November 16th, 2019


Presidents and Impeachment: Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew

In the current impeachment hearings, the word "bribery" has been mentioned recently, and bribery is one of the grounds for impeachment set out in the constitution. Though he was never impeached, it was bribery that ended the career of one prominent Vice-President in 1973, when Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned from office. The resignation occurred as the Watergate investigation of Richard Nixon was taking place. It has been said that Nixon believed that Agnew was one of the firewalls preventing his impeachment and that he would never be impeached because the one thing people feared more than a Nixon Presidency was an Agnew Presidency. But that firewall was removed in October of 1973.

Nixon had surprised everyone in 1968 he chose Maryland Governor Spiro T. Agnew to be his running mate. Agnew had been Governor of Maryland for just two years and was a political unknown when selected to complete the GOP ticket, prompting many to say "Spiro who?" and others to ask, "What's a Spiro Agnew?"

Spiro Theodore Agnew was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 9, 1918. His parents were Theodore Spiros Agnew, a Greek immigrant who shortened his name from Anagnostopoulos when he moved to the US, and Margaret Marian Akers Pollard Agnew, a native of Virginia. Agnew graduated from Johns Hopkins University and from the University of Baltimore School of Law. He was drafted into the United States Army in 1941, serving as an officer during World War II, and was recalled for service during the Korean War in 1950. He worked as an aide for U.S. Representative James Devereux before he was appointed to the Baltimore County Board of Zoning Appeals in 1957. He lost election for the Baltimore City Circuit Court in 1960, but was later elected Baltimore County Executive in 1962. In 1966 Agnew was elected the 55th Governor of Maryland, defeating Democratic opponent George P. Mahoney. He was the first Greek American to hold the position, serving from 1967 to 1969.

Nixon chose Agnew because, contrary to impressions left by his later rhetoric, he had a moderate image. His background as the son of Greek immigrants and for his success in a traditionally Democratic state were also viewed as assets. As a border state governor, Agnew was seen as a candidate who could attract Southern moderate voters, but who was not identified with the Deep South. He also had appeal to moderates. Agnew had once been a strong supporter of Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon's main opponent for the GOP nomination, but by June he switched to supporting Nixon.

During the 1968 general election campaign against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Agnew served as Nixon's attack dog, hammering at the Democrats on the issue of "law and order". He was also seen as a supporter of civil rights, and so Agnew could cover many bases for Nixon. Agnew took on the role as the voice of the so-called "silent majority". But Agnew drew attention to himself during the campaign with a few gaffes that were less outrageous in 1968 than they would be considered today. For example In September 1968, at a campaign stop in Chicago, Agnew referred to persons of Polish ancestry as "Polacks." When later called on it, he said, "I confess ignorance because my Polish friends have never apprised me of the fact that when they called each other by this appellation it was not in the friendliest context."

Agnew attacked Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, describing the Democratic party nominee as "Soft on Communism and law and order." Less than a week later while aboard his campaign plane en route from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, Agnew pointed to a sleeping Japanese-American reporter, Gene Oishi of The Sun, who was covering his campaign, and asked, "What's the matter with the fat Jap?" When word of Agnew's racial slur got out, Congressman Spark M. Matsunaga, a Democrat from Hawaii, criticized Agnew on the floor of the House of Representatives. Agnew later dismissed the comment saying that the remark was made in jest about Oishi who he considered to be a friend "because I never jest with my enemies". Later on a campaign stop in Hawaii, Agnew brought up the matter at a Republican fund-raising luau and issued a public apology. In a choked voice Agnew said that he was "truly sorry" for "having jokingly called a reporter of Japanese descent a 'fat Jap.' If I have inadvertently offended anyone, I'm sorry - I am truly sorry. To those of you who have misread my words, I only say you have misread my heart." He made the remarks as he was dabbing at his eyes with a napkin.

Many people were attracted to Agnew's personality as a "regular Joe" as opposed to a polished politician. Agnew professed to love NFL football as well as the music of Lawrence Welk. Newsweek magazine described him as "relentlessly middle-brow." Gene Oishi, the reporter Agnew insulted, wrote of Agnew, "The Governor believes in what he says - a fact that inspires his friends and frightens his critics."

Not everyone though Agnew was so cute. Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson described Agnew as "Just a nice, stupid guy. I can't imagine anyone in this room who would want to see Agnew a heartbeat away from the presidency of these United States."

But while Agnew scared off Jackie Robinson's vote, a plurality of Americans were undeterred. The Nixon-Agnew ticket won the election, receiving 31,783,783 votes (43.42%), not much more than Humphrey who was just over a half-million votes behind with 31,271,839 (42.72%). But the Republican ticket won a majority of electoral votes with 301 compared to 191 for Humphrey.

At first Agnew proved to be a popular vice-president. By late 1969 he was ranking high on national "Most Admired Men" polls. He also inspired a fashion craze when one entrepreneur introduced Spiro Agnew watches (a take off on the popular Mickey Mouse watch). Conservatives wore them to show their support for Agnew, while many liberals wore them to mock him. Agnew's Vice Presidency was also the highest-ranking United States political office ever reached by either a Greek American citizen or a Marylander.

Vice-President Agnew continued his role as the Nixon administration's attack dog. He was known for his scathing criticisms of political opponents, especially journalists and anti-war activists. He attacked his adversaries with relish, hurling unusual, often alliterative epithets—some of which were coined by White House speechwriters William Safire and Pat Buchanan. These included "pusillanimous pussyfooters", "nattering nabobs of negativism" (written by Safire), and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history". He once described a group of opponents as "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." Agnew spoke out against anti-war protesters and media portrayal of the Vietnam War, labeling them un-American. However he also spoke out publicly against the actions of the Ohio Army National Guard that led to the Kent State shootings in 1970, describing their action as "murder". Agnew toned down his rhetoric and dropped most of the alliterations after the 1972 election, and had aspirations of running for president himself in 1976.

Relations between Nixon and Agnew deteriorated, almost from the start of their professional relationship. Nixon felt his vice president lacked the intelligence or vision, particularly in foreign affairs and he began freezing Agnew out of the White House decision-making process. By 1970, Agnew was limited to seeing the president only during cabinet meetings or in occasional and brief one-on-one meetings, with Agnew given no opportunity to discuss anything of substance. White House tapes subsequently disclosed that in 1971, Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, discussed their desire to have Agnew resign from office prior to the following year's campaign season. One plan to achieve this was to try to persuade conservative investors to purchase one of the television networks, and then invite Agnew to run it. Another was to see if Bob Hope would be willing to take Agnew on as his partner in his cable television investments. These and other plans never went beyond the talking stages. When John Ehrlichman, the President's counsel and assistant, asked Nixon why he kept Agnew on the ticket in the 1972 election, Nixon replied that it was because "No assassin in his right mind would kill me."

In April 1973, when revelations about Watergate began to surface, Agnew was the choice of 35 percent of Republican voters to be the next Republican nominee for President, just ahead of then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. If it wasn't for his past coming back to haunt him, Agnew would have become president when Nixon resigned the following year instead of Gerald Ford.

On October 10, 1973, Spiro Agnew became the second Vice President to resign the office. (John C. Calhoun was the first). Agnew resigned after being charged with accepting almost $30,000 in bribes, while Governor of Maryland. He pleaded no contest to charges of tax evasion as part of a plea bargain. was accused of accepting $29,500 in bribes. Agnew was fined $10,000 and put on three years' probation. The plea bargain was criticized by former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs as "the greatest deal since the Lord spared Isaac on the mountaintop". Professor John F. Banzhaf III from the George Washington University Law School had a group of his students, known as Banzhaf's Bandits, find four residents of the state of Maryland willing to put their names on a case and sought to have Agnew repay the state $268,482, the amount it was said that Agnew had taken in bribes. Agnew repaid $268,482 to Maryland State Treasurer William James in early 1983.

Agnew's resignation triggered the first use of the 25th Amendment, prompting the appointment and confirmation of Gerald Ford, the House Minority Leader, as the next Vice President. It remains one of only two times that the amendment has been employed to fill a Vice Presidential vacancy. The second time was when Ford, after becoming President upon Nixon's resignation, chose Nelson Rockefeller to succeed him as Vice President.

After leaving politics, Agnew became an international trade executive. In 1976, he caused a controversy with statements that called for the United States to withdraw its support for the state of Israel, citing Israel's allegedly bad treatment of Christians. In 1980, Agnew published a memoir in which he implied that Nixon and his Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, had planned to assassinate him if he refused to resign the Vice Presidency, and that Haig told him to "go quietly or else!" (Agnew used this as the title of his book.) He also wrote a novel, The Canfield Decision about a Vice President who was "destroyed by his own ambition."

Agnew always maintained that the tax evasion and bribery charges was an attempt by Nixon to divert attention away from the growing Watergate scandal. For the rest of their lives, Agnew and Nixon never spoke to each other again. Nixon's daughters invited Agnew to attend Nixon's funeral in 1994, and Agnew attended. In 1996, when Agnew died, Nixon's daughters returned the favor and attended Agnew's funeral.

Agnew died suddenly on September 17, 1996, aged 77 at Atlantic General Hospital, in Berlin, Maryland, near his Ocean City home, only a few hours after being hospitalized and diagnosed with an advanced but undetected, form of leukemia.