What are we to make of Spiro Agnew? Where are we to even begin?
He shone brightly then sputtered and fell to earth. On the verge of the Presidency he departed Washington in hurried disgrace, exposed as a crook and a shameless liar. What about him was true and what was false? In what did he really believe?
He came from relatively humble beginnings. His father was a Greek immigrant and he suffered from the normal ethnic slurs of the era. He was invariably late coming to things. He dabbled at college, majoring in chemistry but never earning a degree. Only after returning from World War II (and earning the Bronze Star), did he go into law, earning his degree via the night school route.
He took his time switching parties and in entering politics and won an upset victory as a reform candidate for Baltimore County Executive in 1962. When he ran for governor in 1966 he opposed Democrat George P. (“A Man’s Home is His Castle”) Mahoney, an ardent opponent of “fair housing” laws. Agnew’s reputation then was as a moderate, even a liberal Republican. In 1964 he quixotically supported liberal California Senator Thomas Kuchel for the GOP presidential nomination. He supported civil rights legislation both as county executive and in opposing Mahoney received a remarkable eighty percent of the black vote in 1966. He was an early supporter of Nelson Rockefeller for 1968’s GOP nomination.
But so much changed after a bloody 1967 riot in Cambridge, Maryland. Agnew emerged not only as a tough law-and-order governor but as one who excoriated his state’s black leaders on their responsibilities. It was his “Sister Soulja” moment, and it took guts.
For whatever reason, Richard Nixon selected Agnew as his running mate. Liberals weren’t impressed. Conservatives reserved judgement, but his November 1969 speech at Des Moines scoring the “nattering nabobs of negativism” struck a nerve. Suddenly, Agnew was the Right’s Galahad, the Nixon’s administration’s tough-talking point-man against its Democrat and media opponents. He mixed eloquence and truth (“A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”) with alliterative kitsch (perhaps jumping the shark with his jab at New York Mayor John Lindsey as the “flashy fugleman of fun city”).
And, yet, Spiro Agnew was never really a member of the Nixon team. Nixon quickly decided he didn’t actually like (or even respect) Agnew, dismissing him as a lazy lightweight (“Agnew was nothing”) and ironically even as “not really a conservative,” rarely meeting with him, and dealing with him through equally hostile subordinates.
One might, at this point, simply dismiss Agnew as Nixon’s pliant stooge—except that he wasn’t pliant at all. Though rarely consulted on policy matters, when Agnew evinced his opinions, they were those of a firm anti-Communist and tough Cold Warrior, often pitting him against more dovish advocates as Secretary of State William Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. Nixon toyed with replacing Agnew on the 1972 ticket with John Connally. He loathed the idea of him as his successor in 1976.
Still, Agnew reigned as a conservative favorite, and, as Watergate unraveled, perhaps even as Nixon’s un-elected successor.
But fate—and Agnew’s fatal flaws—intervened. When an unrelated federal investigation into Maryland corruption revealed Agnew’s own graft (ultimately $200,000 in state engineering contract kickbacks), the jig was essentially up. Ironically, had Agnew stopped accepting cash on leaving Annapolis, he would have been protected by the statute of limitations. But he continued taking payments (for prior “services” and for prospective federal contracts) while Vice President, and that trapped him. Publicly, he hung tough, protested his innocence, and vowed not to resign if indicted. It was a bluff at best—a total lie at worst.
He was gone as quickly as he appeared.
His career is a puzzle, a mosaic of jumbled pieces and shattered ideals.
He was an unrepentant grafter but as a sudden convert from moderate to conservative Republicanism, he proved strangely principled and risk-taking on key issues. He alienated a key constituency when he stood for law-and-order in Maryland. He marginalized himself further within the “pragmatic” Nixon administration by taking unwelcome hardline anti-Communist positions.
Spiro Agnew and the Rise of the Republican Right reminds us of a very troubled era in American history and offers much to ponder but suffers from a leaden, repetitious, and didactic prose style, compounded by unduly sloppy editing. It simply does not grasp or convey how magnificent its subject was on the stump. At his best, Spiro Agnew possessed an incredibly remarkable physical presence and style. Those who saw him in action will never forget that.
That strength helps explain why Richard Nixon chose him in the first place, why the Right rallied around him—and makes his sudden, irreversible fall all the sadder.
What a ghastly waste was he.
David Pietrusza is a political historian and chronicler of presidential campaigns. A prolific author, his most recent book is 1932: The Rise of Hitler and FDR.