Spiro T. Agnew, who earned an enduring but unenviable niche in American history as the first vice president forced to resign in disgrace, died Tuesday afternoon at a hospital in Berlin, Md. He was 77.
The cause of death was not revealed.
A desk clerk at English Towers in Ocean City, where Agnew had an apartment, said that the former vice president was transported to a nearby hospital by volunteer firefighters from Ocean City about 3 p.m. EDT.
Agnew, who maintained a residence in Palm Springs, may be best remembered for the no-contest plea to tax-evasion charges that forced him to resign as Richard Nixon’s vice president, but there was more to his public career than the kickback scandal that led to his downfall.
The relatively brief time he held office encompassed one of the most turbulent periods in this country’s life. It was a time when one great controversy piled on another and Agnew was deeply embroiled in nearly all of them, from racial conflicts and the role of the press, to Vietnam and Watergate.
The son of an immigrant peddler, Agnew shared with millions of Americans his age the hard times of the Depression and the subsequent striving for affluence.
Many of the country’s white middle class who felt their values threatened by the upheaval and change that marked the 1960s and 1970s considered Agnew their most vociferous champion. But their faith in him was destroyed by the revelations of avarice and mendacity that repudiated his claim as an upholder of lofty moral standards.
Tall, well built and silvery-haired, Agnew appeared more presidential than most presidents, including Nixon.
Agnew was remarkably apolitical in taste and demeanor. He preferred playing gin rummy with his aides to backslapping and handshaking with precinct captains and Republican county chairmen.
Although he owed his influence to his rhetoric, he was a pedestrian orator, avoiding for the most part flourishes of any sort. His flat monotone and direct style helped to create an impression of sincerity.
Early in his career, Agnew appeared to undergo a change of heart and mind. He first came to national attention in 1966 when--after serving one term as Baltimore County executive--he ran for governor of Maryland on the Republican ticket (with the backing of liberals and blacks) against Democrat George P. Mahoney, whose campaign was tinged with racism. Mahoney’s candidacy divided his own party and Agnew won.
But in office, Agnew’s harsh response to riots and demonstrations alienated many of the black leaders who had supported him and gave him a reputation as a hard- liner. This transformation, as much as anything else, commended the obscure Maryland governor to the 1968 GOP presidential nominee, Nixon.
A novice in national politics, Agnew suffered from his own inexperience and clumsiness. In an ill-advised attempt at humor he referred to one reporter as “a fat Jap.” He used the word “Polack” when answering a press conference question. “When you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all,” he once remarked casually.
Thus the picture that came across to the country was of an insensitive blunderer. Alarmed Nixon strategists shunted Agnew into the background of the campaign. Agnew himself was badly shaken and deeply embittered at the press, which he blamed for exaggerating and distorting his errors. In mid-campaign he was so troubled he asked a reporter: “Has a vice presidential candidate ever lost a presidential election?”
In the case of Agnew and Nixon, the answer in November 1968 turned out to be no. The flush of victory and the prestige of office helped Agnew steadily recover his confidence.
But he never forgave the press for the injuries he felt had been done him. And with the encouragement of Nixon and his advisors, the new vice president soon took a measure of revenge. In the fall of 1969 he delivered speeches attacking television commentators and newspaper publishers for striving to dominate public opinion, “all grinding out the same editorial line.” News executives objected indignantly but the speeches struck a responsive chord among the middle-Americans whom the Nixon administration regarded as its constituency.
The uproar over Agnew’s attacks on the press, and over his equally scathing tongue-lashing of antiwar demonstrators, whom he branded as “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” prompted the White House to make Agnew what he himself called “the cutting edge” of the 1970 congressional campaign.
That fall Agnew set out across the country on what amounted to a punitive expedition, designed mainly to defeat Senate Democrats and at least one liberal Republican, Charles Goodell of New York, who had opposed the president on the war.
Agnew lumped them all together as “radic-libs,” a shorthand term for radical-liberals. He tagged Nixon’s critics with such epithets as “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Nixon speech writer William Safire coined most of the metaphors but Agnew eagerly joined in the spirit of things. Asked to choose between two hyperbolic phrases for a text, he said: “Let’s use them both.”
Agnew’s invective did not achieve the desired result; the Republicans made only minimal gains in the Senate races. But Agnew could claim Goodell among others as a victim and he emerged from the campaign with a strong national following of his own.
Not Liked by Nixon
His ardent admirers did not include Nixon. In the months preceding the 1972 Republican convention, Nixon toyed with the idea of dropping Agnew from the ticket and replacing him with his new Treasury secretary, Democrat John B. Connally, whose commanding presence impressed Nixon. But Agnew’s claim on the loyalties of conservative Republicans, particularly in the South, made such a change imprudent. Agnew got the nod to run for a second term.
Agnew bore the brunt of the campaign against the Democrats in the general election. But with challenger George S. McGovern far behind in the polls, the burden was not great and Agnew adopted a more moderate tone than he had in 1970. He was by then seasoned enough to avoid the embarrassing pitfalls of the past and secure enough even to feel some sympathy for McGovern, who was suffering from his own gaffes. After watching a stinging television news commentary on McGovern’s latest mishap, Agnew, who was adamantly opposed to McGovern’s views, remarked to an aide: “I can feel for the poor son of a bitch; I know just what he’s going through.”
The landslide GOP victory in November, which seemed to assure Nixon of four more years in the White House, enhanced Agnew’s stature, making him in the view of many observers the most likely Republican presidential candidate in 1976.
Even the steady burgeoning of the Watergate scandal in early 1973 did not appear at first to pose any threat to Agnew’s position. No evidence linked Agnew or his staff to the allegations of crime and cover-up stemming from the operations of Nixon’s campaign organization. Privately, Agnew told confidants that he was “appalled” at the way the White House was handling the affair. But publicly he stoutly defended Nixon.
Past Catches Up
Watergate was to contribute to Agnew’s own undoing when in the fateful summer of 1973 the vice president’s past caught up with him. A wide-ranging investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore had uncovered evidence that Agnew had accepted kickbacks from state contractors during his two-year tenure in the statehouse at Annapolis.
Any chance that the White House or the Justice Department might have shielded Agnew from the probe was precluded by the glare of publicity focused on the administration as a result of Watergate. As for Nixon, he was so beleaguered by his own difficulties that he publicly gave his vice president only nominal public support while privately trying to pressure him to resign.
As soon as the investigation into his affairs became public knowledge in August 1973, Agnew mounted a vigorous defense. He admitted accepting payments from contractors but contended that they were campaign contributions and that such gifts were common practice in Maryland. And in fact there was plenty of evidence of similar payoffs in Maryland’s tawdry political past.
Another factor that helped to explain, if not justify, Agnew’s conduct, was the sense of financial insecurity that shadowed him most of the life.
Born on Nov. 9, 1918, in Baltimore, Spiro Theodore Agnew grew into manhood during the Great Depression, when his father, a Greek immigrant, was forced to shut down his restaurant and peddle fruits and vegetables in the street.
After serving as a combat infantry officer in Europe during World War II, Agnew earned a law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1947. But he had a difficult time getting started in practice. He tried his hand at adjusting insurance claims and as personnel manager for a small supermarket chain, and spent a year in the Army during the Korean Conflict before returning to the law in the 1950s. By the time he won the governorship, in 1966, his circumstances were still relatively modest. His salary was only $25,000 and his expense allowance did not cover many of the special political and personal obligations incumbent upon a governor.
“In Maryland,” Richard Cohen and Jules Witcover wrote in their book on Agnew’s fall, “A Heartbeat Away,” “a man had to be either rich or a scoundrel to hold high office.” And Agnew certainly was not rich.
Still, Agnew gave no hint that he did not have a clear conscience. Not only did he vigorously maintain his innocence and insist that he would not resign even if he were indicted, he also launched a counterattack. He charged the Justice Department with sponsoring a program of leaks to the press about his case, designed to damage his public standing. And he touched off a constitutional controversy by contending that he could not be indicted while in office. He argued that he had a right to be impeached in the House of Representatives, where presumably he would get a relatively sympathetic hearing from his fellow politicians.
But all this was a smoke screen. While Agnew was denouncing the Justice Department, his lawyers were quietly plea bargaining with Atty. Gen. Elliot L. Richardson. The result of these negotiations was made public on Oct. 10, 1973, in a federal courtroom in Baltimore. The vice president resigned in exchange for which he was allowed to plead no contest to tax evasion charges. He was fined $10,000 and placed on probation for three years but was spared a jail sentence.
Agnew thus became only the second vice president in the nation’s history to resign. The other, John C. Calhoun, who had been at odds with President Andrew Jackson, resigned on Dec. 28, 1832, to become a senator from South Carolina.
The Justice Department insisted on making public a lengthy summary of its case against Agnew. The sordid disclosures were epitomized by an episode involving Lester Matz, one of the engineers who had paid off Agnew after receiving lucrative state contracts, and a confederate of both men. Matz made his final payment of $10,000 to Agnew after the former governor had been sworn in as vice president, in Agnew’s basement office in the White House. But some time later Matz complained to Agnew that he was being pressed for another $10,000 by the confederate.
“Say you gave at the office,” Agnew told him.
Agnew’s resignation created the first vice presidential vacancy under the 25th Amendment, which empowered the president to choose a successor. Two days after Agnew quit, Nixon picked then-House Republican Leader Gerald R. Ford, who was subsequently confirmed by the Congress as the 40th vice president and ultimately succeeded Nixon as president when Nixon quit in August, 1974.
The Baltimore Sun contributed to this story.