in general”.
Agnew also regretted the plea of “nolo contendere” and claimed his innocence in his memoirs. He also claimed without evidence that he bought a gun after learning that Nixon planned to have the CIA arrange his suicide. In 1981, Agnew was ordered to pay restitution for the bribes he received while governor, and in 1989 had the nerve to seek a tax deduction from the state of California, where he was living, on the $142,500 he had been ordered to pay (Ellis). Although Agnew and Nixon had not talked since his resignation, he attended his funeral. He stated, “I decided after 20 years of resentment to put it all aside” (Schmich). Agnew died on September 19, 1996, of undiagnosed acute leukemia.
Although I cannot judge Spiro T. Agnew anything but negatively overall, he had some positives in his career. He proved an able (albeit a bribe-taking) governor. His career was downright improbable, and he is a first and only for some groups, perhaps to their consternation should they be reading this. Agnew is the only person of Greek extraction and is the only Marylander to serve as vice president (no Marylander has been president). Honestly, although he was responsible for his own behavior and conduct in the taking of bribes, I get the feeling that this was how he understood the game to be played in a corrupt environment, and did so, not believing that consequences would fall on him for doing something seemingly commonplace. Hence, Agnew’s blaming of Jewish businessmen for turning to the Feds for arrangements that were seen by him and others as business as usual.
Ellis, V. (1989, April 4). $24,197 California Refund Sought: Agnew Wants Tax Break on Bribes He Returned. Los Angeles Times.
Holden, C.J. & Messitte, Z. (2006). Spiro Agnew and the Golden Age of Corruption in Maryland Politics: An Interview with Ben Bradlee and Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. The Occasional Papers of The Center for the Study of Democracy, 2(1).
Howe, C. (2020, December 8). Exclusive: How Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew ran America’s most brazen political scandal of bribery and extortion out of the White House – but it went unnoticed in the shadow of Watergate, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reveals in new book. The Daily Mail.
Krausz, Y. (2019, February 27). A High-Placed Anti-Semite and Saudi Money – What does the Spiro Agnew story mean? Ami Magazine.
Remnick, D. (2006, July 2). Nattering Nabobs. The New Yorker.
Safire, W. (1976, May 24). Spiro Agnew and the Jews. The New York Times.
Schmich, M. (1996, September 19). Making Up is Hard to do — Especially At a Funeral. Chicago Tribune.
Spiro Theodore Agnew: Television News Coverage. American Rhetoric.