Forty years ago this week, on October 10, 1973, the Vice President of the United States of America suddenly resigned his office. The resignation of Spiro Agnew was arranged as a secret confluence of two important events, carefully timed by government and criminal lawyers.
Two things had been pre-arranged to happen at 2 pm in two different cities, both without advance notice to the press. In Washington DC, Spiro Angew’s letter of resignation was delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In a downtown Baltimore courtroom, just a few city blocks from Spiro Agnew’s humble childhood home, the Vice President stood in court to accept a gentle plea bargain for accepting bribes in his previous capacity of Governor of Maryland. His demeanor, as the deal was struck, was said to be gruff but elegant. As it always was.
Spiro Agnew was one of the most famous, most loved and most hated Americans of his time, and the story of his spectacular rise and fall is dramatic and exciting. His fame and notoriety blazed and burned itself out in a hot five year span from the summer of 1968 to the autumn of 1973. During those years, he was the kind of divisive figure that Sarah Palin has more recently been, though their conservative personas were completely different: he was dapper, surly and brainy where Palin is casual, cheery and outdoorsy. But like Sarah Palin he was always larger than life, and absolutely magnetic on TV. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.
Richard Nixon picked Spiro Agnew from obscurity to be his running mate. Agnew had only recently risen to governor of Maryland following a career in real estate administration, and was unknown on the national stage when Nixon introduced him to the world in the summer of 1968. Nixon may have been attracted to Agnew as a pure and concentrated reflection of himself: a powerful quiet man, straight and unhip, self-made, a non-Ivy Leaguer, bull-headed but tightly disciplined, with working-class masculine hard-hat appeal.
Agnew eagerly contributed to the Nixon campaign and the early years of the Nixon presidency by amplifying Nixon’s conservative message with an aggressive, snarling demeanor. He was a deft speaker who knew how to strike chords with common folk, and he was capable of sparring intensely with the press corps over Vietnam, civil rights, student protests. He adopted a showy poetic style (with the help of Nixon speechwriters like William Safire and Pat Buchanan) and famously referred to the nation’s top journalists as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”, as “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, as “nattering nabobs of negativism”.
Let there be no mistake about this: Spiro Agnew was very popular. He was not well liked inside the DC beltway, but was a superstar all over square America, the #1 favorite of the Archie Bunker crowd. The Spiro Agnew wristwatch was a hot seller in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but despite its satirical caricature the wristwatch was worn by Agnew’s supporters, not his detractors.
For the USA’s down-to-earth conservative base, which was then called “the silent majority” and is today called “the Tea Party”, Agnew was even more of a hero than Nixon. Political experts of both parties worried that he was too much of a policy lightweight to ever be President (this is something else he has in common with Sarah Palin — both of them rose so quickly from local to state to national politics that neither ever gained the benefit of deep political experience). But it was clear that he’d have strong grassroots support if he ever tried.
Then came the fall, the gigantic fall.
Richard Nixon made Spiro Agnew a star, and then Nixon stole it all back. It was Nixon’s spectacular entanglement in the Watergate scandal in 1973 and 1974 that first led to Spiro Agnew’s fall, and then even added insult to injury by eclipsing Spiro Agnew’s historic fame. The Watergate story was so much bigger and juicier than the Agnew bribery scandal that it eventually stole from the Grecian sage of Baltimore even the legendary notoriety that a Vice President who resigns under the cloud of criminal prosecution would be expected to get. Agnew barely even earns the satisfaction of famous historic disgrace.
Nobody talks about Spiro Agnew anymore. I prepared for this 40th anniversary article by reading or rereading three books about him:
- White Knight: The Rise of Spiro Agnew by Jules Witcover
- A Heartbeat Away – The Investigation & Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew by Richard M. Cohen and Jules Witcover
- Go Quietly … Or Else by Spiro Agnew
The first two books were born within the Washington Post (young Richard Cohen, now a famous columnist, was apparently then trying to play Carl Bernstein to Jules Witcover’s Bob Woodward). The last is Agnew’s own anguished apologia, published in 1980.
All three books are currently out of print. No book about Spiro Agnew, as far as I can tell, is currently in print.
Why does history hit “erase” on some stories? There are no books about Spiro Agnew, no plays or movies, no funny t-shirts or Halloween masks. His poignant death in 1996 generated no coherent memorials.
Why has the United States of America chosen to forget everything about Spiro Agnew? I believe there may be a conspiracy of shame. We know that his prosecution and resignation do not stand the light of examination, and we cannot tell his story without admitting a deeply uncomfortable truth.
For all his unsavoriness — and, yes, Spiro Agnew was unsavory, and it would have been a disaster for the country if he ascended to the Presidency after Richard Nixon’s removal from office — it is a simple fact, difficult for any honest historian to dispute, that the Agnew bribery scandal was a sham, a show trial. Spiro Agnew was railroaded out of office. The broad justifications for removing him from office were probably good ones, but the legal mechanisms used to do so are embarrassing to our proud self-image as a constitutional republic.
The entire Watergate affair was a constitutional crisis, in that it pitted the Executive office against the rest of the government. When it became apparent, somewhere between the spring and autumn of 1973, that Richard Nixon would probably be forced from the presidency, the constitutional crisis expanded to include a crisis of succession. It would have been less of a crisis if Nixon’s Vice President had been even remotely well-liked within Washington DC, if he had picked a Vice President who was less controversial and less explosive than himself.
But Agnew was even more Nixon than Nixon, more of a hardliner on Vietnam, on race relations, on executive power. An Agnew presidency was the last thing the country needed after the catharsis of Watergate. Something had to be done.
The only comparable crisis of succession in American history followed Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, when the southern sympathizer Andrew Johnson suddenly became President. Probably an Agnew presidency would have led to a similar march to impeachment, and the nation would certainly have survived the trauma. But Andrew Johnson’s succession could not have been avoided because it happened suddenly. Agnew’s path to the presidency developed slowly as Watergate progressed, and this gave the powerful forces in American government plenty of time to conjure up a slick way to knock the neophyte out.
The crime itself? Yes, Agnew was certainly guilty of continuing a long tradition of graft and corruption while he was County Executive of Baltimore County and Governor of Maryland. He personally accepted inappropriate payments from architectural and engineering firms while selecting these firms for government contracts, and shamefully even continued to accept questionable payments after he became Vice President of the United States. His guilt is evident, but it was also business as usual for county and state government. Agnew did not innovate new forms of graft, or increase the amount of graft, or make himself grossly wealthy at the expense of taxpayers.
The process of selecting architectural and engineering firms for county and state work was sleazy, but there is no evidence that the building projects these firms worked on were inferior, or that other building firms lost contracts for failing to offer political gifts. That couldn’t have happened, because all the building firms in Baltimore County and Maryland knew that they had to grease palms to get contracts. That’s how it was before Agnew was in power, while he was in power, and (probably) after he was in power.
We don’t really need to grapple with the question of whether Agnew was guilty (he was) in order to determine whether or not he was railroaded out of office. The question is, would these criminal charges have emerged if not for the Watergate mess and the sudden necessity to block Agnew from the succession? If they had emerged, would the Vice President have been helpless to prevent the Department of Justice from proceeding with the criminal charges in normal circumstances?
The answer, I think, is clear. The bribery scandal that eventually became the Spiro Agnew scandal would have fizzled out far below the level of the federal Executive office in normal circumstances. Look at it this way: the crimes Agnew was charged with all occurred before he was elected Vice President in 1968. Why wasn’t it until 1973 that the county/state bribery scandal suddenly became so urgent to federal prosecutors?
This is the first of two articles I plan to present this week about the fascinating legacy of Spiro Agnew, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his fall. The next article will be a summary and review of the three books I mention above, and will provide me an opportunity to provide more juicy details about the bribery scandal and the criminal prosecution that followed, and to elaborate on the argument I’m making here.
I find Spiro Agnew appalling as a political figure, and am not at all sympathetic to his leadership style or his principles (the more I learn about his life story, though, the more I find myself charmed by his unique personality). My motivation in arguing that Spiro Agnew was railroaded out of office on trumped-up charges is mainly in pointing out the many ways we manipulate history to please our conceits, and fail to apprehend historical facts in plain sight.
Why are there no books about Spiro Agnew? Why is his story so little known? I think it’s because we hate to face up to our own national hypocrisies, and the removal of Spiro Agnew from office was a shameful lapse of justice — conducted for all the right reasons.
President Spiro Agnew succeeding President Richard Nixon would have been a disaster, and I don’t regret that he was shoved aside. But we also need to get the truth out about the way he was shoved aside. We had the national catharsis of Watergate, but we never had the catharsis of facing up to what we did to Nixon’s Vice President. It’s time for all of us to talk about Spiro Agnew.