Tuesday, October 10, 2023

This Day in Vice-Presidential History (Agnew Resigns in Disgrace)

Oct. 10, 1973—Less than two weeks after defiantly vowing that he would not resign as Vice-President even if he was indicted, Spiro Agnew did exactly that, pleading no contest to a charge of federal income tax evasion in exchange for the dropping of charges of political corruption.

John C. Calhoun had resigned as Andrew Jackson’s Veep over policy differences, but Agnew was the first to leave the office in disgrace.

The investigation that brought him down, though separate and distinct from the Watergate scandal involving his boss, Richard Nixon, furthered the growing national impression of an administration reeking with corruption, and fed the possibility that, if one of the two highest elected officials in the land could be forced out, so could the other.

Perhaps because he largely faded out of the spotlight after his time in office, perhaps because he increasingly became viewed as a useless occupant of a once-useless office, Agnew and his crimes have been largely forgotten.

Outside of The Baltimore Sun—in effect, during his days as governor of Maryland, his hometown newspaper—hardly any major newspaper has observed the anniversary of the departure of a politician once the proverbial “heartbeat away” from the Presidency.

I am writing this blog post partly to fill this informational gap. 

Fundamentally shallow, ill-informed, unscrupulous, and unworthy of high office, Agnew demands our attention because he tapped into what has become apparent in the years since as some of the worst instincts of the American people: zenophobia, resentment, and alarming credulity about the greatest canards about the press and dissenters.

Only in his second year as governor of Maryland in 1968, Agnew received Nixon’s backing as Vice President after having swerved from a relative racial moderate to an uncompromising champion of “law and order” who requested and used the National Guard after unrest following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He could facilitate Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to peel white voters away from their traditional Democratic voting patterns—yet did not command conservative allegiance the way that California Governor Ronald Reagan did.

To Nixon’s chagrin, Agnew increasingly built a base in that very voting bloc, largely because he gleefully seized the attack dog role that the President assigned him, in speeches featuring alliterative phrases crafted by speechwriters William Safire and Patrick Buchanan. 

The right-wing contingent of the GOP ignored Agnew’s gaffes and racial/ethnic slurs (e.g., “fat Jap,” If you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all”) and embraced him as its champion.

Even though he had become disenchanted with Agnew’s poor management skills, his predilection for hitting the golf course rather than learning policy, and his lack of seriousness and temperamental steadiness, Nixon ironically found in 1972 that he could not dump the Veep from the ticket without alienating the conservative wing of the party.

Only a couple of months into the following year, just when Agnew had emerged as a strong contender to succeed Nixon at the end of his term, the Vice-President picked up the first hints that he was being investigated for extorting money from contractors while governor of Maryland. Amazingly, he continued to carry out the scheme while Vice President.

Following a script that Donald Trump would follow far more successfully more than 40 years later, Agnew demonized reporters and sought to quash the investigation as a witch hunt (even, as Rachel Maddow revealed in her podcast and book Bag Man, enlisting George Bush—then head of the Republican National Committee—in the effort).

It all came to naught. Agnew’s call for his impeachment before the Senate—where, he calculated, he stood a better chance of surviving than in a court of law—led Nixon to decide that this was a threat to his own political future.

Moreover, Attorney General Elliot Richardson regarded as untenable any scenario in which Nixon, if impeached, could be succeeded by Agnew, himself a crook.

The path was paved for a deal that, even at the time, many (including the young prosecutors investigating Agnew) regarded as what UPI’s Mike Feinsilber called at the time “two standards of justice, one for the powerless and one for the strong.” 

“Accused in 40 detailed pages of having pocketed well over $85,000 in kickbacks," Feinsilber explained, “Agnew was given lighter punishment than others get for stealing a car.” That “punishment” turned out to be a $10,000 fine, a three-years probation sentence, and disbarment by the Maryland court of appeals.

After saying goodbye to Nixon, Agnew never spoke to the President again. When the Veep showed up at his old boss’s funeral in 1994, many in Nixon’s family and inner circle may well have welcomed him as much as a skunk slipping into a perfume factory.

After all, he had charged, in a memoir published seven years after leaving office, Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had urged him strongly to resign: “The President has a lot of power—don’t forget that.”

“I interpreted it as an innuendo that anything could happen to me,” Agnew recalled. “I might have a convenient ‘accident.’”

By the way, that memoir was titled Go Quietly…Or Else—a title more appropriate about an encounter with the Mafia than about service to the American people. Altogether in keeping with the undignified, unsavory liar and crook who produced it.

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