Spiro Theodore Agnew was the 39th vice president of the United States and a former governor of Maryland. His political career ended after he became entangled in a bribery scandal and was forced to resign the vice presidency in 1973. His powerful and divisive oratory stirred up a firestorm of public antipathy during the Nixon administration, forever changing the tenor of American political discourse.
Spiro “Ted” Agnew was born in 1918 to Theofrastos and Margaret Agnew in Baltimore. His father was a Greek immigrant who worked his way up from a vegetable salesman to restaurant owner as he struggled to achieve the American Dream for his family. Spiro would choose a different path to success. In 1937, he entered Johns Hopkins University to study chemistry. After two years of poor grades, he left for Baltimore Law School. World War II interrupted his studies. Spiro eventually graduated with a law degree in 1947 after completing his service and marrying Elinor “Judy” Judefind. Failing to launch a law firm, Agnew tried his hand as an insurance claims adjuster. Later he moved on to a supermarket, working as an assistant personnel manager. Spiro was finding the road to success paved with hardships.
Like so many other Americans, Agnew and his family fled to the suburbs in the 1950s. From there he launched his political career in earnest, moving from school association member to Baltimore County executive in less than a decade. In 1966, he ran for governor of Maryland against segregationist Democrat George Mahoney. He won handily.
Agnew's first two years as governor were uneventful. Few knew he was receiving kickbacks from companies for steering government contracts their way since his days as county executive. Publicly he earned a moderately liberal reputation, working to help the disadvantaged, relax abortion laws, and pass stricter environmental codes. This view of Agnew's politics changed quickly in 1968. When a succession of riots struck Baltimore after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Agnew veered right, blaming black leaders for the tumult. This harsh language caught the ear of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon. His law-and-order rhetoric fit neatly with Agnew's diatribes against urban unrest.
Convinced the unknown Agnew would help him win the South away from third-party candidate George Wallace, Nixon chose the Maryland governor as his running mate. In short order a number of embarrassing, racially insensitive remarks had the press portraying the Maryland governor as a right-wing zealot. With Agnew's rhetoric winning over Middle Americans angry about domestic unrest, Nixon had little reason to tame his future vice president's tongue. Thanks in part to the brute force of Agnew's language, the Republican ticket won election by a very slim margin, but not as slim as John Kennedy's eight years earlier.
Concentrating power in a select few, Nixon froze Agnew out of almost all policy decisions. He still found an important role for the vice president. Hoping to discredit the administration's enemies, Agnew became the unofficial White House hatchet man. First, antiwar protesters faced his sharp tongue. Next, he unleashed the now-familiar epithet “liberal media” to slander reporters unfriendly toward Nixon. Agnew earned a reputation for dividing the electorate. Even some in his own party thought the vice president's rhetoric inappropriate for such a high office. Though Nixon privately considered replacing Agnew as early as 1970, he concluded the vice president's assets as a critic outweighed his penchant for oratorical eccentricities.
Only weeks into their second term, both president and vice president found themselves embroiled in controversy. While Nixon sank into the quagmire resulting from the Watergate burglary, Agnew's payoffs finally caught up with him. Though Nixon felt the threat of an Agnew presidency helped guarantee he would avoid impeachment, there was no ignoring the evidence mounting in the U.S. Attorney's office against the vice president. After negotiating with prosecutors to avoid jail time, Agnew entered a plea of no contest against one charge of tax evasion. On October 10, 1973, he resigned the vice presidency. He was disbarred the following year.
Tainted by controversy, Agnew struggled through a number of failed business ventures after leaving the White House, spending the remainder of his life in relative seclusion. His last notable public appearance came in April 1994 at President Nixon's funeral. It was the first time they had been together since Agnew tendered his resignation. On September 17, 1996, the former vice president died of leukemia, claiming until the end that he was framed by a conspiracy of liberal media, administration officials, and overzealous prosecutors.
See also Antiwar Movement, United States; King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929–1968); Nixon, Richard Milhous (1913–1994).
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