Sept. 11, 2011
Spiro Agnew resigned as vice-president in 1973 when he pleaded “no contest” for income tax evasion. How he got to be vice-president is stranger than how he fell.
Most people familiar with the Watergate period in the 1970′s remember that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned in disgrace several months before President Richard M. Nixon did.
Agnew pleaded no contest to one count of income tax evasion and served no prison time. In exchange for the plea and resignation from office, federal prosecutors dropped a host of charges, including accepting bribes, extortion, and other kinds of official corruption.
No serving vice-president had ever been charged with a felony, but it’s not terribly unusual for lesser politicians to commit crimes and suffer consequences. The really strange story is how Agnew got to be vice-president.
How Agnew Became Maryland Governor
Agnew was elected governor of Maryland in 1966 because the Democrats nominated a blatant segregationist, George P. Mahoney, in a primary with eight candidates. In Maryland at that time, a Democratic nomination for anything practically guaranteed election in November. The segregationist won with less than 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Agnew got elected as a progressive, pro-civil rights Republican. All the decent people in Maryland — the clergy, newspapers, business community, civil rights groups, Jews and other educated middle-class voters, and the black community — raced to support Agnew against the racist. They didn’t know much about Agnew except that he was not Mahoney.,
In this election, the dominant issue was a state law against discrimination in housing. A liberal congressman was for it. The hand-picked candidate of the state Democratic machine was non-committal, and Mahoney posted billboards everywhere — “Your Home is Your Castle; Protect it.”
Agnew ran a name recognition campaign, and waited to see who would be running against him. Agnew was unknown outside Baltimore County, and not well known even to county residents. Like many suburban voters everywhere, new residents of Baltimore County paid little attention to local government.
Agnew was in his first term as county executive (like a mayor) of Baltimore County, which surrounds, but does not include, Baltimore City.
After World War II, Baltimore County grew like crazy as returning GI’s used their veterans benefits to buy newly-built homes in the suburbs. The growth was accelarated as white Baltimoreans fled to the all-white suburbs, away from the increasingly black city.
With all those housing developments springing up, and roads being built to connect them to each other and the city, builders spent a lot of money to buy state and local politicians, who were practically all Democrats. In fact, there was an organized conspiracy, where developers funneled money to a few collectors, who distributed them to politicians, according to their rank and influence.
As county executive, Agnew got a share. As governor, he got a much bigger share. The pad existed before Agnew went into politics, and it stayed after he left Maryland for national politics. His Democratic successor as governor was indicted in the same anti-corruption sweep that caught Agnew.
Agnew Supports Nelson Rockefeller for President
The race for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1968 was between Richard Nixon and New York’s liberal governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Ronald Reagan had been California governor for only two years and was considered a rising star. Many Republican hearts were with Reagan, but the party had nominated a conservative like Reagan, Barry Goldwater, in 1964. Lyndon Johnson got two-thirds of the vote, and veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress.
Reagan did not declare for the 1968 nomination until a few weeks before the national convention. The delegates wanted to nominate him, but Nixon had done too many favors for too many delegates through his whole career, and they nominated him.
Rockefeller also delayed declaring for President, but moderate Republicans like Agnew thought Rockefeller had the best chance of getting elected. Agnew started a “draft Rockefeller” campaign to convince the reluctant governor to run, or have him drafted by delegates at the convention.
In one of the greatest acts of political bad manners in U.S. history, Rockefeller held a news conference declaring he would not accept a draft for the nomination under any circumstances. He did not warn Agnew, and Agnew was publicly humiliate3d.
Rockefeller finally declared, much too late, and tried to win the nomination by bombarding delegates with polling data saying he was the only Republican who could win the election.
Agnew meanwhile was taking a second look at supporting Nixon.
The Martin Luther King Riots
In April, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and riots broke out in many cities, including Baltimore. Baltimore had a large, articulate, moderate black leadership. Agnew called them all into a room, on live TV, and blasted them for not stopping the violence. The black leaders walked out, but Agnew started receiving letters of congratulation and support from around the country. He thought maybe he had a future as a leader of the “white backlash,” as it was called then.
Rogers CB Morton
Agnew had a political ally in Nixon’s inner circle. Maryland’s only Republican congressman, Rogers CB Morton from the Eastern Shore. He convinced Nixon to let Agnew give the nominating speech at the convention.
Then, Morton, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Nixon’s floor manager at the 1968 convention, convinced the inner circle to give Agnew the vice presidential nomination. Someone in the inner circle objected to every possible runningmate, but nobody objected to Agnew because nobody knew anything about him.
Morton served as Secretary of the Interior under Nixon and President Gerald Ford. Ford, who had served with Morton in Congress, relied heavily on Morton for advice on all domestic issues.
Vice President Agnew
As vice-president, Agnew became Nixon’s attack dog, delivering highly publicized speeches denouncing liberals, protestors, and their supporters in the media. Nixon’s most conservative speech writer, Patrick J. Buchanan, wrote those speeches, and coined unforgettable phrases like ”nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Vice-President Nixon had been attack dog for the grandfatherly, above-the-fray President Dwight Eisenhower. Vice Presidents Nixon and Agnew were highly controversial, polarizing figures, like Sarah Palin today.
Right before Agnew was indicted and resigned, he made a fighting speech to a wildly cheering Republican audience, saying he would not resign if indicted.
Agnew’s Final Act
The final act of the Agnew story was told to journalist Jimmy Breslin by Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill for Breslin’s Watergate book How the Good Guys Finally Won. O’Neill was majority leader of the U.S. House when Nixon and Agnew resigned.
O’Neill told Breslin that Agnew appealed to the House leadership to get this vindictive, runaway U.S. Attroney off his back, that prosecuting a sitting vice-president was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers. Only Congress could investigate a vice-president through the impeachment process, Agnew said.
O’Neill told Breslin House Speaker Carl Albert was leaning in Agnew’s direction, getting ready to take the Agnew investigation to a House committee. O’Neill broke in and said he was opposed to this. All they had was Agnew’s word that he was the innocent victim of a vindictive prosecutor. O’Neill had known U.S. Attorney Glenn Beall’s father. Glenn Beall, Sr, served as Maryland’s U.S. Senator from 1952 yo 1964.– a moderate Eisenhower Republican.
O’Neill did not accept Agnew’s word that the Republican son of Sen. Beall would vindictively abuse his power to go after a Republican vice-president.
O’Neill’s real agenda, he told Breslin, was keeping Congress focused on impeaching President Nixon. O’Neill had been quietly building support for impeachment since the 1972 Presidential election. An Agnew investigation would delay impeachment until after the 1974 election, possibly forever.
It turned out that Beall was investigating all the Maryland politicians, practically all Democrats, who were part of the conspiracy to take money from developers. O’Neill later told Breslin, “I don’t want anybody to go to the can. I’m not like that. But he acted like it was our duty to believe him.”
When Gerald Ford was nominated to replace Agnew as vice-president, a Nixon cabinet member approached O’Neill at the reception saying, “Isn’t it exciting, seeing the 26th Amendment work for the first time. I guess we won’t see anything like this any time soon.”
“Not for about nine months,” O’Neill replied. Breslin writes that the official left with lead in his stormach, Sacrificing Agnew would not end Watergate, or distract Congress from impeaching the President.
Eisenberg, Gerson G. Marylanders Who Served the Nation. Annapolis, MD: Maryland State Archives, 1992.
Kurlansky, Mark, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, 2005, Random House Trade Paperback, 480 pages
Breslin, Jimmy, How the Good Guys Finally Won, 1975, Ballantine Books
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.