As we usher in a new class of politicians, we should also pause to consider one from the past. Friday, Nov. 9th marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Spiro T. Agnew, whose meteoric rise in politics to the vice presidency of the United States was an achievement unmatched by any Marylander — and whose fall from grace was no less dramatic.
From 1962 to 1973, Agnew was Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland and finally Richard M. Nixon’s vice president. Then, in a flash, he was implicated in bribes and kickbacks while in Towson and Annapolis and was forced to resign the vice presidency.
Agnew was born in Baltimore to a Greek immigrant father and Virginia-born mother. He briefly attended Johns Hopkins University, started at the University of Baltimore law school, and married Elinor “Judy” Judefind. After military service in World War II (and later Korea), Agnew completed his legal studies, settled in the Towson area, where he became involved in community organizations, and was appointed to the county zoning board.
Switching his registration from Democrat to Republican, Agnew in 1962, taking advantage of a split in Baltimore County’s Democratic organization, was elected county executive. His record in Baltimore County was moderate and at times progressive, even in civil rights (though he was unhappy with integration protests at Gwynn Oak amusement park).
With re-election in Baltimore County unlikely with a unified Democratic Party, Agnew ran for governor in 1966. Again, the Democrats divided, nominating perennial candidate George P. Mahoney, who ran on the anti-open housing slogan “Your Home is Your Castle.” Thus, Agnew became the “liberal” candidate in the race, gaining support from white progressives and African-Americans, en route to being elected Maryland’s fifth GOP governor. Once again, Agnew governed as a moderate, working with the (always) Democratic General Assembly.
Before April 1968, Gov. Agnew could hardly be considered a conservative. Then came April 4: Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and rioting erupted in major American cities, with Baltimore’s being one of the worst; the national guard, then the U.S. Army were sent to the city. A week later, Governor Agnew, before an invited group of African-American civil rights leaders, denounced them for “running” away from statements condemning violence and embracing “reckless strangers” like SNCC head Stokely Carmichael; in response, the majority of the assembled group walked out on the governor.
At the GOP National Convention in August, Governor Agnew was not on the list of prospects for vice-president; although historical speculation exists that Nixon had his eye on the Marylander since the April “conference.” Governor Agnew passed muster with conservatives in the party, such as Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, and especially Southerners like Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and eventually was chosen as Nixon’s running mate.
Over the next nearly three months, “Spiro Who?” became a household name as his speeches before hostile audiences produced memorable lines such as denouncing protesting students taking “their tactics from Castro and money from Daddy,” and public gaffes such as using ethnic slurs “Polacks” and “fat Jap,” and stating “if you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all.” Nixon, however, narrowly won the election, and Agnew went to Washington.
President Nixon gave Agnew little responsibility, befitting most vice presidents before the recent past, with one exception: Vice President Agnew was dispatched to deliver partisan speeches to the Republican faithful. His attacks on the media (“nattering nabobs of negativism”), student protests (“cacophony of seditious drivel”), and Democratic (and anti-war Republican) politicians (“radical-liberals”) fired up the GOP base.
After Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972 and as the Watergate scandal escalated, the concurrent federal investigation of political corruption in Maryland — which nabbed a number of state, county and local officials — ultimately reached the vice president. After denying culpability, Agnew, realizing he would be indicted and face prison if convicted, pleaded no contest to one charge of income tax evasion and resigned the vice presidency on Oct. 10, 1973.
Exiled from public life, Agnew in his last 20-plus years, lived in California, and was an international businessman whose clients were primarily Arab states in the Middle East. After years away from the spotlight, in September 1996 while vacationing in Ocean City, Agnew died.
Spiro Agnew’s political career was as meteoric as any in American history. He was the first “suburban man” to achieve high political office. But Agnew feared financial destitution, and while politics accorded him power and status, he desired more. And like a generation of Maryland politicians, he engaged in illegal moneymaking, doing it the old fashioned way — receiving envelopes of cash. Thus, Spiro T. Agnew, once the second most powerful man in the country, brought himself down, and was sent into obscurity more rapid than his unlikely ascent.
William J. Thompson is a Baltimore historian, teacher, and writer. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.