A little over a week ago, I took a rather unusual step for a Vice President . . . I said something. —Spiro Agnew
On November 13, 1969, Vice President Spiro Agnew became a household word when he vehemently denounced television news broadcasters as a biased "unelected elite" who subjected President Richard M. Nixon's speeches to instant analysis. The president had a right to communicate directly with the people, Agnew asserted, without having his words "characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics." Agnew raised the possibility of greater government regulation of this "virtual monopoly," a suggestion that the veteran television newscaster Walter Cronkite took as "an implied threat to freedom of speech in this country." But Agnew's words rang true to those whom Nixon called the Silent Majority. From then until he resigned in 1973, Agnew remained an outspoken and controversial figure, who played traveling salesman for the administration. In this role, Spiro Agnew was both the creation of Richard Nixon and a reflection of his administration's siege mentality.
The son of a Greek immigrant whose name originally was Anagnostopoulos, Spiro Theodore Agnew was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 9, 1918. He attended public schools and went to Johns Hopkins University in 1937 to study chemistry, before transferring to the University of Baltimore Law School, where he studied law at night while working at a grocery and an insurance company during the day. In 1942 he married a fellow insurance company employee, Elinor Isabel Judefind, known to all as Judy. Drafted into the army during World War II, he won a Bronze Star for his service in France and Germany. He returned to school on the GI Bill of Rights, received his law degree in 1947, practiced law in a Baltimore firm, and eventually set up his own law practice in the Baltimore suburb of Towson.
Remaking His Image
Moving from city to suburb, Agnew remade his own image. When he recalled the ethnic slurs he suffered about "Spiro" while a school boy, he now called himself "Ted" and vowed that none of his children would have Greek names. Agnew similarly changed party affiliations. Although his father was a Baltimore Democratic ward leader and Agnew had first registered as a Democrat, his law partners were Republicans and he joined their party. In 1957 the Democratic county executive of Baltimore County appointed him to the board of zoning appeals. In 1960 Agnew made his first race for elective office, running for associate circuit judge, and coming in fifth in a five-person contest. In 1961, when a new county executive dropped him from the zoning board, Agnew protested vigorously and in so doing built his name recognition in the county. The following year he ran for county executive. A bitter split in the Democratic party helped make him the first Republican elected Baltimore County executive in the twentieth century. In office he established a relatively progressive record, and in 1966, when nominated as the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland, Agnew positioned himself to the left of his Democratic challenger, George Mahoney. An arch segregationist, Mahoney adopted the campaign slogan, "Your Home Is Your Castle—Protect It," which only drove liberal Democrats into Agnew's camp. Charging Mahoney with racial bigotry, Agnew captured the liberal suburbs around Washington and was elected governor.
It came as a shock to Agnew's liberal supporters when as governor he took a more hard-line conservative stance on racial matters than he had during the campaign. Early in 1968, students at the predominantly African American Bowie State College occupied the administration building to protest the run-down condition of their campus—at a time when Maryland essentially ran separate college systems for black and white students. Instead of negotiating, Agnew sent the state police to take back the administration building. When the students went to Annapolis to protest, Agnew ordered their arrest and had the college temporarily closed down. Then in April, when riots broke out in Baltimore following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Governor Agnew summoned black leaders to his office. Rather than appeal for their help, he castigated them for capitulating to radical agitators. "You were intimidated by veiled threats," Agnew charged, "you were stung by . . . epithets like `Uncle Tom.'" Half of the black leaders walked out before he finished speaking. "He talked to us like we were children," one state senator complained. The incident dramatically reversed Agnew's public image, alienating his liberal supporters and raising his standing among conservatives.
On the national scene, Agnew formed a committee to draft New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller for president in 1968. In March, during his weekly press conference, Agnew watched on television what he expected would be Rockefeller's declaration of candidacy. Without warning, Rockefeller withdrew from the contest, humiliating Agnew in front of the press corps. Rockefeller later jumped back into the race, but by then Agnew had moved toward the frontrunner, Richard Nixon. When polls showed none of the better-known Republicans adding much as Nixon's running mate, Nixon surprised everyone—as he liked to do—by selecting the relatively unknown Agnew. "Spiro who?" asked the pundits, who considered Agnew unqualified for national office. Despite such doubts, Nixon saw much promise in his choice. "There can be a mystique about the man," Nixon assured reporters. "You can look him in the eyes and know he's got it."
Nixon expected Agnew to appeal to white southerners and others troubled by the civil rights movement and recent rioting in the cities. Attention shifted from this issue during the campaign, however, when Agnew made a number of gaffes, including some ethnic slurs and an accusation that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, was soft on communism. Agnew also encountered allegations of having profited financially from his public office, charges that he flatly denied. Agnew's biggest problem was that he seemed so ordinary and unremarkable. A tall, stiff, bullet-headed man and the sort of fastidious dresser who never removed his tie in public, he tended to speak in a deadening monotone. Whether he helped or hurt the campaign is not clear, but in November the Nixon-Agnew ticket won a razor-thin victory over the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey and the independent candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace.
Learning the Constraints of the Office
Although Nixon had chosen a running mate who would not outshine him, he had pledged to give his vice president a significant policy-making role and—for the first time—an office in the West Wing of the White House. Nixon also encouraged Agnew to use his position as presiding officer of the Senate to get to know the members of Congress in order to serve as their liaison with the White House, and Agnew enthusiastically charged up Capitol Hill. Having had no previous legislative experience, he wanted to master the techniques of presiding over the Senate. For the first months of his vice-presidency, he met each morning with the Senate parliamentarian, Floyd Riddick, to discuss parliamentary procedures and precedents. "He took pride in administering the oath to the new senators by never having to refer to a note," Riddick observed. "He would study and memorize these things so that he could perform without reading." According to Riddick, at first Agnew presided more frequently than had any vice president since Alben Barkley.
"I was prepared to go in there and do a job as the President's representative in the Senate," said Agnew, who busily learned to identify the senators by name and face. Yet he quickly discovered the severe constraints on his role as presiding officer. Agnew had prepared a four-minute speech to give in response to a formal welcome from Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. When Mansfield moved that the vice president be given only two minutes to reply, Agnew felt "it was like a slap in the face." The vice president also unwittingly broke precedent by trying to lobby on the Senate floor. During the debate over the ABM (Anti-Ballistic-Missile) Treaty, Agnew approached Idaho Republican Senator Len Jordan and asked how he was going to vote. "You can't tell me how to vote!" said the shocked senator. "You can't twist my arm!" At the next luncheon of Republican senators, Jordan accused Agnew of breaking the separation of powers by lobbying on the Senate floor, and announced the "Jordan Rule," whereby if the vice president tried to lobby him on anything, he would automatically vote the other way. "And so," Agnew concluded from the experience, "after trying for a while to get along with the Senate, I decided I would go down to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and try playing the Executive game."
The vice president fit in no better at the White House than at the Capitol. Nixon's highly protective staff concluded that Agnew had no concept of his role, especially in relation to the president. Nixon found their few private meetings dismaying because of Agnew's "constant self-aggrandizement." Nixon told his staff that as vice president he rarely had made any requests of President Dwight Eisenhower. "But Agnew's visits always included demands for more staff, better facilities, more prerogatives and perquisites." The anticipated use of Agnew as a conduit to the nation's mayors and governors floundered when it became apparent that Agnew did nothing more than pass their gripes along to the president. When Agnew protested that Nixon did not see enough of his cabinet, Nixon grumbled that his vice president had become an advocate for all the "crybabies" in the cabinet who wanted to plead their special causes. Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman took Agnew aside and advised him that "the President does not like you to take an opposite view at a cabinet meeting, or say anything that can be construed to be mildly not in accord with his thinking."
Nixon appointed Agnew head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council but again found the vice president more irritant than asset. In April 1969, while at Camp David, Nixon summoned Haldeman to complain that the vice president had telephoned him simply to lobby for a candidate for director of the Space Council. "He just has no sensitivity, or judgment about his relationship" with the president, Haldeman noted. After Agnew publicly advocated a space shot to Mars, Nixon's chief domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman, tried to explain to him the facts of fiscal life:
Look, Mr. Vice President, we have to be practical. There is no money for a Mars trip. The President has already decided that. So the President does not want such a trip in the [Space Council's] recommendations. It's your job . . . to make absolutely certain that the Mars trip is not in there.
From such experiences, the White House staff concluded that Agnew was not a "Nixon team player."
Throughout his first term, President Nixon was preoccupied with the war in Vietnam. By the fall of 1969, Nixon came to the unhappy conclusion that there would be no quick solution in Vietnam and that it would steadily become his war rather than Lyndon Johnson's. On November 3, Nixon delivered a television address to the nation in which he called for public support for the war until the Communists negotiated an honorable peace. Public reaction to the speech was generally positive, but the Nixon family was "livid with anger" over the critical commentary by various network broadcasters. Nixon feared that the "constant pounding from the media and our critics in Congress" would eventually undermine his public support. As president he wanted to follow the Eisenhower model of remaining above the fray and to use Agnew for the kind of hatchet work that he himself had done for Ike. When his speech writer Pat Buchanan proposed that the vice president give a speech attacking network commentators, Nixon liked the idea. H.R. Haldeman went to discuss the proposed speech with the vice president, who was interested "but felt it was a bit abrasive." Nevertheless, the White House staff believed the message needed to be delivered, "and he's the one to do it."
Agnew already had some hard-hitting speeches under his belt. On October 20, 1969, at a dinner in Jackson, Mississippi, he had attacked "liberal intellectuals" for their "masochistic compulsion to destroy their country's strength." On October 30 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he called student radicals and other critics of the war "impudent snobs." On November 11 in Philadelphia he decried the "intolerant clamor and cacophony" that raged in society. Then, on November 13 in Des Moines, Iowa, he gave Buchanan's blast at the network news media. Haldeman recorded in his diary that, as the debate on Agnew mounted, the president was "fully convinced he's right and that the majority will agree." The White House sent word for the vice president "to keep up the offensive, and to keep speaking," noting that he was now a "major figure in his own right." The vice president had become "Nixon's Nixon."
Agnew relished the attention showered upon him. He had been frustrated with his assignment as liaison with the governors and mayors, and dealing with taxation, health, and other substantive issues had required tedious study. By contrast, he found speechmaking much more gratifying. As John Ehrlichman sourly noted, Agnew "could take the texts prepared in the President's speechwriting shop, change a phrase here and there, and hit the road to attack the effete corps of impudent snobs." His colorful phrases, like "nattering nabobs of negativism," and "radiclibs" (for radical liberals) were compiled and published as "commonsense quotations." "I have refused to `cool it'—to use the vernacular," Agnew declared, "until the self-righteous lower their voice a few decibels. . . . I intend to be heard over the din even if it means raising my voice."
The Agnew Upsurge
The "Agnew upsurge" fascinated President Nixon, who took it as evidence that a new conservative coalition could be built between blue-collar ethnic voters and white-collar suburbanites. Nixon believed that Agnew was receiving increasing press coverage because his attacks on the media "forced them to pay attention." When some of his advisers wanted to put Agnew out in front in opposition to expanded school desegregation, Nixon hesitated because he did not want to "dilute or waste the great asset he has become." By March 1970, the relationship between the president and vice president reached its apex when the two appeared for an amusing piano duet at the Gridiron Club. No matter what tunes Nixon tried to play, Agnew would drown him out with "Dixie," until they both joined in "God Bless America" as a finale.
As the strains of their duet faded, Nixon began having second thoughts and concluded that he needed to "change the Agnew approach." He informed Haldeman that the vice president had become a better salesman for himself than for the administration, emerging as "too much of an issue and a personality himself." That month, when the Apollo XIII astronauts had to abort their mission and return to earth, Haldeman worked frantically to keep Agnew from flying to Houston and upstaging the president. Agnew sat in his plane on the runway for over an hour until Nixon finally canceled the trip. "VP mad as hell," Haldeman noted, "but agreed to follow orders." In May 1970, after National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State University, Nixon cautioned Agnew not to say anything provocative about students. Word leaked out that the president was trying to muzzle his vice president. The next time Buchanan prepared "a hot new Agnew speech," Nixon felt more leery than before.
By the summer of 1970, Nixon pondered how best to use Agnew in that fall's congressional elections. The president himself wanted to remain remote from partisanship and limit his speaking to foreign policy issues while Agnew stumped for candidates. Nixon worried that, if Agnew continued to appear an unreasonable figure, using highly charged rhetoric, he might hurt rather than help the candidates for whom he campaigned. "Do you think Agnew's too rough?" Nixon asked John Ehrlichman one day. "His style isn't the problem, it's the content of what he says. He's got to be more positive. He must avoid all personal attacks on people; he can take on Congress as a unit, not as individuals." Some Republican candidates even asked Agnew to stay out of their states. As the campaign progressed, Agnew's droning on about law and order diminished his impact. Nixon felt compelled to abandon his presidential aloofness and enter the campaign himself, barnstorming around the country, as Attorney General John Mitchell complained, like a man "running for sheriff." The disappointing results of the midterm elections—Republicans gained two seats in the Senate but lost a dozen in the House—further shook Nixon's confidence in Agnew.
The Number One Hawk
In 1971 the president devoted most of his attention to foreign policy, planning his historic visit to China, a summit in Moscow, and continued peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris. The vice president went abroad for a series of good-will tours and ached for more involvement in foreign policy—an area that Nixon reserved exclusively for himself and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Nixon preferred that Agnew limit himself to attacking the media to "soften the press" for his foreign policy initiatives. He decided to keep the vice president out of all substantive policy decisions, since Agnew seemed incapable of grasping the big picture. For his part, Agnew complained that he was "never allowed to come close enough" to Nixon to participate in any policy discussions. "Every time I went to see him and raised a subject for discussion," the vice president later wrote, "he would begin a rambling, time-consuming monologue."
Agnew, who described himself as the "number-one hawk," went so far as to criticize Nixon's "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" with the People's Republic of China. The dismayed president considered Agnew "a bull in the . . . diplomatic China shop." Nixon had H.R. Haldeman lecture the vice president on the importance of using the China thaw to "get the Russians shook." "It is beyond my understanding," Nixon told Ehrlichman. "Twice Agnew has proposed that he go to China! Now he tells the world it's a bad idea for me to go! What am I going to do about him?"
The Connally Alternative
By mid-1971, Nixon concluded that Spiro Agnew was not "broad-gauged" enough for the vice-presidency. He constructed a scenario by which Agnew would resign, enabling Nixon to appoint Treasury Secretary John Connally as vice president under the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. By appealing to southern Democrats, Connally would help Nixon create a political realignment, perhaps even replacing the Republican party with a new party that could unite all conservatives. Nixon rejoiced at news that the vice president, feeling sorry for himself, had talked about resigning to accept a lucrative offer in the private sector. Yet while Nixon excelled in daring, unexpected moves, he encountered some major obstacles to implementing this scheme. John Connally was a Democrat, and his selection might offend both parties in Congress, which under the Twenty-fifth Amendment had to ratify the appointment of a new vice president. Even more problematic, John Connally did not want to be vice president. He considered it a "useless" job and felt he could be more effective as a cabinet member. Nixon responded that the relationship between the president and vice president depended entirely on the personalities of whoever held those positions, and he promised Connally they would make it a more meaningful job than ever in its history, even to the point of being "an alternate President." But Connally declined, never dreaming that the post would have made him president when Nixon was later forced to resign during the Watergate scandal.
Nixon concluded that he would not only have to keep Agnew on the ticket but must publicly demonstrate his confidence in the vice president. He recalled that Eisenhower had tried to drop him in 1956 and believed the move had only made Ike look bad. Nixon viewed Agnew as a general liability, but backing him could mute criticism from "the extreme right." Attorney General John Mitchell, who was to head the reelection campaign, argued that Agnew had become "almost a folk hero" in the South and warned that party workers might see his removal as a breach of loyalty. As it turned out, Nixon won reelection in 1972 by a margin wide enough to make his vice-presidential candidate irrelevant.
Immediately after his reelection, however, Nixon made it clear that Agnew should not become his eventual successor. The president had no desire to slip into lame-duck status by allowing Agnew to seize attention as the frontrunner in the next election. "By any criteria he falls short," the president told Ehrlichman:
"Energy? He doesn't work hard; he likes to play golf. Leadership?" Nixon laughed. "Consistency? He's all over the place. He's not really a conservative, you know."
Nixon considered placing the vice president in charge of the American Revolution Bicentennial as a way of sidetracking him. But Agnew declined the post, arguing that the Bicentennial was "a loser." Because everyone would have a different idea about how to celebrate the Bicentennial, its director would have to disappoint too many people. "A potential presidential candidate," Agnew insisted, "doesn't want to make any enemies."
Unbeknownst to both Nixon and Agnew, time was running out for both men's political careers. Since the previous June, the White House had been preoccupied with containing the political repercussions of the Watergate burglary, in which individuals connected with the president's reelection committee had been arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Although Watergate did not influence the election, persistent stories in the media and the launching of a Senate investigation spelled trouble for the president. Innocent of any connection to Watergate, Agnew spoke out in Nixon's defense.
Then, on April 10, 1973, the vice president called Haldeman to his office to report a problem of his own. The U.S. attorney in Maryland, investigating illegal campaign contributions and kickbacks, had questioned Jerome Wolff, Agnew's former aide. Wolff had kept verbatim accounts of meetings during which Agnew discussed raising funds from those who had received state contracts. Agnew swore that "it wasn't shakedown stuff, it was merely going back to get support from those who had benefitted from the Administration." Since prosecutor George Beall was the brother of Maryland Republican Senator J. Glenn Beall, Agnew wanted Haldeman to have Senator Beall intercede with his brother—a request that Haldeman wisely declined.
President Nixon was not at all shocked to learn that his vice president had become enmeshed in a bribery scandal in Maryland. At first, Nixon took the matter lightly, remarking that taking campaign contributions from contractors was "a common practice" in Maryland and other states. "Thank God I was never elected governor of California," Nixon joked with Haldeman. But events began to move quickly, and on April 30, 1973, Nixon asked Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign because of their role in the Watergate coverup. Then, that summer, the Justice Department reported that the allegations against Agnew had grown more serious. Even as vice president, Agnew had continued to take money for past favors, and he had received some of the payments in his White House office.
Nixon had quipped that Agnew was his insurance against impeachment, arguing that no one wanted to remove him if it meant elevating Agnew to the presidency. The joke took on reality when Agnew asked House Speaker Carl Albert to request that the House conduct a full inquiry into the charges against him. Agnew reasoned that a vice president could be impeached but not indicted. That line of reasoning, however, also jeopardized the president. For over a century since the failed impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, it had been commonly accepted reasoning that impeachment was an impractical and inappropriate congressional tool against the presidency. Agnew's impeachment would set a precedent that could be turned against Nixon. A brief from the solicitor general argued that, while the president was immune from indictment, the vice president was not, since his conviction would not disrupt the workings of the executive branch. Agnew, a proud man filled with moral indignation, reacted to these arguments by digging in his heels and taking a stance that journalists described as "aggressively defensive." He refused the initial suggestions from the White House that he resign voluntarily, after which Agnew believed that high-level officials "launched a campaign to drive me out by leaking anti-Agnew stories to the media."
"I Will Not Resign If Indicted!"
By September, it was a more desperate, less confident-looking man who informed Nixon that he would consider resignation if granted immunity from prosecution. Nixon noted that "in a sad and gentle voice he asked for my assurance that I would not turn my back on him if he were out of office." Believing that for Agnew to resign would be the most honorable course of action, Nixon felt confident that, when the vice president left for California shortly after their meeting, he was going away to think matters over and to prepare his family for his resignation. But in Los Angeles, fired up by an enthusiastic gathering of the National Federation of Republican Women, Agnew defiantly shouted, "I will not resign if indicted!" As Agnew later explained, he had spent the previous evening at the home of the singer Frank Sinatra, who had urged him to fight back.
Nixon's new chief of staff and "crisis manager," General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., was haunted by the specter of a double impeachment of the president and vice president, which could turn the presidency over to congressional Democrats. General Haig therefore took the initiative in forcing Agnew out of office. He instructed Agnew's staff that the president wanted no more speeches like the one in Los Angeles. He further advised that the Justice Department would prosecute Agnew on the charge of failing to record on his income tax returns the cash contributions he had received. Haig assured Agnew's staff that, if the vice president resigned and pleaded guilty on the tax charge, the government would settle the other charges against him and he would serve no jail sentence. But if Agnew continued to fight, "it can and will get nasty and dirty." From this report, Agnew concluded that the president had abandoned him. The vice president even feared for his life, reading into Haig's message: "go quietly—or else." General Haig similarly found Agnew menacing enough to alert Mrs. Haig that should he disappear she "might want to look inside any recently poured concrete bridge pilings in Maryland."
A Plea of Nolo Contendere
Meanwhile, Agnew's attorneys had entered into plea bargaining with the federal prosecutors. In return for pleading nolo contendere, or no contest, to the tax charge and paying $160,000 in back taxes (with the help of a loan from Frank Sinatra), he would receive a suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine. On October 10, 1973, while Spiro T. Agnew appeared in federal court in Baltimore, his letter of resignation was delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Agnew was only the second vice president to resign the office (John C. Calhoun had been the first). Prior to resigning, Agnew paid a last visit to President Nixon, who assured him that what he was doing was best for his family and his country. When he later recalled the president's gaunt appearance, Agnew wrote: "It was hard to believe he was not genuinely sorry about the course of events. Within two days, this consummate actor would be celebrating his appointment of a new Vice-President with never a thought of me."
Nixon still wanted to name John Connally as vice president, but Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield intimated that Congress would never confirm him. On October 12—even as pictures of Agnew were being removed from federal offices around the country—Nixon appointed House Republican Leader Gerald R. Ford as the first vice president to be selected under the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Agnew was stunned by the laughter and gaiety of the televised event that seemed "like the celebration of a great election victory—not the aftermath of a stunning tragedy."
The coda to the Agnew saga occurred the following year, as Nixon's presidency came to an end. In June 1974, the besieged president dictated an entry in his diary in which he confronted the real possibility of impeachment. Nixon reviewed a series of decisions that now seemed to him mistakes, such as asking Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign, appointing Elliot Richardson attorney general, and not destroying the secret tape recordings of his White House conversations. "The Agnew resignation was necessary although a very serious blow," Nixon added,
because while some thought that his stepping aside would take some of the pressure off the effort to get the President, all it did was to open the way to put pressure on the President to resign as well. This is something we have to realize: that any accommodation with opponents in this kind of a fight does not satisfy—it only brings on demands for more.
On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon joined Spiro Agnew in making theirs the first presidential and vice-presidential team in history to resign from office.
Following his resignation, the vice president who had made himself a household word faded quickly into obscurity. Agnew moved to Rancho Mirage, California, where he became an international business consultant, tapping many of the contacts he had made with foreign governments on travels abroad as vice president. He published his memoir, ominously entitled Go Quietly . . . or else, and a novel, The Canfield Decision, whose protagonist was a wheeling and dealing American vice president "destroyed by his own ambition." For the rest of his life, Agnew remained largely aloof from the news media and cut off from Washington political circles. Feeling "totally abandoned," he refused to accept any telephone calls from former President Nixon. When Nixon died in 1994, however, Agnew chose to attend his funeral. "I decided after twenty years of resentment to put it aside," he explained. The next year, Spiro Agnew's bust was at last installed with those of other vice presidents in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. "I'm not blind or deaf to the fact that there are those who feel this is a ceremony that should not take place," he acknowledged. He died of leukemia on September 17, 1996, in his home state of Maryland.