Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Spiro Agnew
His name was Spiro Agnew, and he served as governor of Maryland before becoming Richard Nixon’s vice president from 1969 until 1973. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History, Agnew was in many ways a forerunner of the politician typified by Donald Trump 45 years later. Agnew employed overheated rhetoric and a deliberate lack of candor as the hallmarks of his public life. Never one to be mistaken for a deep thinker, Agnew prided himself on his ignorance and cruelty. When he was caught in a bribery scandal, few Americans apart from Agnew’s most partisan loyalists were sorry to see him resign the vice presidency in disgrace.
He hailed from a family of immigrants. Theophrastos Anagnostopoulos arrived in the United States around age 20, in 1897, and settled in Schenectady, New York. As with so many immigrant families, he chose to Anglicize his surname. He called himself “Agnew.” He eventually opened a diner before moving to Baltimore, Maryland, where he bought a restaurant. Agnew became friends with the city’s meat inspector, William Pollard because Pollard and his wife, Margaret, were frequent customers. After William Pollard died, Agnew courted Margaret. The two eventually wed. On November 9, 1918, their son Spiro Theodore Agnew was born. Margaret Agnew had a son from her first marriage.
Young Spiro graduated from public school in 1937 and entered Johns Hopkins University. He majored in chemistry, but he was not a good student. Choosing to change direction, he entered the unaccredited Baltimore Law School, working as a clerk for an insurance company during the day while he studied at night.
When World War II erupted, Agnew attended Army Officers Candidate School. He married his girlfriend, Elinor Isabel Judefind, three days after he graduated. The couple eventually had four children. In the meantime, Agnew served as a company commander in the 10th Armored Division in the European theater of World War II. He won a Bronze Star for his service.
After the war, Agnew returned to law school. He had been apolitical for most of his life. When pressed, he said he followed his father’s example as a Democrat. While clerking for a Baltimore law firm, a senior partner advised Agnew to become a Republican. Baltimore politicians were mostly Democrats, and it was difficult for an ambitious young man to distinguish himself from the crowd. Republicans were comparatively rare, so it was easier to stand out, especially in the suburbs. Acknowledging the wisdom of this advice, Agnew moved his growing family to Lutherville, a Baltimore suburb, in 1947. From that moment, Spiro Agnew considered himself a Republican, unintentionally demonstrating the ruthless expediency that would always be his political lodestar.
Agnew’s road forward was rocky. He earned his law degree in 1947, passed the Maryland bar examination, and commenced a law practice in downtown Baltimore. It failed. He worked for a while as an insurance investigator before becoming a store detective for Schreiber’s supermarket chain. After a brief return to the service in the Korean War, Agnew practiced law again.
During the 1950s, he settled into a comfortable middle-class existence in the Maryland suburbs. He served on the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and avoided any contacts or behavior that could be labeled radical or nonconformist, eventually gravitating toward politics. According to his wife, “Ted got into politics through the PTA. He kind of spread out.”
In his initial foray into elective politics, Agnew resolved to become a Republican candidate for the Baltimore County Council. After party leaders rejected his bid, Agnew campaigned for the Republican ticket. When Republicans won an unexpected majority on the county council, party elders reassessed Agnew. He had been helpful and effective. As a reward for his work, he won an appointment to the county zoning board of appeals. The prestige of the appointment bolstered his struggling law practice. In time, party elders reappointed Agnew, and he served as the board chairman.
By 1960, he was anxious to move up to a higher position. He sought election to the county circuit court, but he lost, finishing fifth in a field of five candidates. Democrats prevailed in many Baltimore races, including on the county council. After the opposition party was in control, its members removed Agnew from the zoning board. The defeats initially appeared to be major setbacks for Agnew, but news stories about the solitary Republican standing up to the Democratic hordes raised his profile and cast him as the victim of a political vendetta.
Agnew was savvy enough to use his emerging reputation as an up-and-coming Republican to good effect. He tried to persuade party leaders that he was the right man for a congressional seat in the 1962 election cycle. Despite Agnew’s enormous potential as a shining star in Republican circles, the nomination went to a more experienced candidate, J. Fife Symington. Republicans asked Agnew instead to campaign for the county chief executive post, a position held by Democrats since 1895. Taking advantage of a split in the Democratic ranks, Agnew won the election. After Symington lost his congressional bid, Spiro Agnew became the highest ranking Republican elected official in the state of Maryland. He was on his way up the political ladder.
For all his later infamy as a reactionary vice president, Agnew’s stint as the county executive was surprisingly progressive. An anti-discrimination bill passed requiring the desegregation of public accommodations such as restaurants, one of the first measures of this type in the United States. During Agnew’s tenure, the county built new schools, increased teacher salaries, reorganized police departments, and improved water and sewer systems.
Even as he was hailed as a visionary county official, Agnew proved to be on friendly terms—perhaps too friendly—with local real estate developers. He awarded county contracts to developers with whom he enjoyed close personal relations, and their chumminess appeared to be improper. Years later, this relationship presented problems for Agnew.
As the 1960s became more tumultuous, Agnew’s progressivism suffered. He became a “law and order” man, blanching whenever demonstrators took to the streets. He simply could not understand why activists would march in open defiance of the law, even for a peaceful protest. In Agnew’s view, marching in the streets, regardless of the reasons or the circumstances, undermined law and order and could not be tolerated.
By 1966, as Agnew pondered his political future, he realized that he probably could not be reelected as the county executive. Democrats were united and likely to defeat him if he threw his hat into the ring. Faced with a crucial decision, the time seemed right to seek the governorship. As a leader in his party, Agnew easily won the April Republican primary.
The general election promised to be a difficult campaign, although once again the Democrats provided Agnew with an electoral gift. Three factions battled for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination before George P. Mahoney, an avowed segregationist, emerged as the victor. Mahoney was unabashedly racist, and he promoted his opposition to integrated housing with his campaign slogan: “Your Home is Your Castle. Protect It.” Despite his occasional flirtations with progressive causes, Agnew would never be mistaken for a political liberal. Nonetheless, political liberals flocked to his defense, rightly viewing the Democratic alternative as the greater of two evils. Agnew won the race by 81,775 votes.
Critics attacked Agnew later for failing to report three bribery attempts from slot machine industry representatives during this time. The governor-elect shrugged off the criticism because he had not accepted the bribe. “Nobody sat down in front of me with a suitcase of money,” Agnew explained. He also came under fire for his land holdings at a site adjacent to a planned bridge over Chesapeake Bay. Recognizing that his cozy relationship with land developers created at least an appearance of impropriety, Agnew disposed of his holdings.
During his two-year tenure as governor of Maryland, Agnew developed a reputation as a competent, if uninspired governor. His agenda included initiatives on tax reform, ensuring clean water, and repealing laws that prohibited interracial marriage. Progressives applauded his programs for improving access to higher education and improving job opportunities for lower income citizens.
Agnew had received support from civil rights leaders, but he eventually disappointed them. Protesters were becoming increasingly violent as they turned out to demonstrate against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights protections for persons of color. When a presidential commission produced a report indicating that white racism was a major cause of black violence, Agnew balked at the conclusions. “It is not the centuries of racism and deprivation that have built to an explosive crescendo,” Agnew remarked. The problem was “that lawbreaking has become a socially acceptable and occasionally stylish form of dissent.” On another occasion, Agnew said that it “is not evil conditions that cause riots, but evil men.”
Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, riots broke out in cities across the country. A few days later, fires erupted in Baltimore, and they lasted for three nights. Governor Agnew responded immediately, declaring a state of emergency, and dispatching the National Guard. By the time the ordeal ended, six people had died and more than 4,000 had been arrested. Officials indicated that the fire department had extinguished 1,200 fires. Looting was widespread.
On April 11, Agnew summoned black leaders to the state capitol. Instead of a dialogue about how they might work together to improve the situation, which is what the leaders expected, Agnew upbraided them for their inability or unwillingness to control the radicals who had burned the city. In no uncertain terms, the governor insisted that the civil rights leaders either were cowards for refusing to rein in the lawbreakers or they were complicit in the crimes. It was a stinging rebuke, and the black leaders, incensed, walked out. No one ever accused Spiro Agnew of harboring progressive ideals again.
The black community denounced Agnew’s histrionics, comparing him to the ardent racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, but they missed the point. The stunt achieved its purpose. The governor knew that he would never be a darling of the left despite his progressive accomplishments during his first two years in office, so he did not try. Instead, by hewing to the law-and-order line, he established his bona fides among reactionary Republicans and other worried about rioting in the streets. White suburbanites especially appreciated Agnew’s unflinching support for punishing criminals and malcontents. Phone calls, letters, and telegrams of support inundated the governor’s office, and over 90 percent of the 9,000 contacts supported Agnew’s strong stance.
Agnew’s uncompromising position attracted attention from another man who appreciated law and order. Richard M. Nixon, the former vice president campaigning for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, saw in Spiro Agnew a potential running mate who might sign on to a southern strategy playing on white citizens’ fears of an ascendant black radical class. The Maryland governor’s ability to attract newspaper headlines for attacking liberals and radicals was impressive.
Before 1968, Agnew had been a liberal Republican in the mold of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whom Agnew originally supported in the 1968 presidential campaign. After Rockefeller’s withdrawal, Agnew searched for a new candidate. He met with Nixon in March 1968, and the two men discovered that they had much in common. Although Agnew publicly insisted that he intended to serve the remainder of his four-year term as governor of Maryland, he knew that he had moved on to Nixon’s short list of vice-presidential running mates.
Agnew arrived in Miami Beach for the Republican National Convention as Maryland’s favorite son. Chosen to place Nixon’s name in nomination for president, Agnew remained a top contender for the vice-presidential slot. For many Americans, the Maryland governor was not yet a national figure. Agnew’s competitors, John Lindsay, mayor of New York City, and Ronald Reagan, the up-and-coming governor of California, were far better known, but these men also had amassed political enemies during their time in the spotlight. Nixon feared that either figure might split the Republican Party, not to mention that these men were more charismatic than Nixon. He risked being eclipsed by Lindsay or Reagan. Agnew, however, would eclipse no one. He was half a step above a non-entity, and he possessed the necessary obsequiousness to suit Nixon’s purposes.
On August 8, 1968, after he won the nomination on the first ballot, Nixon told party leaders that Agnew was his choice for vice president. He announced it to the press shortly thereafter. For his part, Agnew expressed astonishment. “I am stunned,” he said. “I had no idea that this would happen. It’s like a bolt from the blue.”
Agnew was not the odds-on favorite to be Nixon’s running mate, but it was hardly a bolt from the blue. He had positioned himself to become vice president and his law-and-order rhetoric served him well as Richard Nixon’s attack dog. Agnew proved himself willing and able to join the team as a ferocious defender of all things Nixon.
He made the news as he campaigned throughout the fall, leading in reporter to comment on Agnew’s “offensive and sometimes dangerous banality.” His casual racism was jarring to some admirers of his earlier pro-civil rights record. He referred to a Polish gentleman as a “Polack” while dismissing a Japanese American reporter as a “fat jap.” Remarking on poor neighborhoods in racially diverse areas, Agnew shrugged. He told reporters that “if you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all.” As the head of the ticket, Nixon might have stopped Agnew’s outbursts, but he did not. Nixon understood his running mate’s appeal in parts of the South. Right-wing populism resonated with white citizens fearful of rising crime rates, uppity blacks, and anti-war opposition among hippies and other young people. Moreover, Nixon stole votes from George Wallace, the enthusiastic segregationist running as a third-party candidate, without directly appealing to out-and-out hatred. The Nixon-Agnew team could appeal to soft bigotry with a wink and a nod, always ready to deny their lurking racism should they be called to account.
Critics dismissed Agnew as an intellectual and a moral lightweight, the king of malapropisms and clichés with little depth to his character. A campaign commercial produced by Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic opponent, featured a television set displaying the words “Agnew for Vice President?” accompanied by an off-camera man laughing hysterically until he choked. The tagline read, “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious.”
Even as he ascended into the upper echelon of politics, Agnew’s past came back to haunt him. The New York Times created an existential crisis for the would-be vice president in October 1968 when the newspaper published a series of articles on his suspect financial transactions in Maryland. Remembering his own close call with scandal when he ran as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in the 1952 election, Nixon defended his vice-presidential candidate in no uncertain terms. The presidential nominee chided the Times for engaging in “the lowest kind of gutter politics.” Agnew stayed on the ticket in 1968, but his Maryland business dealings would remain a problem.
The Nixon-Agnew ticket eked out a narrow victory on November 5, 1968. They won by just over 500,000 votes out of 73 million cast. In the all-important Electoral College, the contest was not quite as close. Nixon won 301 electoral votes to 191 for Humphrey and 46 for George Wallace. Spiro Agnew had risen in a relatively short time from a local official to a state governor to vice president of the United States.
Nixon knew that the vice presidency was an ill-defined constitutional position in American government. Perhaps recalling his own indignities while serving in that office, the new president initially promised that Agnew would have a substantive role in the new administration. To some extent, Nixon fulfilled his promise. He assigned Agnew responsibility for heading the Office of Intergovernmental Relations and the National Space Council. Because Agnew had served as governor, Nixon asked him to work with state governors on an anti-crime initiative. These assignments sounded more impressive than they were. Nixon preferred foreign policy, leaving domestic affairs to aides stationed outside his inner circle.
Agnew accepted Nixon’s promises at face value, which showed how much he misunderstood his place within the administration. He had an office in the West Wing of the White House, which he assumed meant that his opinions were valued and desired. He soon learned the error of his ways. The vice president had the temerity to speak up on a foreign policy issue during a cabinet meeting early in his tenure. Irked at the intrusion, Nixon dispatched his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to inform Agnew that he was not to offer an unsolicited opinion in the future. So much for requesting substantive input from his vice president.
Desperate to carve out a niche where he could influence policy formulation, Agnew spent much of his time in the United States Senate. The Constitution establishes the vice president as the president of the Senate, but he can only vote in the case of a tie. Because a tie vote is relatively rare, vice presidents appear in the Senate to sit on the dais on infrequent occasions. Agnew was the exception that proved the rule. He was happy to appear and fraternize with senators. Although he was visible to the press and affable among elected officials, most of Agnew’s work was symbolic, and it was clear that he exercised little genuine political power despite Nixon’s assurances to the contrary.
Nixon softened his rhetoric after he became president, but he occasionally dispatched Agnew to handle the dirty work. The vice president spoke on numerous occasions about the sorry state of the nation owing to agitators and radicals. For all his obvious deficiencies, Agnew excelled at railing against elites such as liberal intellectuals and their favored newspapers, including the New York Times and The Washington Post. The vice president’s alliterative denunciations against his enemies made for good copy. He dismissed the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” the “effete corps of impudent snobs” as well as “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “hopeless hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” In return for these heroic efforts, faithful conservatives displayed signs saying “God Bless Spiro Agnew” along with “I Like Spiro” bumper stickers.
The press corps became Nixon’s favorite villains, and he unleashed Agnew on them repeatedly during the administration’s first year. Although Nixon eventually shied away from direct attacks, his (and Agnew’s) willingness to attack liberal media bias resonated with many conservatives. Decades later, when President Donald Trump branded the mainstream press the “enemy of the people,” he was building on the foundation constructed during the Nixon-Agnew years.
Agnew became a visible symbol of the Nixon administration. Inside the White House, he was seldom consulted or appreciated, but in Republican Party gatherings outside of Washington, he was a much-beloved figure. Speaking invitations poured in from across the country. Agnew traveled frequently, engaging friendly Republican audiences whenever he could, possibly with an eye toward his own presidential bid in 1976.
To Democrats and detractors outside of Republican circles, Agnew had betrayed the progressive agenda of his gubernatorial career. He was a divisive, narrow-minded, bigoted spokesman for a corrupt, secretive, obstructionist presidential administration. Many citizens saw him as a pompous, bloviating bore who frequently spoke in a soft monotone, spewing out a series of stale clichés. It became fashionable among the smart set to ridicule Agnew’s intellect.
In 1970, a joke circulated among college students that Mickey Mouse wore a Spiro Agnew watch, implying that Micky Mouse, a cartoon character, was making fun of Spiro Agnew, a fellow cartoon character. In response, Dr. Hale E. Dougherty, a California physician, had a Spiro Agnew wristwatch designed so he could sell it. The design became such a hit that Agnew watches became a cultural phenomenon. Everyone had to have one, actress Elizabeth Taylor and rock musician John Lennon among them. Agnew claimed that he found the affair funny, but he eventually sued to stop the distribution. He was not a man known for his self-deprecating humor.
Nixon had a love-hate relationship with Agnew. On one hand, he dispatched his vice president to deliver a speech or handle an unpleasant task, such as attending foreign funerals of dignitaries, that Nixon did not care to handle. On the other hand, Agnew’s independent streak and popularity among rank-and-file conservatives made Nixon suspicious that his second-in-command was insufficiently loyal. As the 1972 election approached, Nixon debated replacing Agnew as his running mate, perhaps with John Connally, a conservative Democrat who had served as governor of Texas and was Nixon’s treasury secretary. Ultimately, Agnew remained on the ticket, but neither Nixon nor Agnew was happy about their relationship.
When burglars with ties to Nixon’s reelection campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C., Agnew learned of the event through the news. For the first time in his tenure, he benefitted from his ostracism from the president’s inner circle. Yet Agnew was not outraged by the break-in. A veteran of hard-ball politics, he assumed that both political parties spied on each other and engaged in dirty tricks. In Agnew’s opinion, however, the break-in was ridiculous and unnecessary. The Republican Party enjoyed enormous momentum heading into the fall election season. Nixon operatives did not need inside information on the Democrats’ operations. The Democrats of 1972 were in such disarray that their amateur political plans were irrelevant to the Nixon juggernaut. Moreover, it was doubtful that any useful information would be uncovered even if someone decided to break the law and burglarize an opponent’s offices.
Watergate became a problem for Nixon, but Agnew stayed away from the scandal. He had his own developing scandal to worry about. As he and Nixon geared up for the 1972 election season, George Beall, the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland, launched an investigation of corruption in Baltimore County. Beall believed that many current officials in the county were implicated in criminal enterprises with local construction companies. His investigation stretched into 1973. By that time, Nixon and Agnew had won reelection handily. It was one of the most decisive presidential elections in American history. Nixon and Agnew won 49 states and the District of Columbia, capturing more than 60 percent of the popular vote and 520 electoral votes.
Safely reelected, Agnew believed that he could look ahead to 1976 and a possible presidential bid. When he learned of Beall’s investigation in February 1973, he was alarmed. The bad press generated by a corruption investigation could sink his presidential prospects before he even launched his campaign. Agnew asked Attorney General Richard Kleindienst to contact Beall. The vice president also sent his personal lawyer, George White, to discuss the issue. Beall understood the need for discretion. Because Agnew had not been the county executive for more than five years, Beall believed that the statute of limitations for prosecuting Agnew had expired even if evidence of wrongdoing were discovered. Accordingly, Beall assured White that Agnew was not a subject of the investigation.
The legal analysis changed when Beall discovered that Agnew had received illegal payments from an engineering firm while he was governor. In June 1973, Beall learned, to his astonishment, that the kickbacks continued even when Agnew was vice president. The statute of limitations had not expired on these offenses. Beall informed the new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, that Agnew was under investigation for tax fraud and corruption.
Believing that the best defense is a good offense, Agnew tried to get ahead of the story. As Beall’s investigation became public, Agnew insisted that he was innocent of all charges. He explained that the payments were legal campaign contributions. Nixon supported his vice president in public, but behind the scenes it was a different matter. The president instructed his chief of staff to meet with Agnew and suggest that Agnew “take action” before an indictment was handed down. Nixon was already engulfed in the unfolding Watergate scandal, and he did not need another corruption investigation to dominate newspaper headlines.
Even as leaks circulated through Washington, D.C., during August and September 1973, Agnew defied his critics. The drumbeat for his resignation was incessant, but he would not yield. “I will not resign if indicted,” Agnew told the press on September 29, 1973. “I will not resign if indicted!”
When witnesses came forward to testify that Agnew had accepted cash bribes, his fate was sealed. Still, he resisted, arguing that a siting vice president could not be indicted. He asked Speaker of the House Carl Albert to launch a congressional investigation, but Albert demurred. It would be improper for Congress to intervene into a matter that was being adjudicated in the courts. Rebuffed, Agnew filed a motion to block an indictment because the vice president’s interests had been prejudiced by leaks in the press. He also delivered a series of speeches to rally support.
When those efforts failed to resuscitate his cause, Agnew’s lawyers met with the prosecutors to discuss a plea bargain. Understandably, Agnew did not want to serve time in prison. The two sides reached an accommodation in early October. Agnew agreed to lodge a nolo contendere (“no contest”) plea to a single charge of failing to pay taxes on income he received as governor of Maryland in 1967. He would resign the vice presidency in exchange for serving no jail time. As Agnew explained later, he resolved to enter the plea because he wanted to end the matter quickly and spare his family additional pain and embarrassment. By pleading “no contest,” he was not admitting guilt.
Agnew met with President Nixon in the White House on October 9 and told him of his decision. The next day, Agnew stood in a federal courtroom in Baltimore. Aside resigning his office, Agnew agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and serve three years of unsupervised probation. His resignation letter, effective immediately, was dated October 10, 1973.
A 40-page summary of the evidence detailed Agnew’s financial woes. He accepted bribes and kickbacks, he said, because he was not a wealthy man, and he needed funds to live the kind of lifestyle he believed a man in his position should live. He insisted, however, that these payments were not illegal; they were monies he was owed for his professional expenses. Considering the overwhelming evidence against him, the arguments were unpersuasive.
Spiro Agnew lived until 1996. He spent the rest of his life seeking to rehabilitate his public image. He was not a greedy politician on the take, he argued to anyone who would listen, but a good man unfairly maligned. All but the most partisan hacks rejected such self-serving statements. A man who once exhibited seemingly limitless promise as a relative anomaly—a politically conservative progressive governor—became a symbol of corruption and venality during the Nixon years, a time when corruption appeared to be a way of life.